Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the January 14, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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IBM Computer Gets a Buzz on for Charity Jeopardy!
Associated Press (01/13/11) Jim Fitzgerald

IBM's Watson computer beat former Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a 15-question practice round in which the hardware and software system answered about half of the questions and got none of them wrong. Watson, which will compete in a charity event on Jeopardy! against Jennings and Rutter on Feb. 14-16, recently received a buzzer, the finishing touch to a system that represents a huge step in computing power. "Jeopardy! felt that in order for the game to be as fair as possible, just as a human has to physically hit a buzzer, the system also would have to do that," says IBM's Jennifer McTighe. Watson consists of 10 racks of IBM servers running the Linux operating system and has 15 terabytes of random-access memory. The system has access to the equivalent of 200 million pages of content, and can mimic the human ability to understand the nuances of human language, such as puns and riddles, and answer questions in natural language. The practice round was the first public demonstration of the computer system. IBM says Watson's technology could lead to systems that can quickly diagnose medical conditions and research legal cases, among other applications.

International Cybersecurity Treaty Might Not Be Achievable, Report Says (01/11/11) Aliya Sternstein

An international pact to establish cybersecurity regulations may be unworkable, according to an EastWest Institute report. "Many states are not ready for [a global treaty]--and perhaps never will be," the report says. EastWest leaders suggest that voluntary private-sector agreements and international standards are a more practical solution than cybersecurity legislation, and they cite the potential impracticality of a cyberwar agreement outlining which networks and data should be off-limits in times of conflict. The report argues that technology behemoths and smaller startups can ill afford to comply with excessively rigid international rules, and instead EastWest is recommending standards that governments and businesses can employ to evaluate the integrity of products and services. EastWest officials say standards and voluntary agreements across countries offer easier deployment because they allow the private sector, which controls much of the technology, to take charge. Stanford University's Evgeny Morozov says a global cybersecurity treaty is achievable, pointing to the Convention on Cybercrime of the Council of Europe as an example. He notes that existing rules, such as the Geneva Convention, can be modified to encompass digital conflicts.

Will You Tweet This?
Technology Review (01/14/11) Erica Naone

Stanford University researchers are studying ways to predict which pieces of information will remain in the public consciousness for an extended period of time, analyzing factors such as the story's content, the popularity of the site where the story first appeared, and the nature of the market the story is written for. Being able to predict how widely a piece of information will travel could help Web sites position content and advertising better, says Stanford professor Jure Leskovec. The researchers measured the popularity of 170 million news articles and 580 million Twitter posts by recording how many times each piece of information was mentioned in other blog posts, new stories, and tweets. "By looking at when particular types of media get involved, you can see different patterns arise," Leskovec says. Measuring the early response to a piece of information can help the researchers predict, with 75 percent accuracy, how popular that item will be over a longer period of time. The research could be used to help news Web sites manage their content and decide how long to keep a particular item on its front page, Leskovec says. The research is "a very promising approach for sorting out the different ways in which news draws attention over time," says Cornell University professor Jon Kleinberg.

How Social Networks and Mobile Tech Helped in Haiti (01/12/11) Mathew Ingram

Social media and other mobile tools have been very useful for transmitting crucial information in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti a year ago, but the information was not used as well as it could have been, according to the Knight Foundation. The organization recently released a comprehensive report on the use of technology following the earthquake. The report describes Haiti as a living laboratory for short messaging service (SMS), interactive online maps, radio-cell phone hybrids, and other wireless applications. Although the technology allowed for a democratic approach to information management, new media activists also note that there were limitations in crisis settings when working with military and international humanitarian organizations that have more closed systems. "Information may be gathered and assembled in an open, democratic fashion," the report says. "But often the practical response effort is driven by large organizations that deal with information in a radically different way." Ushahidi, which can aggregate and process information from a variety of sources such as SMS, Twitter, and radio, and then plot it on a map, was a powerful tool during the relief effort, as was crowdsourcing. The report says a lack of coordination--and in many cases a lack of understanding of how to use the tools--prevents the Haiti relief effort from being seen as a new media success story.

New Responsive Click Track Software Lets Drummers Set Their Own Pace
Queen Mary, University of London (01/12/11)

Queen Mary, University of London's Andrew Robertson has developed software that enables musicians to change the tempo of pre-programmed music. Robertson says Beat-Keeper (B-Keeper) lets drummers add more "feel" to live performances because they are not forced to keep time with a click track. The program enables drummers to adjust their speed by about five percent while the music remains in line with the beat. The system works by connecting the kick and snare drums to a computer with a microphone. The software automatically adjusts the tempo of any pre-programmed music. B-Keeper also uses a pitch-tracking algorithm, which helps to change the tempo without changing the pitch of a piece of music. "The software follows the beat of the kick and snare drum and uses that information to make sure everything stays synchronized by changing the replay speed of the pre-programmed parts," Robertson says. He notes B-Keeper also could lead to studio recordings that have more "soul" than is possible using a standard click track.

Researcher Breaks Wi-Fi Passwords Using Cloud Computing Power
eSecurity Planet (01/12/11) Stuart J. Johnston

Software that runs on open source cloud computing systems and can break passwords on secure, low-cost wireless networks has been developed by German security researcher Thomas Roth. The code demonstrates how common and inexpensive high-performance computing (HPC) technology has become for everyday citizens. Roth used Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud service to access a graphics processing unit cluster and break through a secure hash algorithm and solve 400,000 passwords per second. It took 20 minutes to break into the network, at a cost of 28 cents per minute, according to Roth. After improving the code, Roth estimates he could complete the same work in about six minutes. Additionally, as computing speeds increase, and the cost of accessing HPC technology decreases, the barriers to hackers will continue to break down. "The speed of computers is increasing incredibly fast, and so brute forcing will get faster and faster, and the new cloud offerings make parallelization of such use tasks easy and affordable," Roth warns.

Quantum Quirk Contained
University of Calgary (01/13/11) Leanne Yohemas

A crystal can store information encoded into quantum mechanics, according to a team of researchers from the universities of Calgary and Paderborn. The researchers say the breakthrough marks a key milestone in the effort to build quantum networks. In quantum communication, information is encoded in entangled states of photons, and the challenge is to prevent the fragile quantum link from breaking when the photons fly far apart. The researchers used a crystal doped with rare-earth ions and cooled it to -270 Celsius, which allowed them to store and retrieve the photons without measurable degradation. The researchers note that this memory device uses almost entirely standard fabrication technologies. "The resulting robustness and the possibility to integrate the memory with current technology, such as fiber-optic cables, is important when moving the currently fundamental research towards applications," says Calgary's Wolfgang Tittel. "The results show that entanglement, a quantum physical property that has puzzled philosophers and physicists for hundreds of years, is not as fragile as is generally believed."

Amassing a Small Army Against a Growing Enemy
BU Today (01/11/11) Cara Feinberg

Boston University (BU) researchers have developed software aimed at identifying unwanted Internet traffic, which would enable network providers to stop botnets from ever reaching personal computers. The software captures and analyzes unusual patterns, such as statistical anomalies in the amount or type of data being transferred, in traffic information at regular intervals as the data flows through the Internet. "If you see a large variety of Internet protocol, or IP, addresses--numbers that identify individual computers--coming from one source in a short period of time, that kind of activity is statistically anomalous," and potentially malicious attacks, says BU professor Mark Crovella. The software uses a technique called principal component analysis, which also is being used by GEANT, Europe's primary multigigabit computer network, for research and academic purposes. All of the data must be manually validated before submitting it, which is a time-consuming process.

Project Euclid's MathJax Displays 'Beautiful Math' Online
Cornell Chronicle (01/11/11) Gwen Glazer

Project Euclid, an online information community for mathematicians, has implemented MathJax, new technology that presents math attractively and reliably on the Web. MathJax is an open source JavaScript-based display engine that enables users to show complex mathematics problems on Web pages. The technology renders standard mathematical codes readable in Web browsers. "MathJax makes it easy to display 'beautiful math' online," says David Ruddy, who leads Project Euclid at Cornell University Library. "Now, with MathJax, the display problem has been vastly simplified, and Project Euclid users will be able to see math the way authors intended." MathJax enables TeX and MathML software-coded mathematics to be viewed on any Web browser without new plug-ins or font installations. Project Euclid is using MathJax for a set of 20 journal titles, but eventually plans to use the technology throughout its statistics resources from independent publishers.

Coiled Nanowires May Hold Key to Stretchable Electronics
NCSU News (01/11/11) Matt Shipman

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have created coils of silicon nanowire on a substrate that can be stretched to more than twice their size, a development that could lead to stretchable electronic devices. "Our idea was to create electronic materials that can be tailored into coils to improve their stretchability without harming the electric functionality of the materials," says NCSU professor Yong Zhu. The researchers placed silicon nanowires on a rubber substrate after they had applied pressure to the substrate and used specific amounts of ultraviolet radiation and ozone to change its mechanical properties, and found that the nanowires formed coils upon releasing the pressure. Although coil shapes are energetically favorable for just one-dimensional structures, the researchers say their mechanical properties allow them to be stretched to 104 percent beyond their original length, despite not consistently holding electric performance. "We are working to improve the reliability of the electrical performance when the coils are stretched to the limit of their mechanical stretchability, which is likely well beyond 100 percent, according to our analysis," Zhu says.

10 New Open Source Projects to Watch
PC World (01/10/11) Katherine Noyes

Black Duck Software recently announced its 2010 open source Rookies of the Year list. According to Black Duck's list, the top open source project is Diaspora, a social network that began its testing phase in November, followed by OpenStack, an open standards cloud computing platform that is used by RackSpace and NASA. Cloud99IDE, an integrated development environment, OpenStack Nova, a cloud computing fabric controller, and NuGet, a package management system, were third, fourth, and fifth on Black Duck's list, respectively. Activiti BPM Platform, a business process management and workflow system, ranks sixth, and SparkleShare, a file sharing and collaboration tool, ranks seventh. VoltDB, a scalable online transaction processing SQL database, RapidFTR, a mobile application that allows emergency workers to share information about children in dangerous situations, and ownCloud, a personal cloud system, ranked eighth, ninth, and tenth, respectively. "Each project in the top 10 represents the expanding use of open source by developers and the larger community, especially in the mobile and cloud communities," says Black Duck's Peter Vescuso.

UT Professor Leads World Effort in Developing Next Generation of Supercomputers
Tennessee Today (01/07/11)

University of Tennessee, Knoxville professor Jack Dongarra says that supercomputers need to be taken to the exascale level to solve problems in the economy, engineering, and manufacturing. The speed of the fastest supercomputers currently in use is measured in petaflops, but exascale is three orders of magnitude higher than a petaflop. "It's not the technology that's drawing us to exascale. The technology can take us there and that's the good news, but it's really the science that's the driver, in some sense," Dongarra says. "These science applications have stepped up and said, 'In order for us to do the kinds of problems that we can't do today--in order for us to do them in the future--we need exascale computing.' " Dongarra is leading an international effort to achieve exascale computing technology, and many of the researchers contributing to the exascale movement have abandoned their own personal projects to reach the new standard. "We have to have the techniques and software to effectively use these machines on the challenging science problems of the day," he says. Exascale computing will be crucial for science, national security, and the economy, according to Dongarra. The researchers are confident they can achieve exascale-level technologies by 2020.

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