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Welcome to the December 3, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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For Syria’s Rebel Movement, Skype Is a Useful and Increasingly Dangerous Tool
New York Times (11/30/12) Amy Chozick

Syrian rebels responded to the recent nationwide Internet shutdown by relying on satellite technology to coordinate within the country and to communicate with foreign activists. The rebels have spent months smuggling communications equipment, such as mobile handsets and portable satellite phones, into the country, and they used Skype to organize and to talk to outside news organizations and activists. Just as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt became known as Twitter Revolutions, the events in Syria are becoming the Skype Rebellion. The smuggled equipment has enabled the rebels to continue to communicate almost entirely via Skype with few interruptions, despite the Internet blackout. "How the government used its weapons against the revolution, that is how activists use Skype," says rebel Albaraa Abdul Rahman. The Internet shutdown is just the latest strategy in the escalating technology war being waged in Arab Spring countries. However, technology experts warn that the use of the Internet by Syrian rebels could leave them vulnerable to government surveillance. The Assad government has developed tools to install malware on computers that enables officials to monitor a Skype user's activity. In addition, using satellite phones with Skype makes it easier to track a user's location, notes the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Eva Galperin.

Researchers ID Ways to Exploit 'Cloud Browsers' for Large-Scale, Anonymous Computing
NCSU News (11/28/12) Matt Shipman

Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the University of Oregon have developed a way to use cloud-based Web browsers to perform anonymous large-scale computing tasks. "Think of a cloud browser as being just like the browser on your desktop computer, but working entirely in the cloud and providing only the resulting image to your screen," says NCSU professor William Enck. Since these cloud browsers are designed to perform complex functions, the researchers attempted to determine if they could be used to perform a series of large-scale computations that had nothing to do with browsing, using Google's MapReduce technique. The major challenge was finding a way to pass large packets of data between different cloud browsers. The researchers solved this problem by storing data packets on and other URL-shortening sites, and then passing the resulting links between various browsers. The technique enabled the researchers to perform functions using standard data packets up to 100 megabytes in size. "It could have been much larger, but we did not want to be an undue burden on any of the free services we were using," Enck says.

A Digital Portrait for Grapes Indicates Their Ripeness
Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (11/30/12)

University of Seville researchers have developed a method for using computer-imaging techniques to estimate grape composition. The researchers also have developed an index for identifying the ripeness of seeds without the need for chemical analysis, which can help decide the best moment for picking. The method involves inserting the fruit or seeds into a light-controlled cabin, after which computer imaging identifies the exact color in accordance with International Commission on Illumination standards along with morphological characteristics such as length, width, and sphericity. The researchers also developed software that can compare a variety of samples with a pre-established database of images. During testing, the system differentiated whether a grape is of the Tempranillo, Syrah, or the Zalema variety. "The advantage of this technique is that it offers automated and speedy quality control and inspection as well as objective monitoring of the ripening process," says Seville researcher Francisco J. Heredia. The researchers also developed a browning index for seeds, which estimates the ripening stage regardless of variety and harvest year only using the data provided by the images. The research shows that there is a direct relationship between the aspect and color of seeds and their phenolic content.

Good Samaritan Index Identifies Web Users Who Help Others Most
Technology Review (11/28/12)

University of Iowa researchers have developed a method for automatically identifying the influential members of an online health network called the Cancer Survivors Network. The researchers studied 500,000 anonymous posts, organized into 50,000 threaded discussions, which took place between 2000 and 2010. The researchers hypothesized that conversations can change the emotional state of the person who started the discussion and that this should be reflected in the emotional content of their posts. After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the sentiment in the first self reply is generally significantly more positive than the original post, and subsequent self replies become gradually more positive. This conclusion confirms the hypothesis that other users can significantly alter the emotional state of the originator. The researchers also looked only at the replies published before the self replies, concentrating on quick replies to rule out the possibility that other factors could be responsible for the change. The researchers employed this data to determine which users were the most influential in terms of supplying the biggest and most consistent emotional boosts. The researchers say they have discovered a new way to rank members of a community according to their ability to help others.

How Bio-Inspired Deep Learning Keeps Winning Competitions (11/28/12) Amara D. Angelica

A research team led by Swiss Artificial Intelligence Lab director Juergen Schmidhuber has earned numerous international awards with its machine-learning artificial neural networks (NNs) inspired by human brains, which learn to identify objects from many training examples. Schmidhuber says the researchers frequently employ supervised, artificial, feedforward, or recurrent NNs with many nonlinear processing stages, as well as graphics cards that are critical to accelerating learning 50-fold. "For sequential data, such as videos or connected handwriting, feedforward NNs do not suffice," Schmidhuber notes. "Here, we use our bidirectional or multi-dimensional Long Sort-Term Memory recurrent NNs, which learn to maximize the probabilities of label sequences, given raw training sequences." Among the products Schmidhuber's researchers developed through industry collaborations are handwriting recognition for a software firm, defect detection for a steel manufacturer, variants of NN pattern recognizers for apps operating on cell phone chips, and low-power, low-cost pattern recognition for an automotive supplier. Schmidhuber ascribes significant practical relevance to NNs, given the growing importance of pattern recognition and computer vision in commercial apps. "For example, the future of search engines lies in image and video recognition, as opposed to traditional text search," he says.

Technology Use in the Classroom Helps Autistic Children Communicate
Economic & Social Research Council (11/29/12) Sarah Nichols

Topcliffe Primary School is using technology to help students with autism communicate more effectively. The school is one of four in the United Kingdom that participated in the ECHOES research project, jointly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, which is exploring how technology can make a difference in the classroom. The researchers used the Technology Enhanced Learning program ECHOES, which enables children to engage with virtual characters and interactive technologies. As part of the ECHOES program, autistic children interact through a large multi-touch screen. "Through the screen they can manipulate objects, explore the environment, and they can also interact with the semi-autonomous agent called Andy," says Institute of Education researcher Kaska Porayska-Pomsta. Topcliffe teachers say the ECHOES program has greatly helped the children improve their social and communication skills. "We watched children with autism playing with the images on the screen in ways in which none of the typically developing children had done," says Topcliffe teacher Sarah Quickendon. The ECHOES software also can be used as a tool for researchers, teachers, parents, and practitioners to better understand a child's strengths and difficulties.

Research Discovery Could Revolutionize Semiconductor Manufacture
Lund University (11/28/12)

Lund University researchers have developed aerotaxy, a faster method of manufacturing the smallest structures in electronics, which could lead to cheaper semiconductors. Conventional semiconductors are made using a silicon wafer or other substrate, but the new method involves growing the structures from freely suspended nanoparticles of gold in a flowing gas. "The basic idea was to let nanoparticles of gold serve as a substrate from which the semiconductors grow," says Lund professor Lars Samuelson. "This means that the accepted concepts really were turned upside down." The researchers also built a prototype machine using a series of ovens that bake the nanowires, developing multiple variants such as p-n diodes. "In addition, the process is not only extremely quick, it is also continuous," Samuelson says. "Traditional manufacture of substrates is batch-based and is therefore much more time-consuming." The researchers now are working to develop a good method to capture the nanowires and make them self-assemble in an ordered manner on a specific surface. Aerotaxy entails the structures developing, atomic layer by atomic layer, via controlled self-organization.

Researchers Explore Social Media as Preventative Method for Infectious Diseases
Kansas State University News (11/27/12) Greg Tammen

Kansas State University researchers are studying how to use social media to reduce and prevent diseases from spreading. The researchers are examining how a well-timed post from a public authority or trustworthy person could be as beneficial as flu shots or hand washing. There has been a recent "revolution in communication and information technology that we think could be used to develop an even more robust preventative society against infectious diseases," says Kansas State researcher Faryad Sahneh. The researchers are collecting data by surveying college-age students about social media and what preventative measures they use against illness. The results show that a majority of the respondents get their information from a few social media sites. In addition, a majority of the respondents said they would be willing to increase preventative behaviors if asked to do so. The researchers also are focused on identifying the different groups that need to be reached with social media. One group is individuals who regularly interact with a large number of the public, such as teachers or public officials, says Kansas State researcher Caterina Scoglio. She notes the researchers also are investigating the most effective source for distributing information through social media.

IST Research Helps Businesses Optimize Benefits of Crowdsourcing
Penn State Live (11/27/12) Stephanie Koons; Jamie Lynch

Penn State University researchers are studying how crowdsourcing processes can be optimized so companies can match the right crowd to the right job. A conventional use of crowdsourcing is the completion of routine tasks such as tagging images, identifying handwriting, and improving search results. However, organizations recently have used crowdsourcing to complete non-routine, complex tasks such as generating advertising, making decisions about anticipated market trends, generating product ideas, and solving complex problems. Social media has leveled "the playing field between customers and companies, and crowdsourcing is one way companies are leveraging social media for competitive advantage," says Penn State researcher Lee Erickson. Crowdsourcing previously has focused on identifying the broad uses of the crowd by organizations, but research has been less clear about which needs require which crowds with specific skills, experiences, and knowledge. "For companies to extract value from crowdsourcing initiatives, they must match the right crowd to the specific organizational need," the researchers say. They note organizations also are leveraging both external and internal crowds, attempting to benefit from the diversity and the sheer numbers in the crowd.

DOE Researchers Advance Scientific Computing With Record-Setting Simulations
Argonne National Laboratory (11/28/12)

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) researchers have for the first time exceeded a sustained performance level of 10 petaflops on the Sequoia supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). The researchers used the recently developed Hardware/Hybrid Accelerated Cosmology Codes (HACC) framework to achieve nearly 14 petaflops. HACC enables researchers to simulate entire survey-sized volumes of the universe at a high resolution, with the ability to track billions of individual galaxies. The HACC framework is designed for extreme performance in the weak scaling limit by integrating algorithms and programming paradigms to adapt to different computer architectures. The LLNL researchers also created Cardioid, a simulation program that models a beating human heart at near-cellular resolution. The researchers achieved a performance of almost 12 petaflops on Sequoia, and demonstrated the ability to model a highly resolved whole heart beating in near real time. "The performance of these applications on Mira and Sequoia provides an early glimpse of the transformational science these machines make possible," says DOE researcher Barbara Helland. "By pushing the state-of-the-art, these two teams of scientists are advancing science and also the know-how to use these new resources to produce insight and discovery."

New Computer Approach Could Revolutionize Design, Manufacturing
Oregon State University News (11/27/12) David Stauth

Oregon State University (OSU) researchers are developing a model-based design and verification method for design and manufacturing that they say could revolutionize the way products are built. In the new method, virtually all of the design, testing, error identification, and revisions will be done on a computer up to the point of commercial production. Their theory is that a new machine should work right the first time, and perform exactly as the computer said it would. "If this works, and we believe it will, then it will revolutionize the way that machines get built," says OSU professor Irem Tumer. She says the method has the potential to radically change how almost any complex machine gets built. The technology behind the method involves translating almost every aspect of a mechanical system into data that can be altered by computer systems. The researchers already have made advances in failure propagation analysis, model repository development, and verification tools. "We've done a lot of work like this in the past with individual parts, small groups of components," Tumer says. "Now we're taking that complexity to the level of a finished and completed machine, sometimes thousands of parts working together."

Auto-Immune: 'Symbiotes' Could Be Deployed to Thwart Cyber Attacks
Scientific American (11/26/12) Charles Q. Choi

As microchips become smaller and more powerful, hackers are finding new targets with embedded computers, such as those found in electronics handling automotive systems, Internet routers, machines running power plants, and implanted medical devices. Many of these devices can link with other computers, putting them at even greater risk to attacks. Researchers are developing guardians or symbiotes, which could run on embedded computers regardless of the underlying operating systems, and help protect critical infrastructure. For example, Columbia University researchers have identified more than 1.4 million publicly accessible embedded computers in 144 countries that still have factory default passwords that would give anyone with online access complete control over the machines. The researchers developed anti-malware systems that can work on wide ranges of embedded computers regardless of what systems they run. These defenses run outside an embedded computer’s firmware image and directly on the computer's central processing unit. The symbiote continuously scans several random chunks of the firmware image's code to check for anomalies that might suggest an intrusion has occurred. The symbiote "doesn't need to know how the programs it monitors work, only whether they have been modified," says Columbia researcher Ang Cui.

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