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Welcome to the August 20, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Researchers Write Book Using DNA
Washington Post (08/19/12) Hristio Boytchev

Harvard Medical School researchers have encoded an entire book in DNA. The book includes more than 50,000 words, 11 images, and one computer program totaling about 0.7 megabytes of data. The researchers say DNA has unique advantages for data storage, such as improved data density and durability. They also note that DNA can survive for millennia undamaged, and the tools and technologies required for reading out the information will be available in future generations. The researchers divided the information in the book into pieces, and then synthesized each of the pieces into short DNA fragments of about 160 nucleotides. Each fragment carries part of the book, information about its position, as well as the parts necessary for reading and replicating the piece. Although the process of coding information into DNA was first developed in 1988, the new technique involves a more flexible method of encoding the data, using shorter and easier to handle DNA pieces, and next-generation technologies for synthesis and sequencing.


Skilled Work, Without the Worker
New York Times (08/18/12) John Markoff

A new wave of robots is replacing workers around the world in the manufacturing and distribution industries as many factories that utilize robots are becoming more efficient than those that rely on hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers. The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have sparked a debate between economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. "The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications," say Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Distribution also is being changed by advanced robotics. Robots can move at the speed of the fastest human sprinters, storing, retrieving, and packing goods for shipment much more efficiently than their human counterparts. Meanwhile, improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide range of manual jobs in jeopardy. For many applications, robots are already more cost-effective than humans, according to robot manufacturers. However, they note that although blue-collar jobs will be lost, more efficient manufacturing will create skilled jobs in designing, operating, and servicing the assembly lines. The next generation of robots for manufacturing will be even more flexible and easier to train.


Foreign Scientists and U.S. Policy Makers Seek Ways Around Visa Stalemate
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/13/12) Paul Basken

In June, 90 university presidents signed a letter to the White House and Congress about the economic costs of preventing highly skilled foreign scientists from residing in the United States. The letter noted a study showing that foreign-born inventors were contributors to more than 75 percent of the patents issued in 2011 to the U.S.'s top 10 patent-producing universities. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently unveiled a new program called Entrepreneurs in Residence, which features a team of experts advising the agency on ways it can change policies and practices to boost entrepreneurship. Two of its recommendations, developing a new Web portal and forming a team of specialized immigration officers dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, are slated to be implemented. But the program is designed only for temporary visas, and its changes cannot affect Congress' limits on immigration. Last year the USCIS granted 2,118 permanent visas for immigrants "with extraordinary ability," a decline of 45 percent from the previous year. It also granted 2,458 visas in a related EB-1 category for "outstanding professors and researchers," down 39 percent from 2010.
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Google Raises Ante for Next Chrome Hacking Contest to $2M
Computerworld (08/16/12) Gregg Keizer

Google announced that it will pay up to $2 million for the discovery of major vulnerabilities in the Chrome browser at the Pwnium hacking contest, which will take place at the Hack in the Box security conference on Oct. 10 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The upcoming challenge will pit researchers against the current version of Chrome, and those who demonstrate exploits of previously unknown bugs will be eligible for awards of up to $60,000 for each flaw. Google also added a new class of awards for incomplete exploits. "We want to reward people who get 'part way' as we could definitely learn from this work," says Google Chrome software engineer Chris Evans. To claim any award except in the "incomplete" category, researchers must pinpoint the vulnerability and provide Google with working exploit code. Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard's TippingPoint will run a mobile-only version of its annual Pwn2Own contest Sept. 19-20 at the EUSecWest security conference, where hackers will try to crack Apple, Nokia, RIM, and Samsung smartphones.


New Free Software to Radically Change City Planning Worldwide.
Ciencia Viva (08/18/12)

Researchers at Ciencia Viva's National Agency for Scientific and Technological Culture have developed software that can classify any region in the world according to its pattern of development into one of five types, each with specific characteristics and predictable behaviors that require different policy measures. The researchers say their work represents a major step toward a new type of city planning that is independent of personal visions, interests, and changing politics. "What this means is that now we finally can have a unified characterization of urban areas worldwide that pave the way for city planners all over the world to collaborate, whether comparing urban policies or forecasting typical future scenarios and procedures to deal with them," says researcher Jorge M. Pacheco. The researchers used the Metropolitan Area of Lisbon (MAL), which includes the city, its suburbs, and a ring of rural regions, as a case study for the software. The researchers examined MAL historical urbanization data to develop a mathematical classification based on built-up level, how these areas are distributed on the surface, and the city's spatial patterning density. The five types of development range from cities with small and isolated built-up areas, to those where building is close to saturation and space for new construction is rare.


Artful Algorithms
University of Sydney (08/16/12) Victoria Hollick; Sarah Castellanos

University of Sydney professor Seok-Hee Hong is creating superfast algorithms as part of an effort to refine a two-dimensional (2D) graphic visualization tool targeted for information technology security analysts. Hong says the tool will aid in the detection of a wide range of suspicious activity, and could potentially be used to monitor and analyze mobile telephone calls or Internet networking sites. "We already know that good visualizations have some geometric properties, called aesthetic criteria, including few edge crossings, good area resolution--small area in 2D and small volume in [three dimensions]--low curve complexity with few bends per edge, and a high degree of symmetry," Hong notes. "The challenge we are trying to overcome is the design of a central tool with the clarity and definition to carry out analysis, enabling businesses, researchers, and other dataset users to explore datasets to identify patterns, associations or trends." She says the work also could be used in biomedical networks such as protein-to-protein interaction biochemical pathways, and gene regulatory networks.


A GPS in Your DNA
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (08/16/12)

Researchers at Tel Aviv University and the University of California, Los Angeles have developed a probabilistic model of genetic traits for every coordinate on the globe, which could help more accurately determine the geographic location of a person's ancestral origins. The method is able to pinpoint more specific locations for an individual's ancestors. It also has the potential to reveal the ancestry, origins, and migration patterns of many different human populations, and could be used as a model for learning about the human genome. "When you look at many of these positions together in a bigger picture, it's possible to group populations with the same mutation by point of origin," says Tel Aviv professor Eran Halperin. To test their method, the researchers studied DNA samples from 1,157 people from across Europe. Using a probabilistic mathematical algorithm based on mutations in the genome, they were able to accurately determine their ancestral point or points of origin using only DNA data and the new mathematical model. The method could provide information that can be applied to population genetic studies, and it also could be used to study the movement of different animal populations.


Fighting Back Against Click-Spam
PhysOrg.com (08/16/12) Rob Knies

University of Texas at Austin researchers recently presented their paper, "Measuring and Fingerprinting Click-Spam in Ad Networks," at the SIGCOMM 2012 conference. The paper aimed to quantify the traffic on an ad network. "To our surprise, we found this was extremely challenging, and, aside from a scattered few anecdotes, there was no well-known, systematic technique, so we decided to come up with one," says University of Texas at Austin's Saikat Guha. The researchers developed a technique that provides the first independent methodology for advertisers to measure the click-spam problem, and supports an automated method for ad networks to identify simultaneous click-spam attacks proactively. "For a reputed ad network, only one out of 20 people clicking our ad stayed for longer than five seconds," Guha says. "We suspect this is because people misclicked the ad due to the small mobile-screen sizes and quickly hit the back button." The researchers also conducted a large-scale measurement study of click-spam across 10 major ad networks and four types of ads. "We believe this will spur intense research, much as in the early 2000s in the context of email spam, that will ultimately result in the broader community figuring out how to deal with click-fraud," Guha says.


Internet Voting Advocates Ignorant of Software, Says Simons
FierceGovernmentIT (08/15/12) David Perera

Advocates of using the Internet for elections often form their opinions about voting without having any real knowledge of how software works, according to VerifiedVoting.org board member Barbara Simons. She says advocates do not understand why all software bugs cannot be found. Simons says the way software can permit inadvertent flaws that enable later malicious exploitation is comparable to how an update to the tax code can benefit a single company. Simons also notes election officials can discount security risks such as insider threats. "When you mention insider threats, election officials sometimes get indignant, and think that we're accusing them of being criminal, which of course we're not," she says. However, Simons points out that there are all types of insiders, and anyone with access to the software code or even the computers running balloting software can potentially throw an election. Moreover, Simons says Internet voting advocates do not seem to connect the dots between sophisticated worms such as Stuxnet and the possibility of cybersecurity flaws in Internet voting, noting that a March distributed denial of service attack during an online election in Canada has not deterred them.


Wedding Digital With Traditional
Harvard Gazette (08/15/12) Corydon Ireland

MetaLAB at Harvard University's primary goal is to find new ways to access, annotate, remix, display, and share information from the humanities. MetaLAB faculty director Jeffrey Schnapp describes the challenge as knowledge design. Schnapp's core ethic for bringing the humanities into the digital age is a print-plus model of inquiry. MetaLAB researcher Matthew Battles is interested in how standards of content can be negotiated. Although many of the new technologies developed at MetaLAB have financial advantages, the implications of these emerging technologies can be far greater when they are applied to harnessing scholarly insights from large data sets, such as library records or literary texts. In addition, all the data on the Internet could one day be efficiently mined using metaLAB-developed visualization tools. Visualizing data also opens the humanities to further collaborations among previously disparate disciplines, Battles says. MetaLAB-hosted projects include Paper Machines, which converted 100 years of global land reform data into dramatic visualizations, a color-coded map representing 10 years of library acquisitions at Harvard, a map that plots global news reports from National Public Radio, and the Digital Archive of Japan's 2011 Disasters.


Digital Doppelgangers: Building an Army of You
New Scientist (08/15/12) Sally Adee

U.S. National Science Foundation researchers have developed a smart, animated, digital double that can interact with other people via a screen when the user is not present. These autonomous identities are not duplicates of human beings, but rather simple and potentially useful personas that could take on difficult tasks, and perhaps even modify people's behavior. The digital double is one of several new autonomous avatar technologies that are currently being developed. For example, the Web site rep.licants.org enables users to create a social media self, which can take over Facebook and Twitter accounts when required. Meanwhile, MyCyberTwin enables users to create copies of themselves that can engage visitors in a text conversation, accompanied by a photo or cartoon representation. Northeastern University researchers are developing animated avatars of doctors and other health-care providers, because tests show that 70 percent of patients prefer talking to a virtual version of a nurse instead of a real one. However, some avatars may take longer to train than others depending on the sophistication of the task. One way to shortcut this process is to give an avatar specific behaviors adapted for a specific purpose, says Stanford University's Jeremy Bailenson.
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Recreating a Slice of the Universe
Center for Astrophysics (08/15/12) David A. Aguilar

Researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) have developed Arepo, software that can accurately follow the birth and evolution of thousands of galaxies over billions of years. "We've created the full variety of galaxies we see in the local universe," says CfA's Mark Vogelsberger. Arepo generates a full simulation of the universe, taking as input only the observed afterglow of the Big Bang and evolving forward in time for 14 billion years. "We took all the advantages of previous codes and removed the disadvantages," says HITS researcher Volker Springel. Arepo utilizes a grid that flexes and moves in space to match the motions of the underlying gas, stars, dark matter, and dark energy. The simulations ran on Harvard's Odyssey high-performance supercomputer, using 1,024 processor cores, which enabled the program to compress 14 billion years of universal evolution into a few months. "Our simulations improve over previous ones as much as the Giant Magellan Telescope will improve upon any telescope that exists now," notes CFa's Debora Sijacki.


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