Welcome to the May 4, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Harvard and M.I.T. Team Up to Offer Free Online Courses
New York Times (05/02/12) Tamar Lewin
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced a plan to offer free massively open online courses under their edX partnership. Overseeing edX will be a nonprofit organization that Harvard and MIT will govern equally, and each school has pledged $30 million to the initiative. EdX's inaugural president will be Anant Agarwal, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, while Harvard's contribution will be supervised by provost Alan M. Garber. University officials say the new online platform would be used to research educational technologies and methods as well as to build a global community of online students. Included in the edX project will be engineering courses and humanities courses, in which crowdsourcing or software may be used to grade essays. Harvard Corporation's Lawrence S. Bacow says education technology currently lacks "an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses." The edX effort faces competition from similar partnerships between Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, and Coursera. The rapid evolution of online education technology is such that those in the new ventures say the courses are still in an experimental stage.
'Big Data' Could Remake Science--and Government
NextGov.com (05/02/12) Joseph Marks
Big data is capable of transforming scientific research by switching it from a hypothesis-driven field into one that is data-driven, says Farnam Jahanian, head of the U.S. National Science Foundation's Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate. However, Jahanian notes that before this can be achieved, it will be necessary to secure upfront investment from the government and the private sector to build the infrastructure for data analysis and new collaboration tools. The field of big data analysis seeks to sort through vast data stores to gather intelligence and identify new patterns. Last year the U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found a gap in the private sector's investment in basic big data research and development, and in March U.S. officials announced that the government will invest $200 million in research grants and infrastructure building for big data. "The shift with data-driven science and big data is that first we collect the data and then we see what it tells us," says Wyle chief technology officer Bill Perlowitz. "We don’t have a pretense that we understand what those relationships are, or what information we may find."
Spot a Bot to Stop a Botnet
Computer scientists at the Veermata Jijabai Institute have developed a way to detect botnet infections on computers. The technique developed by Manoj Thakur and other researchers at the institute involves the use of a standalone heuristic algorithm and a network algorithm that can sniff out a botnet on a computer network and obstruct its malicious operations before it causes too much damage. The standalone algorithm operates independently on each network node and examines active processes on those nodes. In addition, the standalone algorithm is capable of detecting botnet activity that had previously been hidden. In the event the algorithm detects activity that is deemed suspicious, the network algorithm is activated and begins analyzing information being sent between hosts on the network. This makes it possible to determine whether or not the suspicious activity is the result of a botnet or some legitimate program. By working in tandem, the two algorithms can identify activity from both known and unknown botnets. The use of two algorithms also reduces the number of incorrect botnet detections.
Twitter Cannot Predict Elections Either
Technology Review (05/02/12)
A new analysis of research about the predictive power of social media challenges claims that Twitter can predict the outcomes of elections. The University of Oviedo's Daniel Gayo-Avello contends the research on Twitter and elections is riddled with flaws. Gayo-Avello says researchers have assumed that all tweets are trustworthy when political statements are often littered with rumors, propaganda, and humor. He takes issue with Twitter's demographics, considering most tweeters are younger, which will bias any results. "Social media is not a representative and unbiased sample of the voting population," Gayo-Avello says. Self selection is a problem in that people who make political remarks are the most interested in politics, and Gayo-Avello says more work needs to be done to understand the silent majority. Moreover, he notes that all of the papers on elections so far have been done after the fact. Consequently, "there are elections virtually all the time, thus, if you are claiming you have a prediction method you should predict an election in the future," Gayo-Avello notes.
Microsoft Taps Yahoo Scientists for New York Research Lab
New York Times (05/03/12) Steve Lohr
Microsoft is opening a new research laboratory in New York City that will focus on applying advanced computing tools to the social sciences. The lab will be staffed by 15 scientists, including well-known researchers in the fields of machine learning, prediction markets, and online social behavior. "Microsoft is a fantastic place for research because it balances the academic and the product-impact sides," says former Yahoo! researcher David Pennock, who will oversee the lab's day-to-day operations. The lab's primary goal is to advance the state of the art in each researcher's area of expertise, says Microsoft's Jennifer Chayes, who also will manage the lab. Microsoft has a growing portfolio of data sources that provide fertile ground for research, such as the Bing search engine, the Skype Internet phone service, and the Xbox Live online game network. The New York lab also is seeking creative partnerships with Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, Rutgers University and the Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute. Pennock notes that a key advantage of working at Microsoft is the "ability to have what you do impact hundreds of millions of people."
Google SPDY Accelerates Mobile Web
InformationWeek (05/02/12) Thomas Claburn
The SPDY protocol can help provide much faster access to mobile Web sites, according to Google engineers. In a test involving 77 Web pages across 31 domains, the team used the experimental protocol and a Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone running the SPDY-enabled mobile browser Chrome for Android. "The net result is that using SPDY results in a mean page load time improvement of 23 percent across these sites, compared to HTTP," say Google's Matt Welsh, Ben Greenstein, and Michael Piatek. SPDY, first published in draft form in November 2009, is designed to transport Web content more efficiently by compressing HTTP headers. The protocol is not a replacement for HTTP, but it does override the HTTP connection management and data transfer formats. Google has deployed SPDY in a stable version of its Chrome browser and uses it for search and Gmail. Other companies have started to adopt the protocol, and an Internet Engineering Task Force working group is considering including SPDY in the forthcoming revision of the HTTP protocol. Web site operators "should consider using SPDY to speed up access to their sites from mobile devices," say Welsh, Greenstein, and Piatek.
Physicist: Moore's Law as We Know It Is on Its Last Legs
Network World (05/01/12) Jon Gold
City College of New York theoretical physics professor Michio Kaku believes Moore's Law is breaking down. Moore's Law states that computing power doubles about once every 18 months, but Kaku, who has predicted its collapse since at least 2003, says the critical point will be reached within a decade. He says the constant shrinking of transistors is unsustainable. Intel has a new chip called Ivy Bridge that represents a 10-nanometer reduction from the previous generation, but it has been found to run hotter than its predecessors under overclocking, which could suggest that transistor density and size are becoming a concern for microprocessors. Three-dimensional chips--a feature of Ivy Bridge--and parallel processing could potentially delay the collapse of Moore's Law, but Kaku says these workarounds will eventually reach their limits. New forms of computing may provide a solution for processing power. He says molecular transistors are promising, but current fabrication techniques do not allow for mass production. Quantum computers also could eventually become more powerful and practical, but they are even less well understood.
Thwarting the Cleverest Attackers
MIT News (05/01/12) Larry Hardesty
The threat of side-channel attacks is growing with the expanding popularity of cloud computing, and a general strategy for ameliorating such attacks was recently posted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers on the Web site of the Electronic Colloquium on Computational Complexity. The technique masks a computer program's computational details by converting a given computation into a sequence of smaller computational modules. Data entered within the first module is encrypted and never decrypted during execution, and then the first module's still-encrypted output is fed to the second module, which encrypts it differently, and so on. The final module's output is the same output of the original computation, but the operations performed by the individual modules are completely different. Although the instruction that inaugurates a new module is identical to the instruction that concluded the last one, the modules are executed on different servers on a network. MIT professor Shafi Goldwasser says this method could thwart attacks on private information as well as on devices that shield proprietary algorithms to prevent reverse-engineering.
Carnegie Mellon Researchers Create Dynamic View of City Based on Foursquare Check-in Data
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (05/01/12)
A dynamic view of a city's activities and character that reflects the ever-fluctuating patterns of city life can be generated by the millions of check-ins produced by foursquare, according to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers. They devised an algorithm that taps the check-ins created when foursquare members visit participating venues or businesses, clustering them based on a blending of the site of the venues and the groups of people who most frequently visit them. The check-in dataset includes such information as user ID, time of day, latitude and longitude, and the name and category of the venue for each check-in. The data is plotted on a map of the city to reveal the area's "Livehoods." The Livehoods project exploits the spread of smartphones and the location-based services they facilitate, and the researchers are investigating the project's applications to city planning, real estate development, and transportation. "Our goal is to understand how cities work through the lens of social media," says Justin Cranshaw at CMU's Institute for Software Research. Raz Schwartz, a visiting scholar at CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, notes that urban studies typically involve extrapolating meaning from only a small sample of interviewed community residents.
Libraries: Sandbox Space for New Technology
Queensland University of Technology (05/01/12) Stephanie Harrington
Queensland University of Technology (QUT) professor Marcus Foth says libraries and other cultural institutions could become spaces for experimenting with new technologies. Foth, who also serves as director of QUT's Urban Informatics Research Lab, notes Google released the design for its futuristic glasses in April so the public could provide feedback before they go on sale later this year. He says Project Glass adds a new interface to the bits-to-atoms technology trend, which includes laptop, tablet, and mobile phone screens. "Google's augmented-reality glasses are an example of the global network being used for local purposes," Foth notes. The rollout of Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) also could help facilitate public engagement. Foth is excited about the opportunity to bring the NBN into the real world to amplify local relationships. "Libraries can become a sandbox space and educational outlet for these user-led developments in addition to being used as a place to archive and preserve knowledge and collect books," he says.
European Researchers Study Social Robots for Elderly Assistance
Orebro University (05/01/12)
About 25 European researchers are meeting at Orebro University to design robots that can help improve the quality of life for the elderly, their families, and care givers. The event is part of the Robot-Era project, which will integrate robots and smart environments to develop new technological solutions for elderly assistance. The researchers are developing a domestic robot to provide day-to-day assistance in the home, an outdoor robot to help with tasks while on the go such as carrying goods and providing directions, and a condominium robot to help with tasks such as carrying heavy groceries from the street into the home or taking out the garbage. The robots will cooperate with each other and the smart environment to manage complex tasks together. Robot-Era is pursuing a distributed solution in order to make the system affordable and acceptable for users. The European Commission is funding the project, which runs from January 2012 through December 2015. The project includes researchers from Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden.
Look Ma No Hands, in 140 Characters or Less...
Txchnologist (05/01/12) Terrence Murray
Clifford Nass, founder of Stanford University's Communications Between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab, says future automobiles will boast full automation and will be centered on social media platforms. "We're seeing all the car companies getting very, very excited about creating a much richer relationship so the car evolves into a partner that can give specific advice, from selecting a parking spot, or improving your driving skills, or drive in a more eco-friendly way," he notes. Much of the technology for realizing this vision already exists, and CHIMe's focus is on creating an effective but non-distracting car-driver interface, Nass says. He stresses that car manufacturers have a responsibility to make automotive technology that emphasizes both safety and enjoyability. "Our job is to find that sweet spot," he points out. Nass cites the industry's recognition of enormous demand for autonomous cars, motivated even further by the demand for social media. He says a smarter car must inform the driver of its actions, and "because the intelligence of a fully automated car is obvious and overt, it creates a situation in which drivers have to understand what the car is doing." Nass says CHIMe researchers are studying psychological literature on team building and partnerships to help design the car-driver interface.
Taps and Rhythms Replace Keyboard Shortcuts
Morse code-like rhythms tapped onto a laptop's touchpad could be used to replace keyboard shortcuts for copying text, according to computer scientists at the University of Paris-Sud 11. During testing, the researchers found that volunteers could reproduce rhythmic sequences in a way the computer could recognize 94 percent of the time. The team conducted another test on a different group of volunteers and found that the group was able to recall both the rhythm and keyboard shortcuts 93 percent of the time. Most of the volunteers preferred the rhythmic taps, thought it was fun, and liked that they did not have to look at the keyboard to find the right keys. The researcher say the next generation of smartphones, tablet, and laptops could let users create their own rhythmic shortcuts. They say rhythmic taps could be used to speed-dial a number, add a number to a contact list, navigate text, or switch modes in an app. The researchers also note that mobile devices are already equipped with all of the sensors they need to detect rhythms.
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