Welcome to the August 16, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Experts Warn of a Weak Link in the Security of Web Sites
New York Times (08/13/10) Helft, Miguel
Web sites that rely on certificate authorities to guarantee their authenticity are a growing security threat, experts say. As the number of third-party authorities has grown, it has become increasingly difficult to trust those who issue the certificates. "It is becoming one of the weaker links that we have to worry about," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EEF's) Peter Eckersley. There are more than 650 organizations that can issue certificates that will be accepted by Internet Explorer or Firefox, according to the EEF. One of the weak links is Etisalat, a wireless carrier in the United Arab Emirates that was involved in a dispute with BlackBerry's maker, Research In Motion, over encryption. Etisalat could issue fake certificates to itself for scores of Web sites, and "use those certificates to conduct virtually undetectable surveillance and attacks against those sites," Eckersley says. Other researchers also are concerned about the proliferation of certificate authorities. "It is a bad enough problem that it should be receiving a lot more attention and we should be trying to fix it," says Princeton University's Stephen Schultze.
ICT Results (09/16/10)
The European Union-funded Laboranova project has developed tools designed to boost innovation and collaboration among researchers and scientists. The Laboranova project developed eight core tools that were tested by some of Europe's largest corporations. One tool, InnoTube, is similar to YouTube, but with enhanced collaboration capabilities and additional functionality. "InnoTube is a collaboration tool that implements the most important elements of Web 2.0, notably tagging, rating, and recommendations, and it takes advantage of three drivers in Web 2.0 design," says Laboranova researcher Marco Luccini. InnoTube also offers a type of mind map that shows the links between different users who like the same content. InnoTube also uses agent technology to enhance functionality by alerting users to what is new. InnoTube enabled design teams from Alfa Romeo and Fiat to reduce the amount of time it took to develop a new car design from six months to one. "InnoTube offered them a unified way to exchange ideas, get to know each other, cooperate, and move the project forward, in this case, designing a car," Luccini says.
Future on Display: Desk Lamp Turns Table Top Into 3D
New Scientist (08/13/10) De Lange, Catherine
National Taiwan University (NTU) researchers have developed a lamp that can convert a multitouch tabletop display into a three-dimensional (3D) projection. Users viewing an image projected onto a tabletop display can zoom in on specific areas by positioning the lamp device on them. "We combine an infrared projector and a standard color projector to simultaneously project visible content and invisible markers on the table surface," says NTU's Li-Wei Chan. The lamp is equipped with infrared cameras and can use the hidden markers to compute its position in three dimensions. The lamp analyzes the information to control the projection of high-resolution images onto the correct place on the tabletop display. The NTU team also has created a tablet computer that enables viewers to see a two-dimensional scene in 3D. Users hold the computer over a specific area on the map, and a 3D view of that area will appear on the screen.
Open Software Platform Helps to Save Energy
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (08/10) Krengel, Uwe
Researchers at the Fraunhofer-Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology have developed an intelligent energy management platform designed to make it easier for German energy consumers to efficiently and cost effectively manage their power use. The Open Gateway Energy Management Alliance Framework is a Java-based, open source platform for energy management that connects both energy consumers and producers to the control centers of grid operators and power suppliers. "When grid utilization levels are low, electricity can be offered at lower rates," says Fraunhofer researcher Philipp Straub. The researchers also developed Bidirectional Energy Management Interface, software that relieves consumers of the task of checking electricity prices every day and automatically controls the energy use of appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, heat pumps, and air conditioners. "Our hope is that, within a short space of time, numerous applications will arise to meet the needs of private households and small businesses," says Fraunhofer researcher David Nestle.
Building a Cloud Out of Smart Phones
Technology Review (08/12/10) Mims, Christopher
An international group of researchers has developed Misco, a version of Google's MapReduce algorithm powered by cell phones in a self-contained cloud computing environment. In a test, about 20 smartphones were employed to create a server farm for Misco, which enabled the distributed processing of large amounts of data to take place closer to the data itself. With Misco, the data does not have to be transmitted first over a relatively slow wireless network. In some instances, the system can process the data even faster than if it is first uploaded, in total, to a remote server, which would be much faster than the processor on any one phone. MapReduce is difficult to implement on cell phones partly because in a regular server farm the failure rate is relatively low, and the latency of a signal transmitted between servers also is low. As a result, the speed of the Misco processing network would degrade exponentially as the failure rate of any one node in the system increases.
Citizen Scientists Discover Rotating Pulsar
National Science Foundation (08/12/10) Zgorski, Lisa-Joy
In the first genuine astronomical discovery by public volunteers participating in the [email protected] project, Chris and Helen Colvin, of Ames, Iowa, and Daniel Gebhardt, of Universitat Mainz, Musikinformatik, Germany, have discovered a new radio pulsar hidden in data collected by the Arecibo Observatory. The new pulsar is a neutron star that rotates 41 times per second. It is approximately 17,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula. "I hope it inspires more people to join us to help find other secrets hidden in the data," says [email protected] project leader Bruce Allen. About 500,000 computers worldwide are harnessed by [email protected] to analyze data. "This is an exciting development that highlights the importance of citizen science, as well as the partnerships and discoveries that arise when scientific data are shared," says the U.S. National Science Foundation's Ed Seidel.
Riders on a Swarm
Free University of Brussels (FUB) researchers are developing artificial intelligence systems based on ant behavior. In 1992, FUB researcher Marco Dorigo and his team developed Ant Colony Optimization (ACO), an algorithm that analyzes problems by simulating a group of ants wandering over an area and laying down pheromones. ACO has since grown into a wide family of algorithms that have been applied to various applications. For example, European distributors use a program called AntRoute, which takes about 15 minutes to produce a delivery plan for 1,200 trucks. The researchers also have developed AntNet, a routing protocol in which packets of information jump from node to node, leaving a trace that signals the "quality" of their trip as they go. The particle swarm optimization (PSO) algorithm is used for continuous problems that have a potentially infinite number of solutions. There are now about 650 tested PSO applications, including those for image and video analysis, antenna design, and medical diagnostic systems. Dorigo is currently working on the Swarmanoid project, which aims to develop a swarm of cheap, small robots that cooperate using swarm intelligence.
Smudges on Touchscreen Phones Could Reveal User Passwords
University of Pennsylvania researchers have found that smartphone passwords can be deciphered by analyzing the smudges left on their touchscreens. The researchers found that by using a photograph of the screen and computer enhancements, it is possible to uncover the passwords on Android phones based on the smudge pattern. The researchers say the password structure used by Android phones results in distinctive patterns that enabled them to determine which buttons were pressed. In one experiment, the smudge pattern was partially identifiable in 92 percent and fully identifiable in 68 percent of the tested lighting and camera set ups. The researchers believe smudge pattern identification is a legitimate threat because smudges are surprisingly persistent in time, it is difficult to incidentally obscure or delete smudges through wiping or pocketing the device, and collecting and analyzing oily residue smudges can be done with readily-available equipment.
Multicore Processing: Breaking Through the Programming Wall
Scientific Computing (08/12/10) Conway, Steve
Significant challenges remain for applications to take advantage of the first petascale supercomputers, which feature distributed memory architectures and multicore systems with more than 100,000 processor cores each. Although a few high-performance computing (HPC) applications run on parallel computing systems, the vast majority of HPC applications were originally written to be run on a single processor with direct access to main memory. Other issues with multicore HPC systems include the fact that to save energy and control heat, many do not operate at their top speed. In addition, computing clusters based on standard x86 processors dominate HPC systems. However, as standard x86 processors have increased the number of cores they use, they have increased their peak performance without corresponding increases in bandwidth. The relatively poor bytes/flops ratio of x86 processors also has limited cluster efficiency and productivity by making it increasingly difficult to move data into and out of each core fast enough to keep the cores busy. Meanwhile, massive parallelism from growing core counts and system sizes has outgrown programming paradigms, creating a parallel performance wall that will reshape the nature of HPC code design and system usage.
New Backpack Makes 3D Maps of Buildings
Daily Californian (08/12/10) Burris, Matt
University of California, Berkeley (UCB) researchers have developed a backpack that enables the user to create a three-dimensional (3D) map of any building just by walking through it. The researchers, led by UCB professor Avideh Zakhor, equipped the backpack with six laser scanners and four cameras. The laser scanners map the building's interior, while the cameras take photographs of the environment. The photos are mapped onto the 3D model created from the scans to make it photorealistic, Zakhor says. Before studying indoor mapping technologies, the UCB team worked on modeling buildings' exteriors using similar devices. The researchers say the backpack has many potential applications, including video-game design, military training, and architectural design. The backpack's technology also could be used to preserve famous and historic buildings, says UCB's John Kua.
Machine, Heal Thyself
Florida Today (FL) (08/11/10) Peterson, Patrick
Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) researchers are developing ways for computers to sense damage to their systems and automatically make repairs. "We're exploring ways that we might make computers more aware of pain," says FIT professor Richard Ford. The researchers examined how humans deal with symptom perception and illness and tried to relate that information to computer systems. Ford is researching how the human immune system can be used as a model for the detection and prevention of malicious code, says Harris Corp. senior scientist Ronda Henning. "We're trying to teach computers to make educated guesses based on the stimuli from their surroundings, and compensate for them accordingly," Henning says. The researchers' focus has shifted from computer strength to resilience, which is the ability to repair damage from an attack and thwart the attack mechanism. "As computers become smaller, they will certainly have the capability to become resilient and autonomous, if only because there can be multiple units embedded in one device," Henning says.
Turning the World Into a Sensor Network
Network World (08/11/10) Cox, John
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have formed the Pennsylvania Smart Infrastructure Incubator (PSII) to develop large sensor networks that can deliver usable information. CMU currently is involved in several sensor research projects. For example, CMU's Sensor Andrew project is gradually adding a wireless sensor infrastructure into every campus building. Sensor Andrew uses a CMU-developed technology called FireFly, a low-cost wireless mesh node, and a real-time operating system, called Nano-RK, designed for sensor networks. Nano-RK can enforce energy budgets at both the task level and the system level, which minimizes power. "A lot of the research work will be less on the sensors themselves and more on the fact that many kinds of sensor systems are being deployed," says PSII executive director Matt Sanfilippo. PSII also will focus on combining data from point sensors, such as temperature or pressure, with streaming data from video or infrared cameras, which can be treated just like conventional sensors.
Better Displays Ahead
American Institute of Physics (08/10/10) Bardi, Jason
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) Nanoelectronics Laboratory are developing low-power displays based on the concept of vertically stacking electrowetting devices. "The electric field controls the 'wetting' properties on a fluoropolymer surface, which results in rapid manipulation of liquid on a micrometer scale," says UC professor Andrew J. Steckl. "Electrowetting displays can operate in both reflective and transmissive modes, broadening their range of display applications." Electrowetting operation can take place at fairly low driving voltages due to improvements in the hydrophobic insulator material and the working liquids. Steckl and research associate Han You have demonstrated that the vertical stack electrowetting structure can produce multicolor e-paper devices, has the potential to offer higher resolution than the conventional side-by-side pixel approach, and has switching speeds that enable video content displays.
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