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Dot Diva

December 7th, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in CS, GENERAL

Dot Diva is a Web site designed to “create an exciting and positive image of computing for high school girls”. It’s a effort of the ‘New Image of Computing’ project sponsored by NSF, ACM and others. One of the project’s advisors is UMBC’s own Marie desJardins.

The project is trying to raise interest in computing majors and careers among high school students and undergraduates. One of the project themes is that studying computing doesn’t mean you have to abandon your other deep interests. You can use a strong computing background to further music, psychology, biology, medicine, linguistics, journalism or almost any pursuit.

It’s a good message that can help attract people to the computing fields.

Lisp bots win Planet Wars Google AI Challenge

December 2nd, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in Agents, AI, Games, Google, Social

top programming languages in Planet Wars
The Google-supported Planet Wars Google AI Challenge had over 4000 entries that used AI and game theory to compete against one another. C at the R-Chart blog analyzed the programming languages used by the contestants with some interesting results.

The usual suspects were the most popular languages used: Java, C++, Python, C# and PHP. The winner, Hungarian Gábor Melis, was just one of 33 contestants who used Lisp. Even less common were entries in C, but the 18 “C hippies” did remarkably well.

Blogger C wonders if Lisp was the special sauce:

Paul Graham has stated that Java was designed for “average” programmers while other languages (like Lisp) are for good programmers. The fact that the winner of the competition wrote in Lisp seems to support this assertion. Or should we see Mr. Melis as an anomaly who happened to use Lisp for this task?

Tim Berners-Lee on protecting the Web in the December Scientific American

November 19th, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in GENERAL, Privacy, Semantic Web, Web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee discusses the principles underlying the Web and the need to protect them in an article from the December issue of Scientific American, Long Live the Web.

“The Web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles and because thousands of individuals, universities and companies have worked, both independently and together as part of the World Wide Web Consortium, to expand its capabilities based on those principles.

The Web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.

If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.

Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.”

Near the end of the long feature article, he mentions the Semantic Web’s linked data as one of the major new technologies the Web will give birth to, provided the principles are upheld.

“A great example of future promise, which leverages the strengths of all the principles, is linked data. Today’s Web is quite effective at helping people publish and discover documents, but our computer programs cannot read or manipulate the actual data within those documents. As this problem is solved, the Web will become much more useful, because data about nearly every aspect of our lives are being created at an astonishing rate. Locked within all these data is knowledge about how to cure diseases, foster business value and govern our world more effectively.”

One of the benefits of linked data is that it makes data integration and fusion much easier. The benefit comes with a potential risk, which Berners-Lee acknowledges.

“Linked data raise certain issues that we will have to confront. For example, new data-integration capabilities could pose privacy challenges that are hardly addressed by today’s privacy laws. We should examine legal, cultural and technical options that will preserve privacy without stifling beneficial data-sharing capabilities.”

The risk is not unique to linked data, and new research is underway, in our lab and elsewhere, on how to also use Semantic Web technology to protect privacy.

First Baltimore Hackathon, 19-21 Nov 2010

November 3rd, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in Conferences, GENERAL, Technology

The First Baltimore Hackathon will take place on Friday and Saturday, November 19-20, 2010 at Beehive Baltimore, 2400 Boston St, on the 3rd floor of the Emerging Technology Center.

Come to build a hardware or software project — from idea to prototype — in a weekend either individually or as part of a team! While you are hacking, you’ll enjoy free food and coffee and be eligible to win prizes and awards! If you are interested, sign up and use the Baltimore Hackathon wiki to share ideas and build a team or to list yourself as available to join an existing team.

Check out the TechinBaltimore Google group for more information and discussion about the hackathon and related technology events in and around Baltimore.

The Maverick Meerkat is here

October 10th, 2010, by Krishnamurthy Viswanathan, posted in GENERAL

Today is the 10th day of the 10th month of year ’10. Canonical, today released Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat), sidestepping its usual Thursday release. Go to ubuntu.com to give it a spin. As usual, you can download it for free and burn it on a CD. It has all the great features that we are used to, plus a couple of cool new ones. Remember that you can always use the ISO to try out all the features in the new release without installing it.

The new Ubiquity installer has been redesigned to be easier to use and it also installs drivers and download updates even as it is installing the OS.  Their new service, Ubuntu One offers 2 GB of free “personal cloud” space to users, and also provides sharing and syncing options . A beta for the Microsoft Windows client is set to begin soon.

The server edition of Ubuntu 10.10 is touted as “the default open-source choice for cloud computing.” You can also try Ubuntu 10.10 server on Amazon EC2 for an hour, free.

New Facebook Groups Considered Harmful

October 7th, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in Facebook, Privacy, Security, Social, Social media

Facebook has rolled out a new version of groups announced on the Facebook blog.

“Until now, Facebook has made it easy to share with all of your friends or with everyone, but there hasn’t been a simple way to create and maintain a space for sharing with the small communities of people in your life, like your roommates, classmates, co-workers and family.

Today we’re announcing a completely overhauled, brand new version of Groups. It’s a simple way to stay up to date with small groups of your friends and to share things with only them in a private space. The default setting is Closed, which means only members see what’s going on in a group.”

There are three kinds of groups: open, closed and secret. Open groups have public membership listings and public content. Private ones have public membership but public but private content. For secret groups, both the membership and content are private.

A key part of the idea is that the group members collectively define who is in the group, spreading the work of setting up and maintaining the group over many people.

But a serious issue with the new Facebook group framework is that a member can unilaterally add any of their friends to a group. No confirmation is required by the person being added. This was raised as an issue by Jason Calacanis.

The constraint that one can only add Facebook friend to a group he belongs to does offer some protection against ending up in unwanted groups (e.g., by spammers). But it could still lead to problems. I could, for example, create a closed group named Crazy people who smell bad and add all of my friends without their consent. Since the group is not secret like this one, anyone can see who is in the group. Worse yet, I could then leave the group. (By the way, let me know if you want to join any of these groups).

While this might just be an annoying prank, it could spin out of control — what might happen if one of your so called friends adds you to the new, closed “Al-Queda lovers” group?

The good news is that this should be easy to fix. After all, Facebook does require confirmation for the friend relation and has a mechanism for recommending that friends like pages or try apps. Either mechanism would work for inviting others to join groups.

We have started working with a new group-centric secure information sharing model being developed by Ravi Sandhu and others as a foundation for better access and privacy contols in social media systems. It seems like a great match.

See update.

How the DC Internet voting pilot was hacked

October 6th, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in cybersecurity, Security, Social

University of Michigan professor J. Alex Halderman explains how his research group compromised the Washington DC online voting pilot in his blog post, Hacking the D.C. Internet Voting Pilot.

“The District of Columbia is conducting a pilot project to allow overseas and military voters to download and return absentee ballots over the Internet. Before opening the system to real voters, D.C. has been holding a test period in which they’ve invited the public to evaluate the system’s security and usability. … Within 36 hours of the system going live, our team had found and exploited a vulnerability that gave us almost total control of the server software, including the ability to change votes and reveal voters’ secret ballots. In this post, I’ll describe what we did, how we did it, and what it means for Internet voting.”

The problem was a shell-injection vulnerability that involved the procedure used to upload absentee ballots. Halderman concludes

“The specific vulnerability that we exploited is simple to fix, but it will be vastly more difficult to make the system secure. We’ve found a number of other problems in the system, and everything we’ve seen suggests that the design is brittle: one small mistake can completely compromise its security. I described above how a small error in file-extension handling left the system open to exploitation. If this particular problem had not existed, I’m confident that we would have found another way to attack the system.”

Secret message in the Canadian Governor General coat of arms?

October 4th, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in GENERAL

Personal coat of arms of David Johnson, Governor General of CanadaSlashdot highlights another mystery today — what’s the meaning of the binary sequence along the bottom of the personal coat of arms of David Johnston, Canada’s new Governor-General.

“As de facto head of state and the Queen’s representative in Canada he is required to design a personal coat of arms. One modern detail has attracted particular attention – a 33-digit palindromic binary stream at the base. Efforts to decode the meaning of the number using ASCII, Morse, grouping by 3/11 and other theories has so far come up empty (right now it’s a toss up between random, the phone number 683-077-0643 and Morse code for ‘send help – trapped in a coat of arms factory.’) Is 110010111001001010100100111010011 the combination to his luggage, or just a random stream of digits?”

Here’s a theory that I hope might be true. As an educator and former president of a university known for its strength in computer science, maybe he is trying to interest Canadian children in mathematics and computer science by giving them a an intriguing puzzle to work on.

Taintdroid catches Android apps that leak private user data

September 30th, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in Mobile Computing, Privacy, Security, Social

Ars Technica has an an article on bad Android apps, Some Android apps caught covertly sending GPS data to advertisers.

“The results of a study conducted by researchers from Duke University, Penn State University, and Intel Labs have revealed that a significant number of popular Android applications transmit private user data to advertising networks without explicitly asking or informing the user. The researchers developed a piece of software called TaintDroid that uses dynamic taint analysis to detect and report when applications are sending potentially sensitive information to remote servers.

They used TaintDroid to test 30 popular free Android applications selected at random from the Android market and found that half were sending private information to advertising servers, including the user’s location and phone number. In some cases, they found that applications were relaying GPS coordinates to remote advertising network servers as frequently as every 30 seconds, even when not displaying advertisements. These findings raise concern about the extent to which mobile platforms can insulate users from unwanted invasions of privacy.”

TaintDroid is an experimental system that “analyses how private information is obtained and released by applications ‘downloaded’ to consumer phones”. A paper on the system will be presented at the 2010 USENIX Symposium on Operating Systems Design and Implementation later this month.

TaintDroid: An Information-Flow Tracking System for Realtime Privacy Monitoring on Smartphones, William Enck, Peter Gilbert, Byung-gon Chun, Landon P. Cox, Jaeyeon Jung, Patrick McDaniel, and Anmol N. Sheth, OSDI, October 2010.

The project, Realtime Privacy Monitoring on Smartphones has a good overview site with a FAQ and demo.

This is just one example of a rich and complex area full of trade-offs. We want our systems and devices to be smarter and to really understand us — our preferences, context, activities, interests, intentions, and pretty much everything short of our hopes and dreams. We then want them to use this knowledge to better serve us — selecting music, turing the ringer on and off, alerting us to relevant news, etc. Developing this technology is neither easy nor cheap and the developers have to profit from creating it. Extracting personal information that can be used or sold is one model — just as Google and others do to provide better ad placement on the Web.

Here’s a quote from the Ars Technical article that resonated with me.

“As Google says in its list of best practices that developers should adopt for data collection, providing users with easy access to a clear and unambiguous privacy policy is really important.”

We, and many others, are trying to prepare for the next step — when users can define their own privacy policies and these will be understood and enforced by their devices.

Banned Books Week

September 27th, 2010, by Krishnamurthy Viswanathan, posted in Books

The Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event that celebrates the “freedom to read”.  The campaign was started in 1982 and is held during the last week of September. The United States campaign, sponsored amongst others, by the American Library Association “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.” [1]

During this week, the Amnesty International directs attention to “the plight of individuals who are persecuted because of the writings that they produce, circulate or read”. [2]

The idea behind the event is to promote intellectual freedom: it encourages individuals to read books that have been challenged due to the unorthodox viewpoints expressed in these works of literature. Every year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom records attempts by individuals and groups to ban books from libraries and classrooms. If you thought that censorship was a thing of the past, take a look at the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2009.  At-least 46 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been targeted. The list includes acclaimed classics such as Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

While some books are banned or restricted, a majority of them are not banned due to the efforts of librarians, booksellers, students, teachers, and the reading community at large. It is due to events like these that attention is drawn to the dangers of imposing restrictions on the availability of information in our world.

UMBC Linux Users Group Installfest, Fri 9/24/2010,The Commons

September 20th, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in GENERAL

Got Linux? Let your computer know who is boss! The UMBC Linux Users Group (LUG) is holding a Linux Installfest from 10:30am to 4:30pm on Friday 24 September in the Main Street concourse of the UMBC Commons. Bring your computer and the LUG experts will help you install Linux on it in addition to your current operating system.

Proofiness: when mathematics turns to the dark side

September 18th, 2010, by Tim Finin, posted in GENERAL

This sounds like a book worth reading, Proofiness – The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife. It is reviewed in tomorrow’s New York Times — Fibbing With Numbers.

It goes without saying that what you learn in a book like this should only be used for defensive purposes. Do not turn to the Dark Side!

The book reminds me of the classic How to Lie with Statistics published in the 1950s.

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