Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the November 2, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Could Social Media Be Used to Detect Disease Outbreaks?
University of Bristol News (11/01/11) Joanne Fryer

University of Bristol researchers are studying whether social media can be used to track an event or phenomenon, such as flu outbreaks and rainfall rates. Bristol professors Nello Cristianini and Vaseleios Lampos geo-tagged user posts on Twitter as the input data to investigate flu-like illness rates and rainfall levels. The research is based on an early study involving Flu Detector, a tool that uses Twitter content to map current flu rates in several United Kingdom (UK) regions. "We were able to turn geo-tagged user posts on the microblogging service of Twitter to topic-specific geo-located signals by selecting textual features that showed the content and understanding of the text," Cristianini says. The researchers used machine-learning algorithms to automatically determine which keywords in the database of tweets were associated with increased flu levels. Over several months the researchers gathered more than 50 million geo-located tweets, comparing them to data from the UK's National Health Service on flu incidence by region.

E-Voting Remains Insecure, Despite Paper Trail
InfoWorld (10/31/11) Ted Samson

Microsoft researchers have found a potential flaw in verifiable electronic-voting machines that enables fraudsters to easily use discarded ballot receipts to alter votes. The problem with verifiable e-voting machines is that most voters are very unlikely to hold onto their receipts for future vote verification. If certain individuals obtain those receipts, they could change votes to their preferred candidate. The solution to this problem is to change the voting machines so that each voter receives a receipt including a cryptographic hash of the voting data from the previous ballot. This system would make it much riskier and more difficult to get away with voter fraud. The researchers note that their solution would not result in a fully secure and verifiable e-voting system. "A complete verifiable election system has many components, including a voter interface, a back-end tallying process, a public verification process, and a dispute resolution process," says Microsoft's Josh Benaloh.

Relief From "Parking Wars"
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (10/31/11)

Researchers at Tel Aviv and Radboud universities have developed PARKAGENT, a computer simulator that models the real-life parking challenges of specific cities, identifying different strategies for improvement and testing the impact of new policies before they are implemented. PARKAGENT accounts for parking policies, drivers, and parking inspectors to make an exact model of any given city. The software also assesses key values, such as drivers' cruising time, how long they park for, and the distance from the parking space to their destination. The data can then be reviewed to determine if a new policy would decrease the amount of time drivers spend trying to find a parking space. New policies could include a change in the amount of time permitted in the public parking space, the construction or closing of a parking lot, or the construction of a new building in the area. The software also can be used for parking planning strategies. For example, in North American and Israel, on-street parking is usually less expensive than off-street parking, so drivers try to find the more economical parking option by driving around more than necessary. The researchers say that city traffic would be more efficient if drivers had incentive to park in lots from the beginning.

W3C Changes With the Changing Web
SD Times (10/31/11) David Rubinstein

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) recent annual meeting focused on topics such as privacy, security, and identity. A new Tracking Protection Working Group is aimed at ensuring end-user privacy by working with browser vendors, regulators, and others to meet regulatory requirements, says W3C's Ian Jacobs. The W3C also recently held its third workshop on the convergence of the Web and television. New Internet developments will lead to quicker group startups, intellectual property ownership, continuation of the community, and allowing non-members with good ideas to come forward. To achieve these goals, Jacobs helped form new Community Groups and Business Groups to replace Incubator Groups, which began in 2005. "We wanted to make it open to all, without a fee or a time limit, to make it possible to get people involved with the W3C and increase the quality of the work," Jacobs says. However, patent protection has been a major hurdle for the W3C. In 2004, the W3C launched its Patent Policy for Working Groups, which was the industry's first royalty-free patent protection policy, according to Jacobs. But the system slowed the groups' startup processes. He says the W3C will need new systems in place to deal with the changing Web.

IBM's Watson Edges Harvard Students in 'Jeopardy!' Quiz
IDG News Service (10/31/11) Chris Kanaracus

IBM's Watson supercomputer recently defeated teams of students from Harvard Business School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Sloan School of Management in a Jeopardy! quiz-show battle. The supercomputer and the Harvard team got the final answer correct, but Watson placed a higher wager on the final clue to win the competition. Watson did not compete head-to-head--instead, it answered each question ahead of time, and its answers and speed of reply were loaded into a different computer that was used to play the game. However, the software used for game strategy was run in real time, notes IBM researcher David Ferrucci. Watson combines software for natural language processing and other tasks with a hardware cluster containing 2,880 Power processor cores, and IBM also prepared its vast content archive for answering Jeopardy! questions. The Harvard and MIT teams were better at using clues that involved different types of wordplay, such as providing the equivalent of "George W.'s rumps," with "Bush's tushes" being the correct answer. And the supercomputer was not always adept at parsing human language.

How Games Can Lead to a Radical Redesign of Everyday Computer Use
Polytechnic Institute of New York University (10/31/11) Kathleen Hamilton

Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) researchers are using video games and human-computer interfaces to devise new ways of engaging with computers physically and emotionally, which they say could lead to positive practical outcomes. The researchers, led by professor Katherine Isbister, focus on the experience people have physically when they interact with computers. The success of movement-based gaming such as the Wii and Kinect, along with the rapid growth in multi-touch devices such as smartphones and tablets, has led to an era of movement-based interaction, Isbister says. "You might think because it’s movement, and movement is something we do every day, that this is intuitive and easy to do," she says. "But it’s hard to design good movement and gestural-based interfaces." Isbister is researching the essential qualities of useful and pleasing movement-based interactions that integrate natural movement. One project is a game called Wriggle. The researchers created two versions of the game, one of which is controlled with a keyboard, and the other with a Wii remote. The researchers studied how to isolate the effects of movements on players, focusing on building devices and applications beyond gaming.

Crowdsourcing Nutrition in a Snap
Harvard University (11/01/11) Caroline Perry

Harvard University researchers have developed PlateMate, software that enable users to utilize crowdsourcing to determine the calorie levels of their meals. Users take a picture of each meal and submit it to the crowd, which estimates the calorie level. In testing, PlateMate's calorie estimates have proven to be just as accurate as those of trained nutritionists, and more accurate than the user's own logs. "Estimating the nutritional value of a meal is a fairly complex task, from a computational standpoint, but with a structured workflow and some cultural awareness, we've expanded what crowdsourcing can achieve," says Microsoft's Jon Noronha, who co-developed PlateMate as an undergraduate student at Harvard. PlateMate, which works in conjunction with Amazon Mechanical Turk, divides nutrition analysis into several tasks, asking groups of Turkers to distinguish between foods in the photo and estimate the calorie values. The researchers designed simple, clearly defined tasks, and algorithms that compare several answers, choosing the best one. "What makes the nutrition application so interesting as a problem in crowdsourcing is that computers are so very far away from doing it on their own—because food is such a human thing," Noronha says.

A Versatile Touch Sensor
Technology Review (11/01/11) Kate Greene

Researchers at the University of Munich and the Hasso Plattner Institute have developed a type of touch technology that could lead to touch sensitivity being built into items such as clothing, headphone wires, coffee tables, and paper. The technology is based on time domain reflectometry (TDR), which sends a short electrical pulse down a cable and waits for a reflection to come back. Based on the known speed of the pulse and the time it takes to come back, software can determine the location of the pulse. Hasso Plattner professor Patrick Baudisch developed a method to sense the short time delay over very short distances, which makes it possible to use TDR for interactive purposes. The method involves sending out electrical pulses and detecting a change in capacitance between two strips of copper, produced by a finger close to or touching the wires, which would result in part of the pulse being reflected back. An oscilloscope shows the reflected pulse, and software determines the position of the touch. The technology could provide new ways of detecting user input like touch sensing along an unmodified headphone cable, says Perceptive Pixel CEO Jeff Han.

Controlling an Avatar With Your Brain? Israeli Lab Is Trying
NoCamels (10/26/11) Alexandra Mann

Researchers at the Interdisciplinary Center's Advanced Virtuality Lab (AVL) are developing next-generation of human-computer interfaces. AVL's main goal is to build virtual worlds and the interfaces that will be used in the future, investigating human behavior and the human mind in a virtual reality setting. One of the projects, Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment, is researching a way to control a virtual or physical body using only the mind. The research team is one of the first to use a brain scanner to control a computer application interactively in real time, which could help severely disable patients communicate, according to AVL's Doron Friedman. AVL researchers also are working on the Being in Augmented Multi-modal Naturally-networked Gatherings (BEAMING) project, telepresence technology that aims to produce the feeling of a live interaction using mediated technologies such as videoconferencing, virtual and augmented reality, haptics technology, and spatialized audio and robotics. The researchers are using BEAMING to develop a body language and gesture translation system.

Carnegie Mellon Report Finds Internet Privacy Tools Are Confusing, Ineffective for Most People
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (10/31/11) Byron Spice; Chriss Swaney

Internet users that want to protect their privacy by stopping advertisers and other companies from tracking their online behavior will have a hard time doing so with the available opt-out tools, according to a recent Carnegie Mellon University report, which indicates that privacy options, including online tools for blocking access to certain Web sites, are difficult for the average user to understand or configure successfully. "We found that most people were confused by the instructions and had trouble installing or configuring the tools correctly," says Carnegie Mellon researcher Lorrie Cranor. The researchers recruited 45 people without technical training who use the Internet frequently. Each user was interviewed and assigned tools to test based on their browser and operating system preferences. The researchers found that the users could not distinguish between trackers and could not change default settings that left them vulnerable to tracking. The researchers also found that the tools presented communication problems and did not provide feedback to users. "A lot of effort is being put into creating these tools to help consumers, but it will all be wasted--and people will be left vulnerable--unless a greater emphasis is placed on usability," Cranor says.

Game Puts Artificial Intelligence in the Mind of the Beholder
MIT News (10/31/11) Andrew Whitacre

Participants in the Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology GAMBIT Game Lab have created Robotany, a game that makes certain aspects of artificial intelligence (AI) programming easier for developers. Robotany is designed to enable an algorithm to autonomously play games by extrapolating from the decisions of players and reusing lessons from one game for other games. Robotany also would enable someone with no AI training to program video-game characters. The game is set in a garden, with robot-like creatures taking care of plants. The player manipulates the robot's three sensory inputs--three overlapping AIs--that teach the AIs how to direct characters in new situations. The user has to describe what the AI should do in just a few example situations, and the algorithm deduces the rest, says the GAMBIT Game Lab's Andrew Grant. "In essence, when faced with something the user hasn't described, the algorithm finds a similar situation that the user did specify, and goes with that," Grant says.

Cyber-Attackers Already Targeting Critical Infrastructure: DHS
eWeek (10/30/11) Fahmida Y. Rashid

Hackers are already targeting critical U.S. infrastructure, and have even come close to bringing down segments of them, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Janet Napolitano. Among the systems that have been targeted are those for finance and transportation, and Napolitano warns that "we all have to be concerned about a network intrusion that shuts down part of the nation's infrastructure in such a fashion that it results in a loss of life." She says the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team responded to more than 100,000 incident reports and issued more than 5,000 actionable cybersecurity alerts and information products in fiscal year 2011. Napolitano stresses that Congress must take action to shield critical infrastructure, and one of the challenges in protecting against cyberattacks is the fact that existing international law, rules of conflict, and government policies have failed to keep pace with evolving cyberthreats. The Obama administration recently issued a proposal mapping out how DHS and the private sector should collaborate to devise cyberplans to protect vital infrastructure, which includes requirements for a federal data breach notification statute and a call for harsher punishments for computer crimes.

Computer Models of 'Brilliant' Engineering Professor Drive Animated Films and New Research
Columbia University (10/25/11)

Columbia University professor Eitan Grinspun and collaborators have pioneered the use of discrete differential geometry, a type of mathematical language for describing the behavior of physical materials and directly translating it into fast computer codes. Discrete differential geometry takes into account the bendiness of an object by measuring how much the material curves under pressure. Grinspun works with physicists and mathematicians to determine the best formulas to use as a starting point, then his research team refines and customizes the formulas to produce simpler, faster algorithms for computing the realistic movement of materials. Hollywood and graphic designers are using the research on the basic rules of motion to animate movies and create new tools. Computer programs based on the research are used for medical research and to study problems involving flexible strands, sheets, liquids, and icicles. The research also could be used for laying down transoceanic communications cables or designing nanoscale wiring for stretchable electronics.

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