Welcome to the March 2, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Flying High in Europe
European Molecular Biology Laboratory (03/01/12) Lena Raditsch
A consortium that includes CERN, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), and the European Space Agency (ESA) announced a partnership to launch Helix Nebula, a European cloud computing platform that will support the massive technology requirements of European sciences and be available to governmental organizations and industry after the initial pilot phase. The partnership aims to establish a sustainable European cloud computing infrastructure that will provide stable computing capacities and services to meet growing demand. The partnership is in line with the European Commission's Digital Agenda and will foster innovation for science and create new commercial markets. CERN will have access to more computer power to process data from the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider accelerator. "CERN’s computing capacity needs to keep up with the enormous amount of data coming from the Large Hadron Collider and we see Helix Nebula, the Science Cloud, as a great way of working with industry to meet this challenge," says CERN's Frederic Hemmer. EMBL is setting up a new service to simplify the analysis of large genomes, and ESA is developing an Earth observation platform focusing on earthquake and volcano research.
Et Tu, Google? Android Apps Can Also Secretly Copy Photos
New York Times (03/01/12) Brian X. Chen; Nick Bilton
Android apps do not need permission to access users' photos, and as long as an app has the right to send data over the Internet, it can copy the photos to a remove server without notice, according to developers and mobile security experts. Google acknowledged the potential security vulnerability and said it will consider changing the software. The lack of photo restrictions was a design choice related to the way early Android phones stored data, according to a Google employee. However, "as phones and tablets have evolved to rely more on built-in, nonremovable memory, we're taking another look at this and considering adding a permission for apps to access images," the employee says. Google's explanation would be "surprising to most users, since they'd likely be unaware of this arbitrary difference in the phone's storage system," says researcher Ashkan Soltani. Google currently uses Bouncer, a security system that scans apps for hidden features that could steal personal information. News about the ability to access a user's photos on Android-based smartphones follows the recent revelation that apps for Apple-based devices also could access a user's photos if it had permission to use location data.
City With Superfast Internet Invites Innovators to Play
Technology Review (02/28/12) David Talbot
Chattanooga, Tenn., residents have access to a 1 Gbps Internet, which is about 100 times faster than the U.S. national average, and now the city is holding a contest with $300,000 in prize money to help determine what to do with the superfast Internet. One entrant is a healthcare application that transfers larger files such as computed tomographic scans in real time so that specialists can serve a larger area. The Chattanooga service has been available for more than a year to 150,000 residential and commercial customers for $350 a month, but so far it only has eight residential and 18 commercial subscribers. "What we are trying to do is inject some capital into innovation, with the goal of driving demand for higher-bandwidth networks and jump-start adoption across the country and world," says Lamp Post Group's Jack Studer. "Eventually, these fatter pipes will get filled with bandwidth-eating applications.” Google is trying to set up a similar superfast Internet system in Kansas City. The efforts in Chattanooga and Kansas City are a step toward carrying out the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan. "Projects like Chattanooga and Kansas City reopen the opportunity for innovation," says Internet2's Rob Vietzke.
Innovations in Computing Systems Are Essential to Countering European Societal Challenges
A recent European Network of Excellence on High Performance and Embedded Architecture and Compilation (HiPEAC) report utilized the expertise of its thousands of researchers from European universities and companies to identify and analyze the main challenges for computing systems in Europe over the next 10 years. "To continue to be a source for new and innovative solutions, the computing systems community must dramatically improve the efficiency, complexity, and dependability of the future computing systems," says Ghent University professor Koen De Bosschere. The HiPEAC report says that several trends are emerging, including an unseen data explosion in all domains and a rising demand for connectivity and reliable systems across all fields. The report concludes that specializing computing devices is the most promising but difficult path for dramatically improving the performance of future computing systems. It also identified seven research objectives for designing and exploiting heterogeneous systems. The report notes that a key challenge is developing tools that automatically optimize the resources of these systems. Long-term research areas noted by the report include bio-inspired systems, stochastic computing, and swarm computing.
Cryptographic Attack Highlights the Importance of Bug-Free Software
University of Bristol News (02/29/12) Joanne Fryer
University of Bristol researchers have circumvented the security that OpenSSL should provide by targeting a bug in the software. The team attacked a very specific version of the cryptography toolkit for implementing the SSL protocol, 0.9.8g, and only when a particular set of options were used. The researchers sent carefully constructed messages to the Web server, and each triggered the bug and allowed part of a cryptographic key to be recovered. By using enough messages the researchers were able to recover the entire key. "With software and hardware playing increasingly significant roles in our day-to-day life, how much can and should we trust them to be correct?" says Bristol lecturer and research team member Dan Page. "The answer, in part at least, is a stronger emphasis on and investment in formal verification and correctness of open source software." Page says their research emphasizes the importance of software verification for software engineers in the future.
Smart Systems, Telemedicine the Focus of Recent Challenges
CCC Blog (02/27/12) Erwin Gianchandani
InnoCentive recently launched two competitions that require major advances in computing. One competition is focused on data-driven solutions for enabling smart systems in cities, and the other competition seeks the development of tools to improve the diagnosis and monitoring of people with Alzheimer's disease. The smart systems challenge, which is being held in conjunction with the Economist, calls for data-driven visualizations that show how improvements to a public utility or infrastructure would improve the health, happiness, safety, and aesthetics of a community. The deadline to enter is March 17, and the winner will be able to present their idea at the upcoming Economist Ideas Economy: Information event. "The Alzheimer’s Challenge 2012 seeks the development of simple, cost-effective, consistent tools that could be easily used to assess memory, mood, thinking, and activity level over time to help improve diagnosis and monitoring of people with Alzheimer’s disease," says InnoCentive's Web site. Five finalists will be selected following the March 16 deadline for submissions, and each finalist will receive $25,000. The winner will receive an additional $175,000.
For Impatient Web Users, an Eye Blink Is Just Too Long to Wait
New York Times (02/29/12) Steve Lohr
Technology companies are on a new quest for speed because the rise of data-hungry mobile devices is creating digital traffic jams. Research has shown that users will visit a Web site less often if it is slower than a close competitor by more than 250 milliseconds. "Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the Web," says Microsoft researcher Harry Shum. Researchers also have found that four out of five users will click away if a video stalls while loading. Google notes that download times for personal computers average about six seconds worldwide, and about 3.5 seconds in the United States, while a Web page takes about nine seconds to download on a mobile phone. However, a Forrester Research study found that online shoppers expected pages to load in two seconds or less. Although the two-second rule is often cited as a standard for Web commerce sites, many human-computer interaction experts say that rule is outdated. "The old two-second guideline has long been surpassed on the racetrack of Web expectations," says Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz.
Eye-Controlled Computer Games for Disabled Children
BBC News (02/28/12) Sean Coughlan
Eye-tracking technology could give severely disabled children a chance to play computer games. De Montfort University researchers are developing an accessible, low-cost system designed to bring gaming to disabled children who cannot use a mouse or keyboard. Disabled children will be able to look at an onscreen button to click on it, and control characters by looking at different points on the screen, says research leader Stephen Vickers. "The characters will walk where you are looking," he says. "It's much more natural to use and enjoy." Vickers sees eye tracking as bringing another level of intelligence to games. He notes the gaming industry will likely make eye-tracking technology more affordable and mainstream. Vickers also believes that eye-tracking technology can help disabled children learn how to navigate real-world environments, such as the layout of real buildings.
Climate Scientists Compute in Concert
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (02/27/12) Eric Gedenk
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) researchers are sharing their Community Earth Model System (CEMS) to improve the detail and performance of a scientific application code that is the product of one of the world's largest collaborations of climate researchers. CEMS is a mega-model that combines components of atmosphere, land, ocean, and ice data to reflect their complex interactions. ORNL's Kate Evans and colleagues recently began the Scalable, Efficient, and Accurate Community Ice Sheet Model (SEACISM) project to incorporate a three-dimensional, thermomechanical ice sheet model called Glimmer-CISM into the greater CESM. Once fully integrated, Glimmer-CISM will be able to send information back and forth among other CESM codes, making it the first fully coupled ice sheet model in the CESM. A team of computational climate experts from multiple national labs and universities have received allocations of processor hours on the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility's Jaguar supercomputer. "The model is about getting a higher level of detail, improving our accuracy, and decreasing the uncertainty in our estimates of future changes," says Los Alamos National Laboratory's Phil Jones. The researchers note that with software improvements and more powerful supercomputers, resolution and realism in climate simulations have reached a new level.
DARPA's $40K 'Quest' Tests Social Media's Ability to Help in Emergency
Government Computer News (02/27/12) Kevin McCaney
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a contest to gain a better understanding of how social media can spread the word during a crisis. The Cash for Locating and Identifying Quick Response codes (CLIQR) Quest Challenge, which began February 23 and ends March 8, has designated assets required for a relief effort with appropriate QR codes and has distributed them around the United States, just as real assets would be, but participants are to use their online presence to locate and identify the codes rather than physically look for them. Participants do not know the nature of the emergency situation until they join CLIQR or how many codes they must find, and DARPA can change the rules of the challenge at any time. DARPA wants participants to showcase their social media skills. "This quest is not a scavenger hunt, nor is it a geocaching contest or game," DARPA says. "You do not have to physically visit any of the locations where the QR codes are publicly displayed--the intent is for you to use your online presence and tools to distribute the code [using the Twitter hashtag #CLIQRquest or keyword CLIQRquest on other platforms] and find others with the codes you need." The first person who identifies the QR codes can win up to $40,000.
Educators, Innovators Call for Earlier Introduction to Computer Science
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA) (02/27/12) Bobby Kerlik
Many educators believe schools need to introduce computer science to students as early as kindergarten, while private companies are developing programs to mentor students and maintain interest in computer science and engineering. Although the number of applications is rising at many engineering and computer science schools, U.S. students are still lagging behind international students. For example, the Class of 2012 at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science drew 2,390 applicants, with just 590 of those coming from the United States. "Most [U.S.] students are not exposed to computer science in the same way they are to biology and physics," says Carnegie Mellon computer science department head Jeannette Wing. "We have to incorporate computer science at the K-12 level. It's not easy to do, but this is what is needed." The University of Pittsburgh runs a four-week residential program aimed at introducing minority college students to technology professions and programs. Meanwhile, the Westinghouse Science Honors Institute allows high school juniors to attend lectures and work on group projects for 10 Saturdays at the George Westinghouse Research and Technology Park.
Science: Too Many Connections Weakens Networks
IDG News Service (02/24/12) Joab Jackson
University of California, Davis (UCD) researchers have found that when it comes to linking together networks or other systems, it is best to have many, but not too many, connections. Too many connections can be dangerous, because failures in one network can easily fall into another, says UCD's Charles Brummitt. "When your network is under stress, the neighboring network can help you out," Brummitt notes. "But in some cases, the neighboring network can be volatile and make your problems worse." He says the researchers are studying this equilibrium and trying to "find what amount of interdependence among different networks would minimize the risk of large, spreading failures." Network owners should refine the number of links for maximum resiliency. The researchers are focusing on interlocked power grids but they say their work also could apply to computer networks and interconnected computer systems. "If you have some interconnection between clusters but not too much, then [the clusters] can help each other bear a load, without causing avalanches [of work] sloshing back and forth," says University of New Mexico professor Cris Moore.
Tongue Drive System Goes Inside the Mouth to Improve Performance and User Comfort
Georgia Tech News (02/20/12) Abby Vogel Robinson
Georgia Tech researchers are developing the Tongue Drive System, a wireless device that enables people with spinal cord injuries to operate a computer and maneuver a wheelchair by moving their tongues. The system consists of a dental retainer embedded with sensors, which track the location of a tiny magnet attached to the user's tongue. "By moving the sensors inside the mouth, we have created a Tongue Drive System with increased mechanical stability and comfort that is nearly unnoticeable," says Georgia Tech professor Maysam Ghovanloo. The output signals from the sensors are wirelessly transmitted to an iPod or iPhone, and software installed on the iPod interprets the user's tongue commands by determining the relative position of the magnet with respect to the array of sensors. This information is used to control the movements of a cursor on a computer screen or the movements of a powered wheelchair. The researchers also have created an interface for the system that attaches to an electric wheelchair. "During the trials, users have been able to learn to use the system, move the computer cursor quicker and with more accuracy, and maneuver through the obstacle course faster and with fewer collisions," Ghovanloo says.
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