Making the invisible visible – managing massive datasets

Understanding increasingly massive data sets is challenging information technology developers worldwide, according to University of Sydney IT researchers who are hosting the annual International Pacific Visualization (PacificVis) symposium this week.

As the scale of data increases, the limitations of static 2D and 3D data representations is becoming evident says Professor Peter Eades, Chair of Software Technology, at the University’s School of IT and Symposium Chair. Professor Eades says researchers are looking for more interactive solutions to understanding these data collections.


Computer science and information technology experts from across the globe including representatives from Japan, Germany and China have gathered to discuss the challenges of understanding massive data sets now common in security surveillance, medical research, biological and other natural sciences.

The Symposium Program Committee Chair, Professor Seokhee Hong, also from the University’s School of IT says technological advances are increasing data exponentially, resulting in massive, complex networks.

“The challenge we are trying to overcome is the design of a central tool with the clarity and definition to carry out analysis, enabling businesses, researchers and other dataset users to explore datasets to identify patterns, associations or trends,” states Professor Hong.

Key note speakers at the symposium include Giuseppe Di Battista, Professor of Computer Science at Università Roma Tre, Italy, who will discuss the need for visualising a network whose structure evolves over time.

Professor Di Battista says in the networking field it is often necessary to show how the flow of packets changes according to network modifications. He will argue that in the Internet Domain Name System it is useful to study the evolution of the relationship between name servers sending queries and name servers answering such queries. He will also discuss Web crawling during the Web exploration, and how the structure of the visited hyperlinks depends on the actual search strategy.

Also delivering a keynote address is Charles (Chuck) Hansen a Professor of Computer Science in the School of Computing and an Associate Director of the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute at the University of Utah.

Professor Hansen says we will see the development of exascale computational resources and while these machines offer enormous potential for solving very large-scale realistic computational problems, their effectiveness will hinge upon the ability of human experts to interact with their simulation results and extract useful information.

The symposium is being held from 26 February to 1 March.


Students developing next-generation e-Books platform

The electronic book industry is booming; nearly a quarter of Americans are reading e-books, and sales of e-book readers and tablets — including Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Apple’s iPad — continue to grow. But the increase in e-book sales is accompanied by a growing chorus of complaints that the current e-book publishing system is fundamentally broken.

“There are a lot of problems in publishing. It’s very centralized: the Kindle is a locked system, and iBooks is a locked system. It’s frustrating for e-book developers,” said Jake Hartnell, a first-year MIMS student at the School of Information.


Other criticisms focus on digital rights management, the restriction of having books locked inside a specific device, and questions about long-term sustainability. “People who buy an e-book have no assurance that today’s book will be readable in the future,” explained Lisa Jervis, another first-year MIMS student.

Now a group of students from the School of Information is developing a next-generation platform for electronic books that promises to resolve these challenges and more.

The students are enrolled in the course Info 290. The Future of E-Books; the class includes ten graduate students from education, cognitive science, and the School of Information, including Hartnell and Jervis. The class is working together this semester to design and develop an open-source, platform-independent framework for publishing e-books, along with tools for authors, editors, and publishers. Their framework is based on HTML5, which allows it to support a wide range of multimedia content, as well as the possibility of customizable content, interactivity, and social tools. HTML5 allows books to be read on a variety of devices, including in a standard web browser.

Although the framework is web-based, the design uses HTML5 storage to save the book permanently in the browser’s or device’s cache, making books fully accessible even without Internet connectivity. In a nod to economic realities, the framework includes tools to allow publishers to charge for content, or to automatically delete the book from the cache after a preset expiration date. Responsive frameworks will let the same content be optimized for display on a variety of devices, from phones to tablets to desktop web browsers.

Initially, the team is focusing on the reader’s experience. The students are taking the best features of the ePub standard and adding it to HTML5. “We want to make reading on the web a great experience,” said Hartnell.

Hartnell is not just an information graduate student; he’s also a science fiction author. As an author, he’s especially excited by the creative possibilities the new framework offers. “In most e-books formats, your options for controlling layout and styling and design are very limited,” he explained. “As a writer, I’m looking forward to using the stuff we’re building; it allows me to post my book online in a beautiful fashion and share it. I think people still have the desire to make beautiful-looking things.”

The second phase of development will focus on tools for authors, editors, and publishers. Lisa Jervis is particularly focused on supporting authors and editors. She was the founding editor and publisher of Bitch, author of Cook Food, and the co-editor of Young Wives’ Tales and Bitchfest; her writing has appeared in Bitch, Ms., the San Francisco Chronicle, Utne, Mother Jones, theWomen’s Review of Books, Bust, Salon, and more.

“In my fifteen years of work as an editor, I’ve developed a deep understanding of how content is produced and honed,” said Jervis. “I want to use that experience to design a tool that incorporates editorial best practices, in a way that encourages the production of high-quality content.”

Jervis is also excited about building editorial workflows and tools to support collaborative authoring. “There are lots of new models for collaborative content creation, but none of them are well suited for the long form of books,” she explained. “A book requires a different editorial control model than Wikipedia.”

The students expect that this semester’s work will just be the beginning. The new platform will be open-source and modular, to encourage other developers to add new tools and features.

One possibility is interactive books — textbooks could include quizzes and interactive tutorials. A developer could also create customizable content — readers of a textbook or instruction manual could choose examples targeted to their specific industry or application. The platform could also support social tools like open annotation — imagine sharing your comments or notes with friends who are reading the same book.

“The possibilities are really endless,” said Hartnell.

Impact craters may have been cradles of life

Even comparatively small meteorite impact craters may have played a key role in the origin and evolution of early life on Earth, according to a researcher at The University of Western Australia. Geologist Martin Schmieder, a research associate in UWA’s School of Earth and Environment, said study results suggested that heat generated by an asteroid impact took at least several hundred thousand years to dissipate.

Dr Schmieder, the lead author of an article published this month in the prestigious journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, said as impact craters cooled, they provided an ideal environment for microbial life to thrive.


He and fellow researcher Dr Fred Jourdan, Director of the Western Australian Argon Isotope Facility at Curtin University, are experts in the study of rocks and minerals from craters produced by the hypervelocity impact of incoming asteroids and comets (termed meteorites once they have hit the Earth’s surface).  Impact craters are common features in the solar system.

“As a case study, we analysed impact-molten rock samples from the 23km-diameter and 76-million-year-old Lappajärvi crater in Finland, and were quite surprised by the results,” Dr Schmieder said.

Temperatures during an impact event can reach several thousand degrees Celsius, capable of melting portions of the target rock.  Smaller to medium-size impact craters less than 30km across represent the largest crater population on Earth and other planetary bodies, compared with giant impact basins such as those on the Moon that are visible to the naked eye on a clear night.

Earlier estimates for the duration of cooling in smaller impact craters were based on theoretical simulations and suggested a relatively short cool-down period of about 10,000 years after the impact.  Drs Schmieder and Jourdan used the so-called argon-argon dating technique based on the natural radioactive decay of potassium to argon to measure the age of different minerals formed on impact.

“Our new argon-argon data tell us that the Lappajärvi crater did not cool down as rapidly as expected but within at least several 100,000 years, and perhaps more than a million years,” Dr Jourdan said.

“Cooling impact craters are hot natural laboratories in which hot hydrothermal fluids circulate.  We think they provided ideal starting conditions for the origin and evolution of microbial life on early Earth more than two billion years ago.”

Dr Schmieder said of the 185 meteorite impact structures recognised on Earth, 29 were in Australia, and new impact sites were discovered worldwide nearly every year.

“Although usually associated with massive havoc and destruction, asteroid impacts also acted as extraterrestrial boosters of life in the past,” he said.

“A prime example is the giant Chicxulub impact that helped wipe out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago and eventually paved the way for mammals and mankind.”

The researchers believe the large Acraman impact in South Australia more than 500 million years earlier probably had a major influence on the evolutionary radiation of the first multicellular life forms during the Ediacaran, a geologic time period named after the fossil-bearing Ediacara Hills in Australia’s Flinders Ranges, when complex life started to blossom.

Drs Schmieder and Jourdan are currently carrying out a government-funded global research project on a number of terrestrial impact craters, some of them located in Australia.

“Large meteorite impacts are outstanding and fascinating geologic events, and we will soon investigate other ancient impact craters on all continents to more deeply explore their geologic age and potential role in the history of life on Earth and possibly Mars,” Dr Schmieder said.

New Injectable Hydrogel Encourages Regeneration and Improves Functionality After a Heart Attack


Microscopic images of pig hearts damaged by heart attack show the growth of new heart muscle tissue (Shown in Red, Figure A) after treatment with an injectable hydrogel compared to a heart left untreated (Figure B, right). Photo credit: Karen Christman, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Microscopic images of pig hearts damaged by heart attack show the growth of new heart muscle tissue (Shown in Red, Figure A) after treatment with an injectable hydrogel compared to a heart left untreated (Figure B, right). Photo credit: Karen Christman, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

University of California, San Diego bioengineers have demonstrated in a study in pigs that a new injectable hydrogel can repair damage from heart attacks, help the heart grow new tissue and blood vessels, and get the heart moving closer to how a healthy heart should. The results of the study were published Feb. 20 in Science Translational Medicine and clear the way for clinical trials to begin this year in Europe. The gel is injected through a catheter without requiring surgery or general anesthesia — a less invasive procedure for patients.


There are an estimated 785,000 new heart attack cases in the United States each year, with no established treatment for repairing the resulting damage to cardiac tissue. Lead researcher Karen Christman, a professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, said the gel forms a scaffold in damaged areas of the heart, encouraging new cell growth and repair. Because the gel is made from heart tissue taken from pigs, the damaged heart responds positively, creating a harmonious environment for rebuilding, rather than setting off a chain of adverse immune system defenses.

UC San Diego bioengineers demonstrated in a study in pigs that a new injectable hydrogel gets hearts moving more like they should -- as measured by the Global Wall Motion Index (GWMI) -- in hearts following heart attack. After a heart attack, the score was elevated; however, for pigs that were treated with the hydrogel, this index score dropped back closer to normal. Chart: Karen Christman, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

“While more people today are initially surviving heart attacks, many will eventually go into heart failure,” said Christman.  “Our data show that this hydrogel can increase cardiac muscle and reduce scar tissue in the region damaged by the heart attack, which prevents heart failure. These results suggest this may be a novel minimally invasive therapy to prevent heart failure after a heart attack in humans.”

The hydrogel is made from cardiac connective tissue that is stripped of heart muscle cells through a cleansing process, freeze-dried and milled into powder form, and then liquefied into a fluid that can be easily injected into the heart. Once it hits body temperature, the liquid turns into a semi-solid, porous gel that encourages cells to repopulate areas of damaged cardiac tissue and to improve heart function, according to Christman. The material is also biocompatible; animals treated with the hydrogel suffered no adverse affects such as inflammation, lesions or arrhythmic heart beating, according to safety experiments conducted as part of the study. Further tests with human blood samples showed that the gel had no affect on the blood’s clotting ability, which underscores the biocompatibility of the treatment for use in humans.

San Diego-based startup, Ventrix, Inc., which Christman co-founded, has licensed the technology for development and commercialization. Christman also serves on the company’s board. “We are excited and encouraged by the results of the study leading to a novel regenerative medicine solution for cardiac repair. The technology offers the potential for a longer and better quality of life for millions of heart attack sufferers,” said Adam Kinsey, the CEO of Ventrix.

Blueprint for an artificial brain



A nanocomponent that is capable of learning: The Bielefeld memristor built into a chip here is 600 times thinner than a human hair.

Scientists have long been dreaming about building a computer that would work like a brain. This is because a brain is far more energy-saving than a computer, it can learn by itself, and it doesn’t need any programming. Dr. Andy Thomas from Bielefeld University’s Faculty of Physics is experimenting with memristors – electronic microcomponents that imitate natural nerves. Thomas and his colleagues proved that they could do this a year ago. They constructed a memristor that is capable of learning. Andy Thomas is now using his memristors as key components in a blueprint for an artificial brain.


He will be presenting his results at the beginning of March in the print edition of the prestigious Journal of Physics published by the Institute of Physics in London.

Memristors are made of fine nanolayers and can be used to connect electric circuits. For several years now, the memristor has been considered to be the electronic equivalent of the synapse. Synapses are, so to speak, the bridges across which nerve cells (neurons) contact each other. Their connections increase in strength the more often they are used. Usually, one nerve cell is connected to other nerve cells across thousands of synapses.

Like synapses, memristors learn from earlier impulses. In their case, these are electrical impulses that (as yet) do not come from nerve cells but from the electric circuits to which they are connected. The amount of current a memristor allows to pass depends on how strong the current was that flowed through it in the past and how long it was exposed to it.

Andy Thomas explains that because of their similarity to synapses, memristors are particularly suitable for building an artificial brain – a new generation of computers. ‘They allow us to construct extremely energy-efficient and robust processors that are able to learn by themselves.’ Based on his own experiments and research findings from biology and physics, his article is the first to summarize which principles taken from nature need to be transferred to technological systems if such a neuromorphic (nerve like) computer is to function. Such principles are that memristors, just like synapses, have to ‘note’ earlier impulses, and that neurons react to an impulse only when it passes a certain threshold.

Thanks to these properties, synapses can be used to reconstruct the brain process responsible for learning, says Andy Thomas. He takes the classic psychological experiment with Pavlov’s dog as an example. The experiment shows how you can link the natural reaction to a stimulus that elicits a reflex response with what is initially a neutral stimulus – this is how learning takes place. If the dog sees food, it reacts by salivating. If the dog hears a bell ring every time it sees food, this neutral stimulus will become linked to the stimulus eliciting a reflex response. As a result, the dog will also salivate when it hears only the bell ringing and no food is in sight. The reason for this is that the nerve cells in the brain that transport the stimulus eliciting a reflex response have strong synaptic links with the nerve cells that trigger the reaction.

If the neutral bell-ringing stimulus is introduced at the same time as the food stimulus, the dog will learn. The control mechanism in the brain now assumes that the nerve cells transporting the neutral stimulus (bell ringing) are also responsible for the reaction – the link between the actually ‘neutral’ nerve cell and the ‘salivation’ nerve cell also becomes stronger. This link can be trained by repeatedly bringing together the stimulus eliciting a reflex response and the neutral stimulus. ‘You can also construct such a circuit with memristors – this is a first step towards a neuromorphic processor,’ says Andy Thomas.

‘This is all possible because a memristor can store information more precisely than the bits on which previous computer processors have been based,’ says Thomas. Both a memristor and a bit work with electrical impulses. However, a bit does not allow any fine adjustment – it can only work with ‘on’ and ‘off’. In contrast, a memristor can raise or lower its resistance continuously. ‘This is how memristors deliver a basis for the gradual learning and forgetting of an artificial brain,’ explains Thomas.



Producing Solar Energy Materials That Are Affordable, Efficient and Flexible

Most portable electronic devices need to be charged periodically. Typically, this means plugging them into an electrical source–and being patient. Imagine how convenient it would be if you could just slip that cell phone into your pocket and have it charge every time you went out into the sun.
Jinsong Huang, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believes that day will come, and he is working to ensure it happens sooner rather than later.
“We really need to increase the availability of renewable energy sources,” says the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded scientist. “Fossil fuels are finite, and they aren’t good for the environment. We have a never-ending supply of solar energy, which is abundant, free and clean, but we have to use it in ways that are more efficient and more affordable than what is currently available.”
His research goal is to ensure that almost any surface, including windows, walls, even computer bags and clothing, will be specially treated and have the ability to tap into the power of the sun, providing energy that is just as efficient and much less expensive than the solar panels in use today.
“The idea is to put it on the surface of something we already have–a wall, for example, or articles of clothing, or on the device itself,” he says. “You could leave the device sitting in the sun. Or clothing could be use to charge a device in your pocket.”
The current market is dominated by semiconducting silicon solar cells sandwiched between two metal electrodes that creates an electric field. One electrode is transparent, allowing light to pass through it. The photons in sunlight knock loose the semiconductor’s negatively charged electrons, which migrate within the system’s electric field to form a current that produces electricity. The system is efficient, but limited in its applications and very expensive.
Scientists have been trying to replace current silicon cells with organic polymers, or plastics, which are less expensive and have more flexible applications, but are not as efficient.
Organic polymer solar cells are cheaper to make than silicon-based cells because the material and fabrication costs are less. These polymers can be coated on many surfaces in the same way as spray paints and inkjets, allowing manufacturers to produce solar cells as quickly and easily as printing off the daily newspaper, according to Huang.
The material’s pliability also could lead, ultimately, to replacing large, expensive solar panels atop buildings and poles. Instead, future solar cells could find their way into clothing, laptop bags and tents, or even pasted onto building windows.
Huang’s team is trying to enhance their efficiency by placing a layer of ultrathin ferroelectric polymer, a building material often used in insulation, between the polymer and each electrode.
“At the first glance, it is surprising that an insulating plastic material can be used to enhance the efficiency of a polymer solar cell, because generally it makes the device worse,” Huang says. “Our innovation lies in utilizing the large permanent electrical polarization of a ferroelectric polymer to increase a solar cell’s internal electric field, thus generating more electricity.
“We designed a unique device structure so that these insulating layers facilitate the generation of more electric currents instead of less,” he adds. “Also, this method won’t add any cost to the polymer solar cells.”
His work demonstrating this idea appeared in a recent issue of the scientific journal Nature Materials.
Currently, the energy conversion efficiencyof silicon semiconductors is around 20 percent, meaning, for every 100 watts of sun energy, a solar cell produces 20 watts of electricity. For ferroelectric polymers to become commercially viable to compete with silicon solar cells, “we need to get the energy conversion efficiency up to 15 or 20 percent,” Huang says. “We are at about 8-9 percent now, which is already very good, considering the amount of cost reduction.”
Huang is conducting his research under an NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, which he received in 2012. The award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization. NSF is funding his work with $400,000 over five years.
The award also supports educational outreach. As part of this, Huang is preparing a workshop for Nebraska’s high school students to teach them about solar engineering, and to promote engineering as a career choice. Also, he is helping produce demonstrations about solar energy and engineering at the University of Nebraska State Museum.
To be sure, “solar energy is nothing new,” Huang says. “We have all these products on the market, but we can’t use them as broadly as possible because they are still too expensive. The products are too expensive because of the materials they use. The sun is free, but to harness its energy is not free. Our goal is to produce a material that is both affordable and efficient, as well as flexible to use, so that you could put it on the surface of a device, paint buildings with it–or actually even wear it.”

Xbox 720 Release Date Pushed Forward to April


The Xbox 720 release might have been pushed forward to April by Microsoft.

The company is now rumored to be holding a “one-off media event” to show off the new system that will take place in the beginning of April.

Microsoft was originally expected to unveil the console at this year’s E3 gamers conference in June, but due to the recent PlayStation 4 unveiling by Sony, the company seems to want to get things moving a little quicker.

News on this April event was reported by Computer & Video Games and National Alliances Securities analyst Mike Hickey has expected Microsoft to hold this April event for quite some time.

The Xbox 720 unveiling could come around the time of the Game Developers Conference, which is at the end of March. However, this event has not been confirmed by the company at this time.

Former Microsoft executive Joachim Kempin recently spilled…

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