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  • Taking Discovery Beyond Data

    CSE Chair Rajesh Gupta made the cover of the UC San Diego Extension Summer 2015 Catalog, which carries a cover story on "Taking Discovery Beyond Data".  Writer John B.B. Freeman interviewed Gupta for the article about the ways in which computer science is exploring new frontiers  and making advances possible in areas such as computational biology, bioinformatics, quantitative finance and much more, including the "smart grid that gauges more efficient electricity consumption."

    "Education access, healthcare, electricity, water, transportation, emergency response, communications infrastructure, all of these have been improved because of computing," says Gupta in the interview. "These are not merely engineering issues, they are the issues of our everyday lives."

    The article notes that in the five years that Gupta has been chair of the department, the data science revolution has exploded. "It's no longer just data in and data out," he notes. "In our department, we don't think of ourselves just as computer scientists or engineers who sit in backrooms and build these weird machines. We're the microscope that sees inside ourselves for new insights."

    The cover story notes that following a rapid increase in enrollment, CSE pulled in the largest ever single alumni donation to the department to expand labs, programs and classroom space, allowing the department to pursue an "ambitious agenda of growth in the quality of learning experience by its students." "We have high aspirations," said Gupta. "Our faculty envisions this department at the very top regarding the quality of research we do, the students' learning experience, and fulfilling the growing demand for our graduates." The story also mentions the recent launch of Computing Primetime, a joint production by CSE and UCSD-TV, which is part of UC San Diego Extension.

  • Alumnus Reports on Advances in Encryption for the Cloud

    "Data Encryption in the Cloud: Square Pegs in Round Holes" is the title of a guest article by CSE alumnus Tom Ristenpart (PhD '10), on Information Week's DARK Reading information security website. In it, the computer science professor from the University of Wisconsin reports that conventional encryption is a surefire solution for protecting sensitive data -- except when it breaks cloud applications. The solution, he offers, is something called 'format-preserving encryption.' Ristenpart's research spans a broad range of computer security topics, focusing primarily on threats to cloud computing, as well as topics in applied and theoretical cryptography.

    In his May 21 article for DARK Reading, Ristenpart (at right) argues that encryption can secure data in case of a data breach in the enterprise. However, "the bad news is that traditional encryption techniques can also pose limitations to the functionality of cloud applications," says the alumnus. "I call this the 'square pegs-round-holes' problem." This is because every type of sensitive data comes with its own format. "Not only do credit card numbers have to be 16-digit strings, but salaries must be positive integer numbers, emails must be alphanumeric strings with an ‘@’ character, a domain name, and a TLD like ‘.com’, and so much more," Ristenpart writes in the article. "So it’s not just that square pegs must fit into round holes, but also stars, triangles, pentagons, rhombuses, and so on." While he is not the first expert to talk about format-preserving encryption (FPE), the CSE alumnus and colleagues have come up with encrption algorithms that are not only secure, but also solve the key usability issues of making it easy to specify a peg size. "Creating a new encryption engine is something that any developer can do seamlessly," explains Ristenpart. "This allows them to quickly adapt to the particulars of different cloud services... It's gratifying to see emerging security technologies bring these types of academic breakthroughs to the cloud security market," Ristenpart added. "The intention is that with more functional encryption capabilities, companies will be able to enable cloud services for a wider range of use cases."

  • Discussion Groups for the Online Classroom (and Off)

    CSE and Cogntive Science professor Scott Klemmer (right) is one of the brains behind a new tool called Talkabout, developed at UC San Diego and Stanford and already deployed as part of Klemmer's massive open online course (MOOC) on human-computer interaction. Talkabout is a virtual discussion section built around Google Hangouts (which limits to nine the maximum number of participants in a Talkabout, or as few as two). Talkabout was built with Klemmer's former colleagues at Stanford, computer science professor Michael Bernstein and Ph.D. student Chinmay Kulkarni, and the project currently includes an incoming CSE M.S. student, Yasmine Kotturi (who graduates from UCSD in cognitive science this year). As originally implemented in Klemmer's first MOOC, the tool offered students the opportunity to log on any time, but students couldn't be sure that anyone else would be there at the same time.

    So instead, according to a report this week in Stanford Daily, "the new system works by randomly assigning a few people to each group. There is no moderator and students encounter new peers in each discussion section." Talkabout also allows students to choose between verbal discussion or contributing by text (which is often preferred by students for whom English is a second language).

    Talkabout has been used for many MOOCs. For example, CSE faculty-affiliate Terry Sejnowski recently used the tool for his Learning How to Learn MOOC on Coursera produced by the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center. (The center is directed by CSE Prof. Gary Cottrell).

    An upcoming online courses set to use Talkabout for discussion groups is Learn to Mod, which teaches students how to code modifications of the wildly popular computer game, Minecraft. The instructor will be Sarah (Esper) Guthals (at right), a CSE alumna (PhD '14) and co-founder/CTO of the startup ThoughtSTEM, which develops courses, trainings, software and textbooks for children 8 to 18 to learn how to program. Guthals and ThoughtSTEM co-founder and CSE Ph.D. candidate Stephen Foster also created a video game, CodeSpells, to help teach kids programming skills. The research implementation was so successful -- attracting $164,000 from nearly 5,500 backers on Kickstarter -- that it is now under development as a full-scale commercial game by professional video game developers. Their success with CodeSpells led Guthals and Foster to develop LearnToMod software, which provides a game environment with puzzles and tutorials on how to craft "mods" in a browser, teaching how to code at the same time. That same software forms the basis of the "Learn to Mod" online course.

  • A Graduate Student's Perspective on Data Scientists

    As CSE seeks campus approval for a new major in Data Science and Engineering, Ph.D. student Zachary Chase Lipton asks the question: "Will the real data scientists please stand up?" That's the title of his May 19 column in KDnuggets, which covers data mining, analytics, big data and data scence. In the article, Lipton parses the various definitions of "data scientist," which he says has grown to include "computer scientists, mathematicians, and physicists as well as business school graduates, economists, and other social scientists. Some positions seem to require mathematical maturity, others superior coding skills, and yet more are clearly looking for SQL jockeys, who can generate visualizations and insert them into powerpoint presentations."

    Lipton (at right) distills the profession into five archetypes of data scientists. The "theorists" are mostly academics who "primarily study algorithms that are provably efficient and provably correct, even if they must rely on unrealistically strong assumptions," writes Lipton, who works with CSE Prof. Charles Elkan in CSE's Artificial Intelligence group. "Theory papers contain proofs correctness, proofs of convergence, and guarantees on performance." The second archetype is the machine learning scientist, who works in universities or big tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. Lipton says "machine learning scientists sit somewhere between theorists and data miners," and they develop new algorithms but also "care about empirical performance on real-world tasks." Archetype #3 are the data miners. "These engineers are often strong programmers and combine domain-specific intuition with a knowledge of algorithms to generate valuable insights," writes Lipton, and they work at a broader cross-section of Silicon Valley-type companies as well as in health and other spaces that are focused on mining a particular industry's data.

    "Script kiddies" is what Lipton calls the fourth archetypal data scientist, defined as end-users of data science products such as Azure ML, IBM Watson and KNIME. "They may know roughly what a support vector machine does," says Lipton, "but wouldn't code one from scratch." And finally, the loosest definition of data scientist might more appropriately be called "Powerpoint jockeys". They are employed in management consulting firms and elsewhere. They may previously have been called business analysts, but now want a fancier-sounding title such as data scientist. "These individuals may have no coding skills or mathematical background," writes Lipton, "but why should qualifications stand in the way of ambition?" Strong skills in Powerpoint and Excel make it possible to churn out impressive-looking visualizations to justify the "data scientist" moniker.

  • CSE Computer Security Startup Starts Selling Toolkit

    A startup out of the CSE department is flexing its muscles. This week, Tortuga Logic's co-founder and CEO, CSE alumnus Jason Oberg (PhD '13) announced immediate availability of the company's toolkit to transform the way hardware designers and system architects test the security of hardware designs.

    "The semiconductor industry needs to redirect its attention from only analyzing software vulnerabilities to identifying ways to detect security issues in hardware designs," said Oberg (at right) in a news release. "As more and more devices are designed to be Internet-enabled, the more we need to be concerned about hardware security. Hackers are focusing now on hardware." Tortuga Logic is a pioneer in the so-called design-for-security market. Its new toolkit, called Prospect, is able to uncover hidden bugs and prove the absence of vulnerabilities in hardware designs, thus minimizing security breaches in hardware and systems by automating the process of verifying security properties. Oberg's co-founders in Tortuga Logic include CSE Prof. Ryan Kastner and UC Santa Barbara Prof. Tim Sherwood, as well as Jonathan Valamehr, who is now the company's CFO and chief operating officer. This week's announcement put Tortuga Logic one step closer to graduating from the EvoNexus incubator, where it has been headquartered since late last year. The company should now be able to start adding commercial sales to a business that until now relied primarily on angel investors and NSF Small Business Innovation Research funding. In mid-April, Tortuga Logic was one of 16 startups participating in EvoNexus' Demo Day, where 350 attendees saw the company's demonstration of how their software analyzes the security properties in hardware designs to prevent cyber-security breaches. The company expects growing demand for its products with the advent of the Internet of Things. "Attacks have already been demonstrated on embedded devices such as pace makers, automobiles, baby monitors, and even refrigerators," Oberg told Chip Design magazine in late April. "Most companies are trying to solve this problem purely with software security, but this is a constant cat-and-mouse game we cannot win. As IoT grows, we are seeing more software being pushed down into hardware and our modern chipsets are growing in complexity. This is driving attackers to begin focusing on hardware and, without ensuring our chipsets are built in a secure manner, these attackers will continue to succeed.”

  • Students Put Finishing Touches to 3D, Multiplayer Networked Games

    Mark June 5th on your calendar. That's when five teams of students taking the CSE 125 capstone course on software system design and implementation -- better known as "the videogame course" -- will present their final projects and give audience members an opportunity to play the 3D, networked and multiplayer games in real time.

    Friday, June 5, 2015
    4pm - 5:30pm
    Calit2 Auditorium, Atkinson Hall

    The course has been taught since 2001, making this the 15th class to reach the finish line and produce their games from scratch. The final presentations in the Calit2 Auditorium are usually a standing-room-only celebration, as students from across campus flock to see how the teams  spent their 10 weeks (for many, the hardest 10 weeks of their entire undergraduate careers at UC San Diego, even though they also had fun). While creating a game adds excitement and motivation, CSE Prof. Geoffrey Voelker told students at the outset that "by the end of the course, you'll hopefully realize that what you learned in doing the project will apply to any large software project that is distributed, has performance constraints, has real-time constraints, has actual users other than developers, and so on." In short, CSE 125 gives seniors an opportunity to apply everything they should have learned in their major.

    Each team is usually broken into sub-teams to handle different parts of the challenge. For example, for Team 5, which is developing a "3D, multiplayer, player-vs.-player (PvP), team-based, territorial world conquer game," the entire six-person team is working on game play, while sub-teams are handling graphics (Robert Maloney and Sanjana Agarwal), networking (Kyle Parkinson and Benigno Baclig), as well as controls and art (Mimi Liu and Beth Yue Shi). While most of the games are first-person shooter games (including one where you kill your opponent by shooting bananas), there is also Battle Blocks, a sandbox building game where the player builds and customizes a battle robot to fight other bots, and a PvP fantasy combat game where each team of mechs (vampires/crusaders) is given a certain objective to complete in order to win each round.

    For the final presentations, which are open to the public and recorded for later on-demand viewing on the Internet, each team will demo their game, which must be played by four players drawn from the team and from the audience. A written project report is due at the end of finals week, but the final test is the June 5 demo. "The last thing you want," Voelker warned, "is a blue screen of death" when it's time to start playing the game in front of a real audience. 

  • 2015 Chancellor's Dissertation Medal Honors CSE Alumna

    CSE alumna Sarah Meiklejohn received her Ph.D. in computer science in 2014, and soon after accepted a faculty position at University College London in the UK, where she is a lecturer and assistant professor in the computer science as well as security-and-crime departments. For a researcher with broad interests in security and cryptography, being in London also offered the opportunity to continue her research on the international stage that she began at UC San Diego under CSE professors Mihir Bellare and Stefan Savage.

    Now comes word that Meiklejohn (at left) has been singled out for her dissertation, "Flexible Models for Secure Systems", as the recipient of the 2015 Chancellor's Dissertation Medal. As Bellare noted in recommending Meiklejohn for the medal, the results of her thesis "have shaped government policy", with the methods she proposed being used to track real-world cyber criminals. Regarding intellectual and technical depth, "the thesis introduces an innovative new experimental technique to track Bitcoins that was used not only to obtain the thesis results, but is now used as a key forensic tool by law enforcement," said Bellare, who also noted that Meiklejohn did it all herself: "She alone conceived the idea and methods and pushed it through from algorithms to reality. In my 20 years of experience at UCSD, I would say that a thesis with one of the above elements is rare. To have all three in the same thesis is unique and extraordinary."   

    In her dissertation, Meiklejohn explored how computer systems that seemed secure when they were launched then fell short because adversaries had capabilities that were not taken into account when the system was designed. "This gap between the abstract protocol and the deployed system leads to security concerns that ultimately impact every user of the system," she wrote. Meiklejohn went on to "model sophisticated attacks on the security of a system, such as side channels and fault injection, and then how to design flexible cryptosystems that can tolerate such attacks."  The thesis also looked at what she calls "the more benign scenario" where users cede some of their own privacy. Her landmark findings about user anonymity (or the lack of it) in the Bitcoin network -- which made headlines around the world while Meiklejohn was still at UC San Diego -- showed that she could combine publicly available information with minimal data gathered by hand to prove that the average Bitcoin user "is experiencing a fairly low level of anonymity, making Bitcoin ultimately unattractive for criminal activity such as money laundering" (even though it has been assumed that trading Bitcoin would not be visible to law enforcement authorities).

  • Gordon Center Stages Sixth Annual Think Tank

    This Friday and Saturday, the Gordon Engineering Leadership Center is hosting another of its "Think Tank" symposium series, this one focused on digital health.

    Think Tank: The Future of Digital Health
    May 15-16, 2015
    Friday 8am-5pm; Saturday 8am-2pm
    Qualcomm Conference Center
    Jacobs Hall
    Registration required

    Digital medicine is revolutionizing the way patients manage healthcare. This Think Tank will provide a comprehensive overview of digital health as well as unique perspectives from expert speakers from all facets of healthcare. The goal is to brainstorm the implications and uses of an emerging aspect of engineering, and past Think Tanks focused on topics as diverse as cyber security, cloud computing, and the energy crisis. This is the sixth annual Think Tank, and organizer Neil Gandhi explained that "improving data analysis to diagnosis, technology will have a sure impact on healthcare." The recent alumnus from Bioengineering also said that digital health is about applying what we know how to do with mobile devices, connectivity and big-data analytics to improve access to the healthcare system. Added Gandhi: "“New wireless devices paired with smart computing is enabling better patient care, but there are still challenges in integrating technology into the clinic and changing the way we already do things.” Speakers will address topics including big data, healthcare analytics, healthcare entrepreneurship, preventative medicine, mobile and global health, population health, emerging wireless technologies, and more. There will also be problem solving sessions, where small teams will have the opportunity to present their solutions to healthcare challenges.

  • CSE Gives Transfer Students a Head Start

    This summer CSE is one of several departments that will launch a new program for incoming transfer students arriving in Fall 2015. The Summer Academy will run from August 2 through September 5, and only transfer students majoring in computer science and engineering, biological sciences, electrical and computer engineering, or mathematics are eligible to apply to the five-week residential program on the UC San Diego campus. The program is partly modeled on the very successful Summer Program for Incoming Students (SPIS) launched two years ago to give incoming freshmen (pictured below) an opportunity to ease into campus life and get a strong foundation in computer science and programming prior to the start of the regular academic year.

    Transfer students accepted for the Summer Academy will earn eight units between two gateway courses to upper-division to "set a strong academic foundation leading to success at UC San Diego." Students will benefit from heavy academic advising and career mentoring, while developing strong ties with faculty and staff. The overall cost of the residential program will be primarily covered by the university itself, to the tune of $3,500 per student. The balance of costs, which include tuition, fees, educational programs, housing, meals, books and supplies, is $2,500, to be borne by students and their families (although financial aid is also available to students who qualify and submit an application by the June 1 deadline). Organizers point out that students accepted into the Summer Academy program are likely to graduate sooner, which could in turn offset some of the upfront cost of the program.

    Again, the deadline for incoming transfer students to apply for Summer Academy 2015 is June 1, and the same deadline applies to requests for financial aid under the 2014-15 FAFSA or California Dream Act. (Students who have already completed a financial aid application for 2014-15 should add UC San Diego's school code, 001317.)

  • CSE's Smarr Called 'Unlikely Hero' of Global Movement

    Calit2 Director and CSE Prof. Larry Smarr made the front page of The Washington Post. The May 9 article, “The Human Upgrade: The Revolution Will Be Digitized” by technology writer Ariana Cha, explores the movement to quantify consumers’ health and lifestyles, spearheaded by a flood of wearable devices such as the FitBit and Apple Watch.

    The article dubs Smarr “the unlikely hero of a global movement among ordinary people to ‘quantify’ themselves” using an estimated 211 million wearable monitoring devices to track their own health statistics (68 million devices shipped this year alone) – and using the knowledge to approach their physicians in new ways. “From the instant he wakes up each morning, through his workday and into the night, the essence of Larry Smarr is captured by a series of numbers: a resting heart rate of 40 beats per minute, a blood pressure of 130/70, a stress level of 2 percent, 191 pounds, 8,000 steps taken, 15 floors climbed, 8 hours of sleep,” is how Cha opens her feature article, adding: “Smarr, an astrophysicist and computer scientist, could be the world’s most self-measured man. For nearly 15 years, the professor at the University of California at San Diego has been obsessed with what he describes as the most complicated subject he has ever experimented on: his own body.”  Smarr monitors more than 150 parameters related to his health and activity, and he compares his self-monitoring with the way many Americans monitor their own cars. "We know exactly how much gas we have, the engine temperature, how fast we are going," he is quoted as saying. "What I'm doing is creating a dashboard for my body." (Pictured: Smarr with some of the 150 parameters depicted on a wall display in Calit2's Qualcomm Institute; photo by Earnie Grafton for The Washington Post.)

    Read the original article in The Washington Post.

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