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Welcome to the February 27, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Opt-Out Provision Would Halt Some, but Not All, Web Tracking
New York Times (02/26/12) Tanzina Vega

Advertising and technology companies say they will support a Do Not Track mechanism called for by the Obama administration that would be adopted by browser vendors and would enable consumers to opt out of having some companies keep data on their online activities. The announcement is designed to satisfy consumer privacy concerns while not stifling the growth of online advertising, and covers all of the advertising alliance's members. However, privacy advocates say the mechanism does not go far enough because it only affects certain marketers. Many publishers and search engines are considered "first-party sites" and would still be allowed to collect data on visitors and serve them ads based on that data, according to the agreement. "We cannot accept any 'deal' that doesn’t really protect consumers, and merely allows the data-profiling status quo to remain," says the Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeffrey Chester. There also are unresolved technical issues with the Do Not Track system, including what defines tracking and how that would apply to first- and third-party Web sites. The World Wide Web Consortium is working with companies, academics, privacy advocates, legislators, and digital advertising groups to define Do Not Track’s technical standards.

NSF Issues Advanced Computing Infrastructure Plan
CCC Blog (02/23/12) Erwin Gianchandani

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) recently released a vision and strategic plan for its Advanced Computing Infrastructure (ACI) designed to support NSF-funded communities and position them at the cutting edge of advanced computing technologies, hardware, and software. ACI is a key part of NSF's Cyberinfrastructure for 21 Century Science and Engineering framework. NSF "aims to promote a more complementary, comprehensive, and balanced portfolio of advanced computing infrastructure and programs for research and education to support multidisciplinary computational and data-enabled science and engineering that in turn support the entire scientific, engineering, and education community," the vision report says. NSF says it will promote human capital development and education in computational and data-enabled science and engineering to benefit all fields of science and engineering. NSF aims to achieve its vision by developing foundational and applications research to exploit parallelism and concurrency through innovations in computational technologies. NSF also wants to build, test, and deploy sustainable and innovative resources into a collaborative ecosystem. In addition, NSF wants to develop comprehensive education and workforce programs, as well as transformational and grand challenge community programs that support contemporary complex problem solving.

Report: Open Source Tops Proprietary Code in Quality
PC World (02/24/12) Katherine Noyes

Open source code has fewer defects per thousand lines of code than proprietary software, according to the 2011 Scan Open Source Integrity Report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Coverity. "The line between open source and proprietary software will continue to blur over time as open source is further cemented in the modern software supply chain," says Coverity's Zack Samocha. The 2011 report analyzed more than 37 million lines of open source software code and more than 300 million lines of proprietary software code from a sample of anonymous Coverity users. Coverity says it used a testing platform that was upgraded this year with the ability to find more new and existing types of defects in software code. The report notes that for open source projects, which have an average project size of 832,000 lines of code, the average number of defects per thousand lines of code was .45. For example, Linux 2.6, PHP 5.3, and PostgreSQL 9.1 had defect densities of .62, .20, and .21, respectively. However, the report found that in propriety codebases, which averaged 7.5 million lines of code, the average defect density was .64.

Standards Leader Blasts HTML5 Video Copy Protection
CNet (02/24/12) Stephen Shankland

Microsoft, Google, and Netflix recently proposed a standard for copy-protected Web video, but HTML editor Ian Hickson calls it impractical and unethical. "The proposal...does not provide robust content protection, so it would not address this use case even if it wasn't unethical," Hickson says. There currently is no mechanism for digital rights management (DRM) for Web video, which means that companies offering video often use browser plug-ins that support DRM and copy protection. However, because device manufacturing companies have banned plug-ins from their products, Microsoft, Google, and Netflix published their Encrypted Media Extensions proposal. The proposed standard leaves much of the DRM details to a Web site's JavaScript code instead of the browser. "Many consumer electronics are taking advantage of HTML for both video playback and user interfaces, yet their content protection solutions are typically tied to the device," say the proposal's writers. However, Hickson says "any technology whose exclusive goal is to stop users from being able to make use of the content they have purchased is, in my opinion, unethical." He calls the HTML video DRM proposal “just a plug-in platform in disguise.”

Mobile Device Could Help Drug Users Modify Their Behavior
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (02/22/12)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has helped clinical researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) develop iHeal, a multimedia wearable device for substance abusers. UMMS researchers note that behavioral interventions are often ineffective outside of the clinic or office because patients are unable to recognize changes that indicate an increased risk of relapse, and because they are unable to change their behavior to reduce the health risk. The iHeal device combines artificial intelligence, biosensors, smartphone programming, and wireless connectivity to detect physiological indications of drug cravings. The iHeal sensor band, worn around the wrist, measures the electrical activity of the skin, body motion, skin temperature, and heart rate--all indicators of stress--then transmits information to a smartphone. Software has been designed to monitor and process the user's physiological data and to respond with patient-specific intervention for preventing substance abuse. The researchers say that preliminary feedback from initial users suggests concern about technical issues such as data security. They also say a more robust and less stigmatizing version might be needed if the device is to be worn in public.

Small Coding Mistake Led to Big Internet Voting System Failure
Fierce Government IT (02/22/12) David Perera

The main security weakness that enabled University of Michigan researchers to take control of a planned Washington, D.C., Internet voting system pilot for overseas voters in 2010 was a "tiny oversight in a single line of code," according to the researchers, who recently published a new paper on their exploits. Michigan professor J. Alex Halderman says the researchers' ability to hack into the system is evidence that Internet voting should be postponed until new breakthroughs in cybersecurity are made. He says mistakes such as the one exploited in Washington are still too common, difficult to remove, and indicative of the weakness of Web applications. The main exploit researchers used was a shell-injection vulnerability done by uploading a fake ballot with a command function as the file extension. The researchers also found that a system firewall filtered outbound network traffic, but they could steal data by sending files to the images directory on the server and retrieve it with any HTTP client. "One small mistake in the configuration or implementation of the central voting servers or their surrounding network infrastructure can easily undermine the legitimacy of the entire election," the Michigan researchers warn.

Computer Modeling: Brain in a Box
Nature (02/22/12) M. Mitchell Waldrop

A proposal by Swiss Federal Institute of Technology scientist Henry Markram to build a supercomputer model integrating all knowledge about the human brain is one of six finalists competing for a $1.3 billion Flagship grant from the European Union. His Human Brain Project (HBP) would combine discoveries about the brain to generate simulations to investigate the organization of neural circuits and their roles in behavior and cognition. Markram says using computers to explicitly encode all the models produced by experiments and get them to interoperate would help scientists find the gaps and contradictions in their knowledge and recognize the experiments needed to address them. HBP would require about 1 exaflop of computer power to simulate, and exascale computers could be available in the 2020s if computer power continues to double roughly every 18 months. Markram says the HBP's selection as a Flagship project would make the project available as an Internet-accessible, collaborative effort open to researchers worldwide. "It will be lots of Einsteins coming together to build a brain," he notes. However, other scientists caution that Markram's bottom-up data integration strategy could result in a simulation so over-detailed that it will be no easier to understand than the actual brain.

Software Helps Improve Software
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (02/21/12) Monika Landgraf

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) researchers have developed the PALLADIO simulation tool, which analyzes a program's structure in advance and predicts the need for resources and limitations. PALLADIO is designed to support programmers in the development of dependable, sustainable, and complex software. Analyzing the software architecture can reveal non-functional properties, such as performance, reliability, maintainability, and costs. The tool also uncovers issues related to workflows in the components and subcomponents, stability, use of resources, and distribution aspects of the software. In addition, the researchers note that PALLADIO helps detect and prevent in advance on the model level potential limitations, such as bottlenecks or load and elasticity problems, instead of implementing a software system in a trial-and-error process. They say PALLADIO will particularly benefit enterprises by improving their quality assurance and enhancing the efficiency of generating reliable software. "At the moment, we are preparing PALLADIO for simulating the integration of the software inventory and cloud computing, i.e. the so-called hybrid cloud computing," says KIT's Klaus Krogmann.

Boston Testing App for Auto-Detecting Potholes
Government Technology (02/21/12) Brian Heaton

Worcester Polytechnic Institute researchers and Boston Office of New Urban Mechanics have developed Street Bump, a mobile application that uses sensors in mobile devices to identify vibrations that could indicate potholes or other road hazards. The app relies on machine-to-machine communication to transmit the information back to the city, where an algorithm deciphers whether a pothole is present. If there is a pothole, a Boston Public Works Department employee is alerted so a repair crew can be dispatched. "In addition to speeding up road repairs in Boston, the goal is to develop a real-time map of street conditions that can be accessed by local users and for other cities around the world that are using the app," says New Urban Mechanics co-chair Nigel Jacob. The plan is to route data from all app users into a cloud-based database, enabling users to access roadway information in other cities. "We’re looking right now at the architectural issues as far as mechanically what the separation between the different kinds of data would be,” Jacob says. City inspectors are currently testing the pilot program, which runs on Android-based devices. Their goal is to release it and a iPhone version of the software to the public later this year.

Study Explores Computing Bursts for Smartphones (02/21/12) Nancy Owano

The performance of smartphones could be improved by using chips that are designed for computational sprinting, say researchers at Pennsylvania and Michigan universities. Today's processors need to respond quickly to short bursts of computational demand for interactive workloads, but they are made for sustained performance. "Our approach called computational sprinting is aimed at mobile environments like smartphones, where many current and emerging interactive applications are characterized by short bursts of intense computation punctuated by long idle periods," the researchers say. The team envisions computer chips with more than 12 processing cores, rather than multicore chips with two or four, with phones using a single core to carry out normal operations and utilizing all cores for heavy-duty computation to ensure tasks are done quickly. In a simulation, a sprinting chip delivered a significant performance boost. "Our study indicates that it is feasible to capture the responsiveness of a [16-watt] chip within the engineering constraints of a [1-watt] mobile device via parallel computational sprinting," the researchers note.

A Step Toward Better Electronics
Northwestern University Newscenter (02/20/12) Sarah Ostman

Northwestern University researchers say they have developed a method for chemically altering graphene that could lead to faster, thinner, and more flexible electronics. The method involves oxidizing the graphene without the collateral damage associated with other methods. The oxidation process also is reversible, which enables further turnability over the resulting properties of the chemically modified graphene. "In our method, the resulting graphene oxide is chemically homogeneous and reversible, leading to well-controlled properties that can likely be exploited in high-performance applications," says Northwestern professor Mark C. Hersam. To create the graphene oxide, researchers put oxygen gas into a vacuum chamber, where a tungsten filament was heated to 1500 degrees Celsius, causing the oxygen molecules to dissociate into atomic oxygen. The highly reactive oxygen atoms then uniformly inserted into the graphene lattice. Spectroscopic measurements of the resulting material show that its electronic properties vary as a function of oxygen coverage, suggesting that the approach can tune the properties of graphene-based devices.

Technology to Turn Gestures Into Song
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/20/12) David Wheeler

University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers have developed speech technology that enables people to speak or sing with hand gestures. The technology consists of a speech synthesizer and a speech-generating system. The speech-generating system uses two gloves and a foot pedal to control the synthesizer. When the right glove opens, it creates vowels, just as the tongue does with its movements in the mouth, and specific gestures create corresponding consonants. The left glove makes stops, such as the sound for "b." The foot pedal controls volume, the equivalent of lung pressure, and pitch can be adjusted by raising or lowering the right hand. Users "can get reasonably good intelligible speech" with about 100 hours of practice, says UBC professor Sidney Fels. Singers have written music for the device, which allows them to perform duets with themselves. The researchers also developed a simplified version of the speech technology that can be used on a tablet computer.

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