Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the May 8, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


The Next Age of Discovery
Wall Street Journal (05/08/09) P. W1; Alter, Alexandra

Teams of computer scientists, conservationists, and scholars are rushing to digitally save and preserve the world's literary treasures. Advanced technology is enabling researchers to scan ancient texts that were previously unreadable due to fire damage, chemical erosion, being repainted, or simply being too fragile to unroll. Using X-ray florescence, multi-spectral imaging, and CAT scans, scholars can study these works for the first time and preserve them in a digital format. This summer, a University of Kentucky computer science professor will test three-dimensional x-ray scanning on two papyrus scrolls from Pompeii, currently at the French National Institute in Paris. The scrolls were charred by volcanic ash in 79 A.D. and scholars have never been able to read or even open them. In another project, Oxford scholars will take high-resolution digital images in 14 light wavelengths to read pieces of papyrus that were found in an ancient Egyptian garbage dump. Researchers have digitized about 80 percent of the 500,000 fragments recovered, dating from the 2nd century B.C. to the 8th century A.D., including text fragments from unknown works by famous authors, lost gospels, and early Islamic manuscripts. War and political instability in artifact-rich areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where uncountable numbers of artifacts have been lost to looting or destroyed, is a major motivator behind the effort to digitize rare documents. "It's being called a second Renaissance," says Todd Hickey, a curator of papyri at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's revealing things that we didn't have a hope of reading in the past."

Team of Researchers Achieves Major Step Toward Faster Chips
University of Florida News (05/07/09) Hoover, Aaron

Scientists and engineers from the University of Florida, Stanford University, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have created a basic type of semiconductor from graphene, a single atom-thick layer of graphite. The research could lead to smaller computer chips with more memory that are more efficient at performing data- and communication-intensive assignments. "This work is essentially finding a new way to modify a graphene nanoribbon to make it able to conduct electrons," says Florida professor Jing Guo. "This addresses a very fundamental requirement for graphene to be useful in the production of electronics." The researchers created a n-type transistor out of graphene nanoribbon, a nanometer-wide strip cut from a sheet of graphene. Guo says his team built and modeled the first-ever graphene nanoribbon n-type field-effect transistor using a new method that involves affixing nitrogen atoms to the edge of the nanoribbon. The method also could help make the edges of the nanometer-wide ribbon smoother, an important aspect of making the transistor faster. Before graphene transistors can be mass produced for consumer products, the cost of graphene needs to be significantly reduced and engineers need to learn how to build billions of transistors on a tiny piece of graphene.

When Virtual Reality Feels Real
ICT Results (05/08/09)

Researchers in the European Union-funded Presenccia project are conducting experiments to understand why humans interpret and respond to virtual stimuli and to learn how to make those virtual experiences more real and intense. The researchers say their work could create new opportunities in healthcare, training, social research, and entertainment. In one experiment, the researchers created a virtual bar, which subjects accessed by wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset or by entering a VR CAVE where the images are projected onto walls. The virtual bar tested the subjects' reactions to a virtual fire in the bar. Some participants just ignored the fire while others ran. Project leader Mel Slater says some subjects literally ran out of the VR room despite the fact they knew the fire was not real because they took their cues from the bar's virtual characters. In another experiment, the researchers re-enacted controversial experiments conducted by U.S. social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s that tested people's propensity to follow orders even if they knew it was ethically wrong. Some subjects continued following instruction because they knew it was not real, but all subjects had physical reactions, measured by their skin conductivity, perspiration, and heart rate. The research indicated that people's responses are similar regardless if their experience is real or virtual.

A Lockbox Built From DNA
Technology Review (05/07/09) Rice, Jocelyn

Researchers at the Aarhus University Center for DNA Nanotechnology in Denmark have constructed, from DNA, a box with a lid that can either lock shut or hinge open. The structure is distinct from other three-dimensional (3D) DNA objects in that it has solid sides and moving components. Aarhus scientist Jorgen Kjems' team developed a computer program to generate a continuous single-stranded DNA sequence that would self-assemble into the desired shape in conjunction with smaller DNA fragments that function as staples. The sequence was copied by a virus and engineered with many complementary regions so that it would automatically fold into a half-dozen accordion-like sheets based on DNA's tendency to pair into double strands. The sheets' edges were stitched together by the DNA staples to form a hollow cube with a hinged lid, and the team produced a pair of minuscule DNA latches with sticky ends to make the lid lockable. With the addition of two corresponding DNA keys, the lid swings open when the latches bind to the keys. Although the boxes theoretically have sufficient solidity to prevent large molecules from escaping and enough space to contain a ribosome or a small virus, the researchers have yet to place anything inside them. Kjems says the box proves the feasibility of adapting DNA origami to 3D engineering. He says the receptacle could be used for various applications ranging from drug delivery to logic gates.

New York Times Graphics Director Steve Duenes Selected for a SIGGRAPH Keynote
Business Wire (05/07/09)

New York Times graphics director Steve Duenes, a leader in transforming complex data into understandable graphic journalism, will be the keynote speaker for ACM's SIGGRAPH 2009, the 36th International Conference and Exhibition for Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. Duenes, who is on the faculty at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, manages a team of journalists who create visual information by researching, writing, designing, and programming information graphics for both the printed newspaper and Duenes' team has received awards from the Society of Publication Designers, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Society for News Design, and the Society of Professional Journalists. "In a growing digital world, the importance of graphics has never been higher," says Ronen Barzel, SIGGRAPH 2009 conference chair. "Steve brings a fresh perspective to the table, which is especially appropriate this year given the amazing SIGGRAPH content in regards to scientific visualization and information aesthetics." SIGGRAPH takes place August 3-7 in New Orleans.

Virginia Tech's RoMeLa Develops a Low Cost, Dexterous Robotic Hand Operated by Compressed Air
Virginia Tech News (05/04/09) Mackay, Steven

The Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering has developed the Robotic Air Powered Hand with Elastic Ligaments (RAPHaEL), a robotic hand capable of firmly holding heavy objects or delicately holding fragile objects. RAPHaEL is a fully articulated robotic hand that is powered by compressed air and an accordion-type tube actuator. Movement and coordination is controlled using microcontroller commands. "This air-powered design is what makes the hand unique, as it does not require the use of any motors or other actuators, the grasping force and compliance can be easily adjusted by simply changing the air pressure," says RoMeLa director Dennis Hong. The force of the grip is determined by the amount of air pressure, with low pressure used for a delicate grip and high pressure used for a sturdier grip. RAPHaEL is part of a larger RoMeLa project, a humanoid robot known as CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Robot with Learning Intelligence). The hand is on its second prototype design, and once the newer model is connected to the larger robot body, CHARLI will be able to pick up objects like a person. Hong says CHARLI is the first full-sized bipedal walking humanoid robot to be built entirely in the United States. CHARLI will be used as a general humanoid research platform and for the RoboCup Humanoid Teen size league at RoboCup 2010.

Software Development Gender Gap Pondered
InfoWorld (05/07/09) Krill, Paul

A panel of women developers at the recent RailsConf 2009 conference in Las Vegas held a session entitled "Women in Rails" to discuss the issues that cause software development to be a male-dominated profession. The panelists said reasons for the imbalance include a lack of women in computer science programs, women leaving the industry to raise families, and women underestimating their chances when job opportunities are available. Panelist Sarah Mei, a software developer and Rails user, says she has been working to get more women to attend San Francisco meetings on Ruby, and has been trying to connect with Web designers and women who have never programmed before. Mei also teaches JavaScript to high school girls and encourages them to consider programming. Part of the problem is that in the 1990s computer science programs were designed to be difficult and weed people out because there were more applicants than available developer positions. However, since then the industry has become much larger and more open, but computer science programs have not changed their approach. Mei also points to the "macho gaming culture" that suppresses the number of women in programming. She says that computer science in general suffers from an image problem, including fears about jobs being outsourced, but believes that innovation requires expanding the programming talent pool.

Examining Social Networking for Terrorists to Find People Behind Terrorist Attacks
Inderscience Publishers (05/05/09)

Social Design Group's Yoshiharu Maeno and University of Tokyo professor Yukio Ohsawa have developed a new approach to analyzing social networks that could help find the covert connections between the people responsible for terrorist actions by revealing the nodes that act as hubs in a terrorist network and backtracking to individual planners and perpetrators. The researchers say their approach also could help prevent future attacks. Maeno and Ohsawa say that along with disaster recovery management, terrorist attacks create the added pressure of short-term responses to the terrorists themselves and the long-term need to identify and weaken the covert operations and infrastructure of the organization behind the attack. Combining the prior understanding of expert investigators with graph theory and computational data process should make it possible to analyze a terrorist network and reveal latent connections and patterns. The approach involves the discovery of nodes, which are the hubs in a network where different members of the network are connected. Members usually have one or two connections, nodes have several connections, and critical nodes have many more. To test the validity of their approach, the researchers applied their technique to the network used by the organization behind the 9/11 attacks and were able to find some connections that were not known before the attacks.

Researchers Take Over Dangerous Botnet
Dark Reading (05/04/09) Higgins, Kelly Jackson

University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers temporarily commandeered an infamous botnet known for stealing financial data and found that the threat it represents is even greater than had been originally assumed. The Torpig/Sinowal/Anserin mini-botnet targets organizations and users to steal bank account information or other sensitive personal data. It is considered more dangerous than big-name botnets because of its small scale and stealthiness. Torpig uses drive-by download attacks as its initial mode of infection, and upon infection the botnet can unleash crafty phishing attacks that produce bogus but authentic-looking Web pages and forms that trick users into exposing their credentials. The UCSB researchers accumulated approximately 70 GB of data for the 10 days they were in control of Torpig, and in that period the botnet stole banking credentials of 8,310 accounts from more than 400 financial institutions, including PayPal, Capital One, E-Trade, and Chase. Nearly half of the 1,660 stolen debit and credit card accounts the researchers counted belonged to victims in the United States. "The level of sophistication, the amount of data that it is able to steal, and the fact that it has been active for more than three years is truly remarkable," says UCSB researcher Brett Stone-Gross. The researchers' disclosures provoked debate on whether the information they exposed about Torpig, its workings, and its victims could compromise efforts to eventually undo the botnet. "This [research] does create a road map ... for the [botnet] criminals to fix, and not just for others to exploit," says RSA's Sean Brady.

Shedding Light on the Catacombs of Rome
BBC News (05/03/09) Kennedy, Duncan

Researchers have completed a three-year project to create the first comprehensive, three-dimensional (3D) image of the Catacombs in Rome. The project used laser scanners to create moving images of the entire underground system. To create the images, a scanner was placed in each room, and as it rotated it sent out millions of light pulses that bounced off of every surface and reflected back to the scanner before being recorded on a computer as a series of white dots. Simultaneously, a camera on the scanner took a picture of each surface, which was sent to the computer to add color and fill in the dots. A total of four billion dots were recorded, enabling almost the entire Catacombs to be documented. Only a few small spaces were omitted because it was not possible to get a scanner in those areas. The final product is a virtual Catacombs that users can navigate on their computer, traveling down corridors and chambers and viewing paintings on walls that have not been seen in nearly 2,000 years. "Its moving, 3D flexibility, gives you the chance to compare areas, to assess the ways the Catacombs were developed over time, to analyze how and why those who built them did what they did," says project lead Norbert Zimmerman from the Vienna Academy of Sciences. "That's never been possible before."

How to Make (Robot) Friends and Influence People
Technology Review (05/05/09)

A team from the Interactive Robots and Media Lab at the United Arab Emirates University has created a robot with its own Facebook page in an effort to enable the robot to build stronger connections with humans. The robot is able to use information gathered from its network of shared friends in conversations with humans. However, the robot will need to have an understanding of the emotional state of the friends it meets and empathize with them, a task that is not always easy even for humans. Nikolaos Mavridis and colleagues could build on the way the developers of the chatbot ELIZA had the program repeat general leading questions back to conversational partners in order to show empathy and compassion. The researchers plan to implement their program in a robot called IbnSina, although humanoids can generate a feeling of revulsion in humans.

Make Brighter, Full-Color Electronic Readers? -- Brilliant!
University of Cincinnati (04/29/09) Beckman, Wendy

An international collaboration that includes the University of Cincinnati has announced the development of Electrofluidic Display Technology (EFD), which they say is the first technology to electrically switch the appearance of pigments to provide visual brilliance equal to conventional printed media. EFD could potentially provide better than 85 percent white-state reflectance, a performance level required for consumers to accept reflective-display applications such as e-books, cell phones, and signs. Cincinnati professor Jason Heikenfeld says EFD technology is significantly more advanced than other e-reader technology in terms of brightness, color saturation, and video speed. "The ultimate reflective display would simply place the best colorants used by the printing industry directly beneath the front viewing substrate of a display," Heikenfeld says. "In our EFD pixels, we are able to hide or reveal colored pigment in a manner that is optically superior to the techniques used in electrowetting, electrophoretic, and electrochromic displays." The optically active layer can be less than 15 microns thick, which makes the technology suitable for rollable displays. Products created using EFD could include electronic windows and tunable color casings on portable electronics. "This takes the Amazon Kindle, for example, which is black and white, and could make it full color," Heikenfeld says.

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