Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the October 17, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Maryland's Online Voter Registration Files Are Vulnerable to Attack, Researchers Say
Washington Post (10/17/12) Aaron C. Davis

Leading U.S. election technology experts and a voting rights group warn that hackers could change the voter registration files of Maryland citizens with a relatively simple code. They say anyone with access to a Maryland voter's birth date and full name could change their address, party affiliation, or other data that could lead to their ballot not being counted. At the root of this danger is the linkage between the state's voter registration files and its driver's license numbers database, as such numbers are derived from a resident's name and birth date. There are Web sites that can decrypt a driver's license number using the latter two pieces of data. "If you know someone's full legal name and birth date, you know their driver's license number and you have all the information needed to tamper with their voter registration," cautions Save Our Votes co-director Rebecca Wilson. She says this is possible because Maryland sells voter rolls to campaigns looking to canvass for votes. "These problems leave the system open to large-scale, automated fraud, and make the Maryland system among the most vulnerable of all the states' new online voter registration systems," the experts warned in a letter to Maryland officials.


Teaching for the Future: Steering Girls to Science
USA Today (10/16/12) Mary Beth Marklein

The National Center for Women in IT, a coalition of 300 corporations, colleges, government agencies, and nonprofits, was launched in 2004 to promote efforts to increase the number of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. It has been helped by member organizations such as the Girl Scouts, the Computer Science Teachers Association, and the Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution program, which has been offered through Seattle Public Schools since 1999. In 2010 just 18 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science went to women, down 38 percent since 1985, according to the U.S. Department of Education. "You're going to be hard-pressed to find anybody who doesn't think it's a wonderful idea to have role models and outreach programs to help mentor women in science, or any gender or any profession," says Independent Women's Foundation managing director Carrie Lukas. Efforts to engage more women in technology are not only focused on filling more jobs or gaining better salaries. Anthropologist Genevieve Bell has found that women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are the lead adopters and most frequent users of new technology. In addition, companies that fail to consider the female perspective could be at a competitive disadvantage, says Microsoft researcher Rane Johnson. As part of a new online mentoring program backed by the center, almost 600 women have pledged to spend at least an hour this fall offering advice to female college students considering careers in STEM fields.


500,000 Cyber Warriors to Bolster India's E-Defense
Times of India (10/16/12) Indrani Bagchi; Vishwa Mohan

Training 500,000 cyberwarriors in the next five years to defend India's cyberinfrastructure is the goal of a new government/private-sector initiative organized in the wake of an expert panel estimating that the country faces a shortage of 470,000 cyberspecialists. India's systems are being confronted with a growing number of increasingly refined cyberattacks. Cybersecurity recommendations introduced by National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon include government implementation of a specialized cybersecurity-related curriculum in engineering and management courses and the establishment of a multidisciplinary center of excellence. The center intends to set up an autonomous entity, the Institute of Cyber Security Professionals of India, tasked with making cybersecurity audits obligatory for companies through revisions to the Companies Act. Other recommendations include the private sector's creation of Information Sharing & Analysis Centers in various industry verticals that should coordinate with sectoral computer emergency response teams (CERTs) and CERT-In, as well as training law enforcement agencies in cybercrime investigation and cyberforensics by setting up training facilities and developing materials and investigation manuals. It also is recommended that cybersecurity awareness be promoted and disseminated among the general public via mutual collaboration.


Google Throws Open Doors to Its Top-Secret Data Center
Wired News (10/17/12) Steven Levy

A Google data center in Lenoir, N.C., offers a rare look into the mechanics of Google's operations. The center reflects the insight that extreme chilling of server rooms is unnecessary, as the cold aisle in front of the servers can be kept at about 80 degrees while the hot aisle can be permitted to hit about 120 degrees, with the heat absorbed by water-filled coils that are pumped out of the facility and cooled before being recirculated. Another energy-saving measure Google implemented was designing the server racks so that uninterrupted power supply systems were redundant and backup batteries could be positioned adjacent to each server. Google is aware of its precise data center requirements in terms of speed, power, and connectivity, and achieves cost savings by not purchasing unnecessary extras--a precept that also applies to its networking gear. To maintain network reliability and operations, Google's Site Reliability Engineering team holds a disaster recovery testing exercise each year to assess the resilience of the Google infrastructure against threats and to patch any exposed weaknesses. The Lenoir facility, one of about a dozen worldwide, hosts nearly 50,000 servers.


But How Do You Really Feel? Someday the Computer May Know
New York Times (10/15/12) Karen Weintraub

Affective computing is an emerging technology that aims to give computers the ability to read users' emotions. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers are developing glasses designed for people with Asperger syndrome that can warn them when they are boring someone. The glasses are equipped with a tiny traffic light, visible only to the user, which flashes yellow when the conversation is dragging on and red when the facial cues suggest the listener has completely lost interest. The researchers also are developing software that maps 24 points on the face to determine an emotion. The researchers are able to capture the subtleties of different facial expressions using Webcams with high-frame rates and resolutions. The software also requires thousands of examples of each facial expression. "If we don’t have enough examples, across cultures and age ranges, the machine won’t be able to discriminate these subtle expressions," says MIT's Rana el Kaliouby. Affective technology also may be able to help online education programs provide better learning experiences for students. A program that distinguishes when students are bored or confused could offer more challenging problems to the bored students and simpler problems for the struggling students.


At Stanford, Scholars Debate the Promises, Pitfalls of Online Learning
Stanford Report (CA) (10/15/12) R.F. MacKay

Although online learning has great potential to enhance the education process, Princeton University president emeritus William G. Bowen cites three obstructions to deployment--little hard data, a lack of shared software platforms to ensure broad take-up, and the need to change our way of thinking. In regards to the first obstacle, Bowen notes studies uncovering no statistically significant differences in learning outcomes between traditional classes and hybrid-online classes. As for the second barrier, Bowen says "the educational community should make every effort to take advantage of the great strengths" of existing software platforms. Another pressing reason for rethinking higher education is the perception that public support for it may be waning, with Columbia University's Andrew Delbanco predicting that the ranks of university faculty will shrink and be concentrated in star educators, while a merger between nonprofit and for-profit enterprises is likely. Meanwhile, Stanford professor Daphne Koller says classroom social interaction can be incorporated into online learning technology to a certain degree. She calls the potential of analytics derived from online learning in which scores of students demonstrate viable and nonviable learning methods as "a miraculous opportunity."


Squeeze Your Phone, and Send a Loved One a Hug
Technology Review (10/15/12) Nidhi Subbaraman

Researchers at the Helsinki Institute of Information Technology and Nokia have developed the ForcePhone, a device that can send vibrations back and forth to users who are having a conversation. One user squeezes the phone during a call, and the listener's device will vibrate. The researchers call these pressure messages "pressages," and they can be transmitted while on a regular call or on a Skype call. The device is equipped with a force-sensitive resistor taped to the side. The system can pick up four different intensities of pressure, each of which translates to appropriately intense vibrations, says Helsinki researcher Eve Hoggan, who presented the device at the recent User Interface Software Technology conference. The phone's resistors are connected to a sensor board that fits into the phone's microSD port. Hoggan says the researchers wanted the phone to look as normal as possible so that users would be encouraged to treat it like a regular phone.


Can Computer Games Help Cure Cancer?
University of Abertay Dundee (10/15/12) Chris Wilson

University of Abertay Dundee researchers say they have combined biomedical science, computing, and interactive animations to create better simulations for predicting cancer and drug behavior. The research has led to interactive models that show cell signaling pathways and bimolecular species levels, allowing the impact of changing doses of different combinations of drugs to be predicted. The interactive models function like a living map, enabling mathematicians and biologists to work more closely together. "By visualizing what cancer cell pathways look like, and predicting how they interact with different drugs in real time, we hope to improve this area of crucial scientific research," says Abertay professor Jim Bown. The researchers say the next step is to create an interactive tool to simulate 1 million biologically plausible cells and its evolution over a six-month period. "What we're talking about is harnessing the power of parallel hardware in computer clusters, all to inform how we can create new targeted treatments to overcome cancer resistance to existing drugs and increase survival rates," Bown says.


Next-Gen Touchpads Respond to Pressure
IDG News Service (10/14/12) Nick Barber

Researchers presenting at the recent User Interface Software Technology conference demonstrated projects that took advantage of Synaptics' new pressure-sensitive "forcepad." More than 24 academic research groups were given the forcepads and asked to develop novel uses for the devices. A group from RWTH Aachen University created Forcepose, an application that lets Macintosh users "push" through a stack of overlapping windows, revealing the ones underneath. "We added another dimension into browsing overlapping windows," says RWTH's Christian Corsten. "Normally when you have a stack of windows you need to move them away to grab a specific window, but [with what we did] you just push through the stack of windows with your finger." Another project controls a marionette using the forcepad. The researchers note the project would not have been possible with a traditional trackpad or touchscreen device. "They don't give pressure information, so when you touch the screen it only knows where you're touching, but not how hard," says University of Manitoba researcher Paymahn Moghadasian.


Notre Dame Researcher Helps Make Sudoku Puzzles Less Puzzling
Notre Dame University (10/11/12) William G. Gilroy

University of Notre Dame researchers have determined why some Sudoku puzzles are harder than others and developed an algorithm that solves them very quickly. The researchers have proposed a universal analog algorithm that is completely deterministic and always arrives at the correct solution to a Sudoku problem, and does so more quickly. The researchers also discovered that the time it took to solve a problem with their algorithm correlated with the difficulty of the problem as rated by human solvers. "To me, and to a number of researchers studying such problems, a fascinating question is how far can us humans go in solving Sudoku puzzles deterministically, without backtracking--that is without making a choice at random," says Notre Dame researcher Zoltan Toroczkai. "Our analog solver is deterministic--there are no random choices or backtracks made during the dynamics." The researchers say their algorithm could be applied to a wide variety of problems in industry, computer science, and computational biology.


Light Might Prompt Graphene Devices on Demand
Rice University (10/10/12) Mike Williams

Rice University researchers are doping graphene with light in an attempt to develop more efficient design and manufacturing processes for electronics, as well as new security and cryptography devices. The research involves theoretical and experimental work to show the potential for developing simple, graphene-based diodes and transistors on demand. "The doping of graphene is a key parameter in the development of graphene electronics," says Rice professor Peter Norlander. The researchers have experience in the manipulation of the quasiparticles known as plasmons, which can be prompted to oscillate on the surface of a metal. These metals redirect light's energy and flow in waves across the surface, emitting light in controllable wavelengths. The researchers' experiment involves eight nanoscale gold discs placed around a larger disc. This array was deposited onto a sheet of graphene through electron-beam lithography. At the point of destructive interference, most of the incident light energy is converted into hot electrons that transfer directly to the graphene sheet and change portions of the sheet from a conductor to an n-doped semiconductor. "Quantum dot and plasmonic nanoparticle antennas can be tuned to respond to pretty much any color in the visible spectrum," Norlander notes.


Advanced Computer Simulator Aids in Emergency Service Management
UAB Barcelona (10/09/12)

Researchers in the Autonomous University of Barcelona's High Performance Computing for Efficient Applications and Simulation group have devised a computer simulator that could enhance the operations management of emergency service units. The simulation was designed according to actual data supplied by Parc Tauli Healthcare, using modeling and simulation methods adapted on an individual basis and requiring high-performance computing. The simulator analyzes the emergency unit's reaction when confronted with diverse scenarios and optimizes the available resources. The researchers say the system's most noteworthy component is the accurate rendering of identified individuals' behavior and interactions. Different types of patients were defined based on their emergency level, while doctors, nursing teams, and admissions staff were defined in accordance with their experiential levels. The simulation enabled researchers to examine the duration of processes such as triage, the number and type of patients coming in at each moment, the waiting period for each stage service, costs associated with each process, the amount of staff required to determine a type of aid, and all other measurable factors. The model accounts for elements pertinent to emergency service functionality, including computer systems, support services for clinic diagnoses, and specialist consultations.


Police States and Domestic Terrorism
IEEE Spectrum (10/09/12) Steven Cherry

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies have amassed vast caches of information on ordinary Americans. "Once you start eavesdropping on everybody's form of communication today ... then you're basically getting into a person's mind," says author James Bamford. "You know exactly what they're thinking of every minute of the day if they're always on the phone or on the email or looking through Google searches, and that's much more dangerous." Bamford warns that NSA has shifted the focus of its global eavesdropping system from foreign countries to U.S. citizens, and he cites former NSA cryptomathematician William Binney's contention that simply flipping a switch could enable the system to be used for totalitarian ends and make privacy nonexistent. At the core of that ability is software created by Boeing subsidiary Narus that is capable of deep packet inspection, in which data routed through fiber-optic links is mined for whatever information an agency is looking for. Bamford argues that NSA and other agencies should not be collecting such data to protect the American public from domestic terrorism, because "the point is to find a balance between individual rights and privacy and the protection of people."


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