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Welcome to the August 17, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Climate Science Triggers Torrent of Big Data Challenges
HPC Wire (08/15/12) Dawn Levy

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) supercomputers running models to assess climate change ramifications and mitigation tactics are rapidly generating a wide variety of big data in vast volumes. ORNL's Galen Shipman says climate researchers have significantly boosted the temporal and spatial resolution of climate models as well as their physical and biogeochemical complexity, contributing to the amount of data produced by the models. Shipman notes it often takes weeks or months to analyze the climate models' data sets with traditional analysis tools, and the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) is striving to address this challenge through multiple projects that have yielded parallel analysis and visualization tools. Shipman also says substantial efforts have been made to deliver the infrastructure to support the geographically distributed data, especially between DOE supercomputing centers, while DOE BER continues to invest in the software technologies needed to maintain a distributed data archive with multiple petabytes of climate data stored worldwide through the Earth System Grid Federation project. Shipman says data movement is the biggest challenge for most current visualization workloads, and he cites in situ analysis where visualization and analysis are embedded within the simulation as a promising approach.

Playboy Centerfold Photo Shrunk to Width of Human Hair
BBC News (08/14/12)

The Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) has printed a color photo measuring just 50 micrometers across. The photo is a crop of the portrait of Lena Soderberg, a Swedish supermodel, who originally appeared in a 1972 issue of Playboy, and is commonly used for testing printing techniques. The A*STAR researchers developed a device that can produce color images of up to 100,000 dots per inch, a method that could be used to print tiny watermarks or secret messages for security purposes. "Our color-mapping strategy produces images with both sharp color changes and fine tonal variations, is amenable to large-volume color printing … and could be useful in making micro-images for security," the researchers say. To develop the image, the researchers used tiny silver and gold particles which, when arranged in a certain manner, produce color. "Instead of taking normal dyes and using conventional printing, they're making colors out of one material by adjusting nanostructure in a lithographic [a technique to create patterns] experiment," says Northwestern University professor Chad Mirkin.

Coders Get Instant Gratification With Khan Academy Programming
Wired News (08/14/12) Klint Finley

The Khan Academy, which has provided free video lectures on subjects such as mathematics, biology, and history since 2006, recently launched a computer science section. Instead of a video, each computer science lesson contains a pane on the left side for students to enter code and a pane on the right that displays the output. The first lesson involves writing code that will draw a face in the right hand pane. After learning to create graphics, students learn animation and eventually game development. The results of coding changes are immediately displayed in the right pane, offering instant feedback. The lessons also include tips for solving common beginner problems. The tutorials use Processing.js, which is based on the visual arts-centric programming language Processing, but can run inside a Web browser without the need for any plugins. The nonprofit academy, which has received financial backing from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, was founded by Salman Khan, who has a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Computing in the Net of Possibilities
Max Planck Gessellschaft (08/14/12)

A new information processing principle has been developed by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization. A complex network computer has the capability of arbitrary calculation execution under completely different conditions than a conventional computer by virtue of it not being based on a binary system of zeros and ones, and it could be built from any oscillating system, in principle. In systems comprised of coupled oscillating elements, the saddle points, or states of the whole system that are stable in some respects and unstable in others, form a network. In response to an outside disruption that unbalances a specific saddle point, the entire system shifts to another one. The nature of the disruption determines which path the system takes in the net of possible states. The researchers demonstrated that a complete logic system can be supported on this platform, but unlike a classical computer that uses a single element to perform a specific logical operation, the operation in their system transpires in the whole network concurrently. Even relatively small systems can carry out an incredible large number of operations with a complex computer network.

The Algorithm That Runs the World
New Scientist (08/13/12) Richard Elwes

Whenever anyone is trying to solve a large-scale optimization problem, they are likely using the simplex algorithm. "Probably tens or hundreds of thousands of calls of the simplex method are made every minute," says University of Edinburgh researcher Jacek Gondzio. However, the algorithm tends to break down when trying to solve problems with many dimensions. In 1972, mathematicians Victor Klee and George Minty found that in just 41 dimensions, the simplex algorithm must traverse more than 1 trillion edges to find the optimal corner. Although the algorithm worked in all known practical applications, researchers were still inspired to find an alternative method. In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers developed the interior point methods, which are complex algorithms that go directly through a polytope's core instead of working its way around the edges. However, the problem with such methods is that each step requires much more computation than a simplex pivot. Thus, the simplex algorithm is still in use today, and finding a new strongly polynomial algorithm may not even be possible. Currently, there is no conclusive sign that the polynomial conjecture can be proved.
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Coursera Hits 1 Million Students, With Udacity Close Behind
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/10/12) Jeffrey R. Young

Coursera has signed up 1 million students for free online courses and rival Udacity has registered more than 739,000 students. However, Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng says the number of active students is significantly lower since many classes have yet to start and many students register but fail to keep up with the coursework. Students participating in these massive open online courses typically watch short video lectures, complete automatically graded tests or assignments, and participate in online communities to work through concepts, but do not receive official university credit in most cases. Coursera works with some of the world's best-known universities, such as Princeton University and the University of Virginia, while Udacity works with individual professors rather than institutions. The companies initially focused on courses for computer science and related fields, but Coursera is expanding into other disciplines. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun says his company will continue to focus on computer science and related fields. “We are not doing humanities,” he says. Coursera has users in 196 countries with the United States accounting for 38 percent of students, while Udacity has users in 203 countries with the United States accounting for 42 percent.
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EyeRing Helps Visually Impaired Point, Press, and Hear Information (08/12/12)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed EyeRing, a wearable intuitive interface that allows the visually impaired to point at an object to see or hear more information about it. The new technology is made up of a ring, a smartphone, and an earpiece. The user points the ring at an object, and clicks a button to capture an image and send it to the smartphone for processing. Then an application on the phone will speak the word or describe the item to the user. The user needs to pair the finger-worn device with the mobile phone application only once, and then a Bluetooth connection will be automatically established when both are running, according to the researchers. The smartphone application analyzes the image using the researchers' computer vision engine. The type of analysis depends on the pre-set mode, such as color, distance, or currency. "Upon analyzing the image data, the Android application uses a Text to Speech module to read out the information though a headset," according to the MIT researchers.

New Design Tool Nixes Mouse; Users Create Shapes With Hands Only
Purdue University News (08/14/12) Emil Venere

Purdue University researchers have developed Handy-Potter, a design tool that enables users to create three-dimensional objects with their hands by using a depth-sensing camera and algorithms to interpret hand movements and gestures. "It allows people to express their ideas rapidly and quickly using hand motions alone," says Purdue professor Karthik Ramani. "We're democratizing the design process. You don't have to be an engineer or an accomplished potter to use this." Ramani says Handy-Potter represents a potentially significant advance in how people interact with computers, and it could have applications in areas including games, architecture, art, and engineering design. "You create the shape while you are completely focused on the idea rather than bothering yourself about the right usage of the tool," he says. Handy-Potter includes a Microsoft Kinect camera and algorithms that recognize the hand, understand that it is interacting with the shape, and modify the shape in response to the hand interaction. "The algorithms are very intelligent," Ramani says. "They represent state-of-the-art synthesis of machine learning, geometric modeling, and human-computer interaction."

Rootbeer Brings GPGPU Integration to Java (08/13/12) Gareth Halfacree

Syracuse University researchers recently released the source code for the Rootbeer compiler, a tool designed to make it easier to write code for execution on a graphics processor. The researchers say Rootbeer enables programmers to access the power of a graphics processing unit directly within Java. "Rootbeer [...] allows developers to simply write code in Java and the (de)serialization, kernel code generation, and kernel launch is done automatically," say Syracuse researcher Phil Pratt-Szeliga. "This is in contrast to Java language bindings for CUDA or OpenCL, where the developer still has to do these things manually." The Rootbeer compiler supports all of the standard Java features, except for dynamic method invocation, reflection, and native methods. During testing, the researchers developed three performance example applications with the best demonstrating a 100-fold performance boost compared to central-processing unit-based execution.

Shelley, Stanford's Robotic Racecar, Hits the Track
Stanford Report (CA) (08/13/12) Bjorn Carey

Stanford University and Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab researchers recently tested a self-driving Audi TTS named Shelley. The autonomous racecar was able to reach speeds of up to 120 miles per hour. Shelley utilizes specialized software that tells the car when to brake, how tight to take turns, and when to accelerate. The research could lead to fully autonomous cars that safely drive passengers from one point to another on public roads. In this most recent test, the researchers studied how to get the car stabilized when it is in a crisis. "If we can figure out how to get Shelley out of trouble on a race track, we can get out of trouble on ice," says Stanford professor Chris Gerdes. However, despite the advanced algorithms and technology, the very best human drivers are still faster than Shelley, if only by a few seconds. A person relies more on feel and intuition, and thus may, for example, allow the car to swing too wide in one turn if he knows it sets him up better for the next, according to Gerdes.

Be Whoever You Want to Be!
Bochum University (08/10/2012) Jens Wylkop

Bochum University researchers have broken about 80 percent of Single Sign-On (SSO) systems, proving that the technology developed to simplify IT systems for users can be improved. Many industry SSO systems are built on the basis of the Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML). Identity information is stored in a SAML message, and shielded by a digital signature. Bochum researchers were able to get around this protection in 12 out of 14 SAML systems. "With novel XML Signature Wrapping techniques we were able to circumvent these digital signatures completely," says Bochum professor Jorg Schwenk. "Thus we could impersonate any user, even system administrators." Impacted systems included SaaS Cloud provider Salesforce, the IBM Datapower security gateway, Onelogin, and OpenSAML. "After we found the attacks, we immediately informed the affected companies, and proposed ways to mitigate the attacks," says Bochum researcher Andreas Mayer.

WiGiT's iDAWG Communications Elements Progressing to Field Test
Syracuse University (08/08/12) Diane Stirling

Syracuse University researchers are developing technology that can improve the interoperability of public emergency response communication devices. Additionally, Virginia Tech and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) researchers are developing hardware and software that aims to maintain communication between emergency responder devices. The new technologies, called Intelligent Deployable Augmented Wireless Gateway (iDAWG), work with edgeware, a new type of software application that was developed in the Wireless Grid Innovation Testbed (WiGiT). IDAWG is intended to integrate with the Federal Emergency Management Association's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System via WiGiT-developed cognitive radio interfaces and the capabilities of the Gridstream X software. The three schools' current research also involves the development of a next-generation secure resilient serverless transmission network, which integrates cognitive radio for crisis response using wireless grids. Additionally, RIT researchers are conducting information gathering, called the Advanced Situational Awareness System (ASAS), which includes aerial recording and transmission of visual incident information, according to Syracuse professor Lee McKnight.

Carnegie Mellon and Disney Develop New Model for Animated Faces and Bodies
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (08/06/12) Byron Spice

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Disney, and the LUMS School of Science and Engineering have developed a way of modeling dynamic objects, such as expressions on faces, gesticulations on bodies, and the draping of clothes. The researchers developed a model that simultaneously takes into account both space and time, which they say enabled them to create a more compact, powerful, and easy-to-manage model. The findings were presented at the recent SIGGRAPH 2012 conference. Carnegie Mellon professor Yaser Sheikh says the natural constraints on spatial movements, such as the characteristic ways the face changes shape as someone is talking or expressing an emotion, are combined with the natural constraints on how much movement can occur over a given stretch of time, which enables the models to be very compact and efficient. The bilinear spatiotemporal basis models are possible because modern computers can process data sets that include millions of variables. "The ability to interact with large dynamic sequences in data consistent ways and in real time has lots of interesting applications," says Disney researcher Iain Matthews.

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