Welcome to the March 30, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Vast Spy System Loots Computers in 103 Countries
New York Times (03/29/09) Markoff, John
Researchers at the University of Toronto's Munk Center for International Studies say a massive electronic spying operation has successfully stolen documents from hundreds of government and private offices around the world. The researchers say the system was controlled from computers almost exclusively in China, but they cannot conclusively say the Chinese government is involved. The researchers were asked by the office of the Dalai Lama to examine its computers for signs of malware and discovered a vast operation that, in less than two years, managed to infiltrate at least 1,295 computers in 103 countries, including computers belonging to many embassies, foreign ministries, other government offices, and the Dalai Lama's Tibetan exile centers in India, Brussels, London, and New York. The researchers say that in addition to spying on the Dalai Lama, the system, which they named GhostNet, also focused on governments in South Asian and Southeast Asian countries. GhostNet is by far the largest, in terms of the number of countries affected, spying operation to be exposed, and it is believed that this is the first time that researchers have been able to uncover the workings of a computer systems used for intrusions of such magnitude. The researchers say GhostNet continues to infect and monitor more than a dozen new computers a week. The malware not only "phishes" for unwary victims but also "whales" for specific, important targets. The malware can even turn on the video and audio features of an infected computer, enabling the malware's operators to see and hear what goes on in front of the computer. The researchers have notified international law enforcement agencies of the spying operation, which they believe exposes shortcomings in the legal structure of cyberspace.
Computer Science Classes Gets Their Groove Back
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA) (03/26/09) James, Andrea
A new report from the Computing Research Association (CRA) found that student enrollment in computer science (CS) has risen for the first time in six years. The CRA report found that the average number of new students majoring in CS has jumped 9.5 percent. CRA director Peter Harsha says the increase in enrollment is important to both the technology industry and the economy. Harsha says the CS field has led to many innovations, and he notes that most of the increases in worker productivity between 1995 and 2000 can be attributed to information technology. "Technology is just sort of cool again," Harsha says. Plus, he says that "it appears if you graduate with a CS degree, you'll get a job." The U.S. Department of Labor reports that computer science graduates earn 13 percent more than the average college graduate. Microsoft Research's Kevin Schofield says Microsoft has been concerned about the drop in computer science graduates and has been working with ACM, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and the Computer Science Teachers Association to raise awareness. "It really takes a village to build a piece of software," Schofield says. "The message is finally getting out that this is really a super-exciting field."
Bangor Scientists Make Star Trek's Holodeck Virtually a Reality
Western Mail (Wales) (03/27/09) Devine, Darren
Bangor University computer scientists Nigel John and Jonathan Roberts are developing a "virtual cocoon" that will enable users to experience virtual sites using all of their senses. The scientists say their research could be the first step toward an immersive experience similar to Star Trek's holodeck. The virtual cocoon also could help the environment by reducing the need for travel through the expansion of virtual tourism. "This gives a valid alternative and you could see the site not only as it is today, but as it was when it was first built and smell the smells and hear the sounds associated with that place," John says. The scientists are working on applications that recreate the physical feel of specific actions, such as using a joystick as though it were a syringe for medical training, creating the slight sensation of pushing through the skin when inserting the needle. Bangor vision scientist Simon Watt is working with John and Roberts to ensure that the system's display fits how the brain recreates the sense of three-dimensional objects. The project is part of a United Kingdom-wide real-virtuality network that involves scientists from all over the country in an effort to develop the technology.
A Better, Cheaper Multitouch Interface
Technology Review (03/30/09) Greene, Kate
New York University (NYU) researchers are developing Inexpensive Multi-Touch Pressure Acquisition Devices (IMPAD), multitouch technology that can be controlled by both fingers and objects such as a stylus. IMPAD can be made paper-thin and small enough for mobile devices or large enough to use on a table or wall. IMPAD touch technology measures a change in electrical resistance when a person or object applies pressure to a specially designed pad. The pressure-sensitive touch pad can determine how hard the user is pressing. "One of the problems that's been endemic to multitouch sensors is ... you're either touching it or not touching it," says NYU professor Ken Perlin. "A significant amount of potentially useful information is thrown away because the sensor isn't capturing the subtleties." The researchers say the pressure-sensitive pad can be used for virtual sculpting and painting applications, and as a simulated computer mouse with right and left clicks and drags, as well as for musical instruments such as a piano keyboard. The pad consists of two plastic paper-sized sheets, with parallel lines of electrodes spaced a quarter inch apart. The sheets are arranged so the electrodes cross, creating a grid in which each intersection acts as a pressure sensor. Both sheets are covered with a layer of force sensitive resistor ink, which is used on electric drums and keyboards and has microscopic bumps on the surface. The bumps move together and touch, conducting electricity. The researchers will present IMPAD at ACM's Computer Human Interaction conference, which takes place April 4-9 in Boston.
EuroSys 2009 Explores Future Computer System Designs
The EuroSys 2009 conference, sponsored by the European chapter of ACM's Special Interest Group on Operating Systems, will focus on computer system research that drives the design and development of new technologies during the next 10 years and beyond, including cloud computing designs and more reliable operating system kernels. The research papers at the conference, which takes place March 31-April 3 in Nuremberg, Germany, will feature topics such as cloud computing, system security, operating systems, storage systems, the Web, helping programmers, power and provisioning, and positive and negative experiences in system building. The conference also will feature co-located workshops and tutorials, including workshops on dependable distributed data management, social network systems, isolation and integration in embedded systems, virtualization technology for dependable systems, system-level virtualization of high-performance computing, and system security. The conference's tutorials include the Host Identify Protocol and its applications, dependability benchmarking of computer systems, and predictive methods for managing dependability and performance of systems.
A New Step Towards Quantum Computers
Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany) (03/28/09)
Researchers from Dortmound, St. Petersburg, Washington, and the Rurh-Universitaet-Bochum (RUB) in Germany have succeeded in aligning electron spin. The researchers also were able to rotate the spin, using a laser pulse, in any desired direction at any time, as well as read the direction with another laser pulse. "This is the first, important step toward addressing these 'quantum bits,' which will form an integral part of data transfer systems and processors in the future," says RUB professor Andreas Wieck. By applying an external magnetic field, an electron's spin can be accelerated or decelerated, causing it to waver and rotate its axis to virtually any desired angle. If these variations could be used to carry information it would be possible to store more than just 0s and 1s in an electron. A single electron has a very small measurable effect, requiring highly sensitive instruments, but by grouping electrons into ensembles the researchers created signals that are stronger by a magnitude of six, making them very sturdy and enabling the signals to be easily recorded. The team managed to confine nearly one million electrons each in virtually identical indium-arsenic islands, or quantum dots, improving their measurable effect.
Inside HP Labs: 8 Cool Projects
Computerworld (03/27/09) Brandon, John
Hewlett-Packard Labs is hosting a number of research projects, including flexible, disposable computer displays produced via self-aligned imprint lithography. "The patterning information is imprinted on the substrate in such a way that perfect alignment is maintained regardless of process-induced distortion," enabling more cost-effective continuous production on a flexible plastic material in a low-cost, roll-to-roll fabrication process, says Carl Taussig with HP's Information Surfaces Lab. Another HP Labs project is BookPrep, which allows printed books to be made from any submitted out-of-print text through an automated, non-destructive 24-hour scanning and printing process. The online Color Thesaurus enables users to choose a color by entering the name of a more well-known color and viewing slight variations, while the HP-owned Snapfish photo storage portal's Pet Eye application can eliminate glowing eyes in photos of pets using a new set of algorithms. HP Labs' sustainable data center project aims to determine how future data centers can be self-sustaining by focusing on the five sustainability areas of energy savings, resiliency, higher efficiency, computer air-conditioning consolidation, and improved flexibility. "For the next-generation city, we are thinking that we can use the IT ecosystem to manage the ecosystem around it," says Chandrakant D. Patel of the Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab. "We can seamlessly integrate the IT systems into the city so we can manage the ecosystem--services such as transport, waste, and power." HP Labs also has devised a working photonics prototype that uses light to transmit information, which combines greater data volume transmission with more energy efficiency.
Argonne Cloud Computing Helps Scientists Run High Energy Physics Experiments Using AliEn Grid Services
Argonne National Laboratory (03/24/09) Taylor, Eleanor
High energy physicists at CERN in Switzerland are using a novel system to make production runs that integrate the existing pool of distributed computers with dynamic resources in "science clouds." The system uses two mechanisms--the Nimbus Context Broker developed by computer scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, and a portable software environment developed at CERN. At CERN, scientists are conducting heavy ion simulations as part of A Large Ion Collider Experiment (ALICE), which includes developing and debugging computer jobs on a collection of internationally distributed resources, managed by a scheduler called AliEn. The use of additional resources led to the question of how to integrate a cloud's dynamically provisioned resources into an existing infrastructure, such as the ALICE project's group of computers, and still ensure that the various AliEn services have the same deployment-specific information. The first challenge was to develop a virtual machine that would support ALICE production computations. "Fortunately, the CernVM project had developed a way to provide virtual machines that can be used as a base supporting the production environment for all four experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN--including ALICE," says Artem Harutyunyan, a member of the Yerevan Physics Institute's ALICE group. "Otherwise, developing an environment for production physics runs would be a complex and demanding task." The Nimbus Context Broker enabled users to securely provide content-specific information to a virtual machine deployed on remote resources.
IETF to Explore New Routing Technique
Network World (03/26/09) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is forming a new working group to address scalability issues in the Internet's routing system, which are caused by companies that divide their network traffic across multiple carriers. The working group will use a base proposal from Cisco to create the Locator/Identifier Separation Protocol (LISP), a new tunneling mechanism for the Internet's routers. LISP is designed to reduce the number of entries in the routing tables stored in the core routers operated by Internet service providers. LISP separates Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that a company advertises to the Internet through its edge routers into two functions: the first for identifying the systems using the IP addresses, and the second for locating where those systems connect to the Internet. The separation enables LISP to collect location data so less information needs to be stored in the core routers. Every packet that enters the core routers is given a new IP wrapper that carries information on the destination service provider network rather than the end-user IP address. The wrapper is removed when the packet arrives at the destination service provider. LISP would work with the Border Gateway Protocol, the primary communications mechanism between edge and core routers. LISP's developers say the protocol will be deployed as a software upgrade to edge routers, and that it will be incrementally deployable and can work with both IPv4 and IPv6. LISP developers expect the working group to be chartered by the IETF this summer, after which they will continue to work on prototypes and protocol documents.
When Frying the Hard Drive Is a Good Thing
ScienceNOW (03/23/09) Berardelli, Phil
Researchers at Seagate Technology are pursuing a laser heating recording method to improve the capacity of computer hard drives. The researchers have developed a test magnetic recording head that includes a new device that acts like an optical antenna. They say that a thin film of tiny magnetic particles could be heated while receiving data bits and made more stable. The device, a near-field transducer, can focus a laser beam inside an area less than 75 nanometers in diameter. The researchers say that as the grains cool down, their magnetic alignment is stabilized by the laser heating and allows them to hold data indefinitely. As a result, diskmakers would be able to pack rows of bits more tightly, which would significantly increase data-storage space. Engineering adjustments, such as improving the delivery of laser light to the recording head, should enable the team to surpass the industry standard of 250 gigabytes per square inch. The researchers believe they can perfect the technology before the storage capacity of standard, magnetic hard drives is reached in about five years.
Can Robots Be Programmed to Learn From Their Own Experiences?
Scientific American (03/23/09) Smith, Julian
Inexpensive personal robots could be available soon, but they first have to be able to learn to perform tasks that human know how to do instinctively, says Iowa State University in Ames professor Alexander Stoytchev. A truly useful personal robot needs to be able to learn on its own through physical and social interactions with its environment, says Stoytchev, who is developing software that enables robots to learn. His research team has already succeeded in giving a robot the learning abilities of a two-year-old child. In one set of experiments, the robot was presented with 36 different objects and asked to identify and classify the objects based on the sounds they made, with the robot grasping, pushing, tapping, shaking, and dropping the objects. After a single action, the robot had a 72 percent success rate. The robot's accuracy increased after each successive action, reaching 99.2 percent accuracy after all five actions. The robot had to learn to use a perceptual model to recognize and classify objects, which it could use to estimate how similar two objects were based on the sounds they made. When robots are ready to serve as personal assistants, they may resemble the Home Exploring Robotic Butler (HERB) prototype developed at an Intel lab as part of the company's Personal Robotics Project. HERB is a three-foot machine that balances an arm and a hand on top of a Segway personal transporter base. HERB uses laser range finders and a camera to navigate its environment, and uses learning algorithms and probability distributions to learn how people move and avoid running into them.
Researchers Open a Window on Tomorrow's Grid
EE Times (03/23/09) Merritt, Rick
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's (PNNL's) Electrical Infrastructure Operations Center features a prototype control room that provides a glimpse into the envisioned smart grid, which would connect everything from coffee pots to power plants through a series of common electric and data networks. "We can actually watch different parts of the system rocking against each other," says PNNL's Steve Widergren. "We can see the lead and lag in signaling." The center, which currently is used only for research and development, monitors reports from a network of sensors known as phasor measurement units (PMUs). PMUs are test systems that sample the voltage, current, and frequency of power movement on the grid. They feature global positioning system modules to synchronize their measurements, creating the equivalent of a 60-frame/second video of the electric traffic grid. The center aims to expose how other centers could anticipate and prevent surges or blackouts, minimize transmission losses, and quickly respond to changes in demand. Some utilities are already deploying some of the center's concepts. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric spends about $10 million a year on proprietary wired sensors in its transmission and distribution network, and has proposed a plan to spend more than $1 billion over six years on a network of control systems to respond automatically to problems on its distribution system.
Software Fits Flexible Components
A new software program developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer-Chalmers Research Center FCC for Industrial Mathematics in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics ITWM in Kaiserslautern, Germany, should improve the assembly process for automakers. Assembly planners will be able to use the software to virtually install components that exist only in the form of computer-aided design data in a new car model. The software suggests what changes to make if there will be a problem maneuvering a part into place. "We can also include the pliability of components in the assembly simulation," says ITWM group manager Joachim Linn. "You can work interactively with the program, for example, to make a component longer or shorter in just a few seconds." The program also simulates the assembly paths of robots, which often scrape against the car body and leave small scratches. Assembly planners will be able to compute how the robots should move and fit the parts within minutes.
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