Welcome to the August 29, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U. Professor Helping Scientists See Their Work in a Different Way
Deseret News (UT) (08/28/11) Geoffrey Fattah
University of Utah professor Miriah Meyer has created MizBee, a suite of software tools that helps scientists visualize data in new ways, helping them discover patterns and genetic connections. MizBee helps scientists compare the genomes of one species to that of another. The interface looks like a color wheel, with each color representing a gene and tiny threads that indicate a genetic link between species. Another tool, called MulteeSum, shows a wave of multicolored dots, with each dot representing the cell of a fruit fly embryo. "We encode meaning through images," Meyer says. "That offers a ton of power." Researchers can use MulteeSum to compare the genome of 12 different species of fruit fly. Meyer began working on the software after talking to biology researchers while doing her post-doctorate work at Harvard University and seeing the data software they were using and how basic it was. "It was shocking to me how much room for improvement there was," she says. Meyer has made the tools available as open source software.
Robot Teaches English as Second Language
Pasadena Star-News (CA) (08/26/11) Janette Williams
Pasadena City College professor Ron Chang Lee has developed interactive robots that help students learn English as a second language (ESL). Interacting with a robot is less intimidating for ESL students than with a professor, Lee says. He started the ESL software project in 1994, and the program has become increasingly sophisticated. Lee's robots now can speak with students on 25 topics in 2,000 available conversations. The program also can detect the 800 most common errors that ESL students make, knows all the irregular verbs, provides different tenses, explains grammatical terms, and gives advice on how to learn English. "His goal for the chatbot is to eventually develop a free online tutoring system that can be used worldwide--it's a wonderfully different approach," says documentary director Miranda Yousef. The system enables users with speech recognition software to input typed questions or spoken questions. Lee says the next challenge is finding a way to make the robots think before answering a question, tailoring the response to the user.
IBM Builds Biggest Data Drive Ever
Technology Review (08/25/11) Tom Simonite
IBM researchers are building a 120-petabyte data repository consisting of 200,000 conventional hard disk drives working together. The drive is 10 times bigger than today's largest storage arrays and is expected to store about 1 trillion files and provide space for more powerful simulations of complex systems. The technologies used to build the data repository could be used to develop similar systems for more conventional commercial computing, according to project leader Bruce Hillsberg. "This 120-petabyte system is on the lunatic fringe now, but in a few years it may be that all cloud computing systems are like it," Hillsberg says. The drives sit in horizontal drawers stacked inside tall racks, and the disks must be cooled with circulating water rather than standard fans. The system will store multiple copies of data on different disks, but when a lone disk dies it will pull data from other drives and write it to the replacement slowly so it can continue working. The system also will use the GPFS file system to spread individual files across multiple disks so that many parts of a file can be read or written at the same time, as well as to keep track of its many files.
Image Searches 'Poisoned' by Cybercriminals
New Scientist (08/26/11) Jeff Hecht
More than 113 million Internet users were redirected to malicious pages due to search engine poisoning in May 2011, according to Trend Micro. Hackers write code to fool search engines into giving fake results, while search engine companies try to write code to block the hackers, according to Technical University of Vienna researcher Christian Platzer. Hackers start the scam by gaining access to legitimate Web sites and installing programs that monitor Google Trends for hot keywords. The program then searches for content related to the hot topics and uses the material to automatically generate new Web content of its own. As Google's bots roam the Web, the malicious program identifies them and feeds them the content from the fake Web pages. Since everything on the malicious site has be specifically chosen to relate to a search topic, the fake Web page and "poisoned" images will usually appear near the top of the relevant search results. When the user clicks on the thumbnail of the photo they want, the browser requests the page the image came from, but the malicious program redirects the user to a fake antivirus Web site, encouraging the user to buy unnecessary antivirus software.
Increasing Fuel Efficiency With a Smartphone
MIT News (08/25/11) Larry Hardesty
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Princeton University have developed SignalGuru, a system that uses a network of smartphones mounted on a car dashboard to collect information about traffic signals and to tell drivers when slowing down could help them avoid waiting at lights. By reducing the need to idle and accelerate from a complete stop, the system can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 20 percent. SignalGuru relies on images captured by a smartphone's camera. The researchers say the system's computing infrastructure could be adapted for several applications, including information about prices at different gas stations, locations and rates of progress of city buses, or the availability of parking spaces in urban areas. The researchers, led by MIT professor Li-Shiuan Peh and visiting researcher Emmanouil Koukoumidis, launched SignalGuru as part of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology's Future Urban Mobility program. The researchers tested SignalGuru in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in suburban Singapore with error rates ranging from just two-thirds of a second for fixed-schedule lights, to about two seconds for lights that change based on the traffic flow.
Storing Vertebrates in the Cloud
UC Berkeley News Center (08/23/11) Robert Sanders
University of California, Berkeley researchers are leading an effort to store information from the vertebrate collections of hundreds of museums around the world in a computer cloud. Launched this summer, the VertNet project also involves museum curators from the universities of Colorado, Kansas, and Tulane. The U.S. National Science Foundation has provided a three-year, $2.4 million grant for the effort to merge the mammal-oriented MaNIS, bird-focused ORNIS, reptile/amphibian-centered HerpNET, and FishNet database networks. "The architecture of these networks was not able to keep up with the demand, and queries were getting dropped or encountering servers that were offline or down," says VertNet principal investigator Carla Cicero. "VertNet will create a completely new cloud-based platform that eliminates the need for any individual collection to have servers or hardware to maintain or manage." By next summer, the vertebrate collections should be moved to the cloud, where there will be more opportunity to use various online applications to manipulate and display the data beyond maps. The information will be available to academic researchers as well as citizen scientists.
UT Researchers Develop Algorithm to Improve Remote Electrocardiography
Tennessee Today (08/23/11) Whitney Holmes
An algorithm developed by a team at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT), has the potential to make an electrocardiogram (ECG) more effective. The ECG is used to screen for cardiac abnormalities, but misplaced electrodes and disturbances, such as patient motion and electromagnetic noise, can produce interferences. The algorithm is based on a matrix that simultaneously tests for irregular patterns caused by such interference, enabling it to produce a more accurate A-F letter grade to indicate specific weaknesses in the test, rather than a typical yes-no classification result. The team also designed the algorithm to make recommendations for the placement of electrodes. The algorithm has been implemented in a Java program, which can be installed and used on a smartphone. The program takes only a second to execute on a smartphone and assess a 10-second ECG. "There is a large population that does not receive good health care because they live in rural communities," says UT professor Xiaopeng Zhao. "We hope our invention brings their health care quality more in line with that of the developed world by reducing errors and improving the quality of ECGs."
Has the Advanced Encryption Standard Been Broken or Weakened?
SC Magazine (UK) (08/23/11) Dan Raywood
New research claiming the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) was broken has generated much online debate. Researcher Dan Kaminsky says there is a language gap between the press and cryptographers, and the Register noted that the term "broken" in cryptography is the result of any attack that is faster than brute force. During a cryptanalysis project, weaknesses were identified when AES was used to encrypt data under four keys that are related in a way controlled by an attacker. The researchers say the weaknesses they found made it four times easier to find an AES key than previously believed. However, the effort to recover a key is still huge. The number of steps to find the key for AES-128 is an eight followed by 37 zeroes. "To put this into perspective: On a trillion machines that each could test a billion keys per second, it would take more than 2 billion years to recover an AES-128 key," according to the researchers. "The attack has no practical implications on the security of user data." Still, AES has a distinct flaw, and researchers Andrey Bogdanov, Dmitry Khovratovich, and Christian Rechberger believed it was significant enough to publicize.
Computer Science Students Showcase Summer Research
Computerworld Canada (08/19/11) Kathleen Lau
University of Toronto computer science student Haneef Ghanim recently showcased the Crystal Ball, software that can determine if a Facebook application can guess the secret answers to the security questions used to protect online bank accounts. The Crystal Ball is meant to demonstrate how easy it is to collect important personal information from social networking sites, according to Ghanim. He says the program also could be used for advertising purposes, enabling companies to determine an individual's preferences to design targeted marketing initiatives. Meanwhile, Toronto computer science student Maria Rafaela Tsimpoukelli has developed An Incremental Interpreter for Datalog, which is designed for faster program analysis. The system saves time by only analyzing the part of the program that needs to be evaluated. And undergrad Eric Zhu has developed AutoDict, a Web application for automated dictionary discovery. "The semi-structured data contains a lot of information such as which attributes that customer is interested in," Zhu says.
IT A-Level Numbers Continue to Decline
V3.co.uk (08/18/11) Madeline Bennett
The number of United Kingdom (UK) students choosing to take technology subjects at the A-Level has continued to decline over the past year, prompting industry experts to call on schools to improve computer teaching as fast as possible. The Computing A-Level exam was taken by 4,002 UK students this year, down from 4,065 in 2010 and 4,710 in 2009. The decrease this year can mostly be attributed to fewer females taking the course. Some of the blame can be placed on a lack of emphasis on technology subjects among the younger generation, according to CompTIA's Matthew Poyiadgi. "This all starts with education, and [information technology (IT)] education in most secondary schools is not interesting enough and not focused enough," Poyiadgi says. The government and technology industry needs to address the decline in students taking IT A-levels and the increasing levels of youth unemployment, says CA's Colin Bannister. "The content delivered within schools for IT-related courses should be urgently reviewed to ensure it is teaching the skills that are valued by employers in today's modern workplace as well as being attractive and interesting to potential students," Bannister says.
Football Analysis Leads to Advance in Artificial Intelligence
Oregon State University News (08/18/11) David Stauth
Oregon State University (OSU) researchers have developed an artificial intelligence-based tool that combines computer vision, machine learning, and automated planning to create a system that could improve a variety of fields. The researchers used football to train the system to learn a complex activity. The goal was for the computer to watch video of football plays, learn from them, and then design plays and control players in a video-game setting. "This is one of the first attempts to put several systems together and let a computer see something in the visual world, study it, and then learn how to control it," says OSU professor Alan Fern. He says that this type of system could be useful in hospitals to help monitor patients, at airports, or by the military to improve supply chains for troops in the field. "Ultimately these systems should be able to see what is happening, understand it, and maybe even improve upon it," Fern says. The OSU researchers outlined a proof of concept in action recognition, transferring that recognition into procedural knowledge, and adapting those procedures to new tasks.
Q&A: Eben Upton From the Raspberry Pi Foundation
Computerworld Australia (08/18/11) Lisa Banks
In an interview, the Raspberry Pi Foundation's Eben Upton discusses the recent launch of its less than $25 computer and the progress of the group's project. The computer is designed specifically for the education sector and the foundation hopes it will provide students with a platform for self-directed learning about computer science and engineering topics. "Over time we hope that a variety of curricula will grow up around the device, and that we will be able to offer a system of prizes to incentivize students to develop their programming skills," Upton says. The education sector struggles with information technology (IT) funding due to increasing costs for hardware and software, the difficulty in maintaining fragile hardware in a school setting, and the challenge of articulating what schools actually need from IT, he notes. "Education contributes to social mobility when it gives bright, disadvantaged young people a path into careers like engineering, which in turn requires schools to teach fundamentals," Upton says. In the long term, Raspberry Pi intends to supply more education software with a common look and feel, according to Upton.
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