Computing Applications News track

News Track

  1. Dizzying Math Revealed
  2. Roots of Attacks
  3. International Games
  4. Crowded Skies
  5. Human Touch
  6. Blogging Ethics
  7. Author

A team of 18 mathematicians and computer scientists have mapped one of the most complex objects in mathematics—E8—shown here in an eight-dimensional form projected onto two dimensions. The monstrous computer-based calculation has rekindled researchers’ hopes of solving a longstanding problem among mathematicians, reports Scientific American. The team’s calculation, which took four years to prepare and three days of number-crunching on a supercomputer to finish, has produced one of the densest mathematical results in history: a table of numbers that fills 60GB of disk space. If printed out on paper, the researchers note, the results would cover the entire island of Manhattan. The calculation revolves around symmetry, one of the most fundamental properties in mathematics and physics. Underlying any symmetrical shape is a mathematical object called a Lie group, named after the Norwegian mathematician who found that the eponymous groups all belong to one of four families or one of five exceptional groups. E8 is the most complex of the exceptionals. The team of researchers employed supercomputers to help crunch the numbers that for decades were done by hand while offering little insight. The result is an important stepping stone toward revealing the ways in which different equations and geometric shapes can be studied.

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Roots of Attacks

The U.S. generates more malicious computer activity than any other country, and sophisticated hackers worldwide are banding together in highly efficient crime rings, according to a report from researchers at Cupertino-based Symantec Corp. The report also notes that fierce competition in the criminal underworld is driving down prices for stolen financial information. The Associated Press reports that researchers found about one-third of all computer attacks worldwide in the second half of 2006 originated from U.S.-based machines, easily surpassing runners-up China (generating 10% of attacks) and Germany (7%). The U.S. is also home to more than half the world’s "underground economy servers"—typically corporate computers that have been commandeered to facilitate clandestine transactions involving stolen data. The most startling findings: The worldwide number of bot-infected computers rose—an increase of about 29% from the previous six months—to more than six million computers total while the number of servers controlling them plunged. At the same time, the number of such "command-and-control" servers declined by about 25% to around 4,700.

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International Games

China has ordered Internet game operators to install "anti-addiction" software on their games to help young Chinese players stay offline. The Peoples Daily reports the Chinese government is demanding online operators set up a "game fatigue system" that would encourage players under the age of 18 to play less than three hours per day. Online gamers will also be required to register using real names and ID card numbers as proof of age. Experts say the move reflects China’s fears over the social impact of popular online games. Online operators will have until July 16 to install fatigue software in their games; those that fail to comply will be turned off. In other news, one of India’s premier engineering institutes has cut off nighttime Internet access to dorm students. According to BBC News, the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai claims too many of its students who were once given unlimited Internet access to help with coursework use it instead to download movies, play games, and chat online. The Institute pulled the late-night plug after recording a noticeable drop in morning class attendance and in students’ participation in extracurricular activities.

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Crowded Skies

The U.S. monopoly on satellite navigation will be challenged in the coming months by Russia, in particular, as well as by China, the European Union, and others. Over the next six months Russia’s space agency plans to launch eight navigation satellites that would nearly complete the country’s Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass). The system, expected to begin operating over Russian territory and parts of Europe and Asia, will then go global in 2009 to compete with the U.S.’s GPS. China’s Baidu system already has some satellites in place even as the EU’s work on its rival Galileo system has been halted under doubts among private contractors of its profit potential. Driving the technological battle, according to the New York Times, is the potential for many more uses for satellite navigation than helping travelers find their way. Businesses worldwide are incorporating satellite services and signals into their operations. Another impetus for control of navigational technology is a fear the U.S. could use its monopoly (one developed and controlled by its military) to switch off signals in a time of crisis.

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Human Touch

Some things humans do routinely with little thought still baffle computers. Recognizing a market niche in this weakness, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos created a service a couple of years ago that pays humans to do the jobs computers can’t do. Mechanical Turk, an online service involving human employees, began life as a service needed by Amazon itself, reports the New York Times. With millions of Web pages describing individual products, Amazon needed a way to weed out duplicate pages. Software could not be programmed to handle this job effectively, so the company developed a Web site where people would look at product pages and be paid a few cents for every duplicate page they identified correctly. Figuring other companies would find this model valuable, Bezos’s hunch paid off. Today, more than 100,000 Turk Workers in more than 100 countries earn micropayments in exchange for human intelligence tasks, or HITs. Bezos also invested in a human-assisted search company called ChaCha that uses "artificial artificial intelligence" (also called crowdsourcing) to help computer users find better results when they search the Web. ChaCha, now a year old, pays 30,000 human guides working from home or elsewhere as much as $10 an hour to direct Web surfers to relevant sources.

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Blogging Ethics

In an effort to clean up the quality of online discourse, book publisher Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales are working together to create a set of guidelines to shape online dialogue. The New York Times reports that chief among the recommendations is that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments without being labeled as censors. Since the online option offers anonymity with no accountability, online conversations are often more prone to ugliness than those in other media. Skeptics say finding common ground will be a serious challenge; some wonder how anyone could persuade even a fraction of the millions of bloggers to embrace one set of standards. O’Reilly and Wales are looking to create several sets of guidelines for conduct and seals of approval represented by logos. Bloggers could then pick a set of principles and post the corresponding badge on their page to indicate to readers what kind of behavior and dialogue they will engage in and tolerate. The goal, O’Reilly says, is not about censorship, claiming many make the mistake of believing uncensored speech is free, when "managed civil dialogue is actually freer speech. Free speech is enhanced by civility."

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