Welcome to the September 21, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Iran Preparing Internal Version of Internet
Washington Post (09/20/12) James Ball; Benjamin Gottlieb
The Iranian government reportedly has established a technical platform for a national online network that would exist independent of the Internet and allow for tighter information regulation. The network's development has been accelerated by cyberattacks targeting Iran's nuclear program, according to Iranian officials and outside experts. A forthcoming report from U.S. security researchers working under the aegis of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Global Communications Studies found functional versions of the sites of Iranian government ministries, universities, and businesses on the network, as well as indications of an operational filtering capability. The researchers note the network already is "internally consistent and widely reachable." The findings have sparked concerns not just about human rights violations but also about Internet integrity, says the U.S. State Department's David Baer. "When countries section off parts of the Web, not only do their citizens suffer, everyone does," Baer says. With the infrastructure for a self-contained, Iran-only Internet in place, the government would have more power to suppress online access during periods of civil unrest. Retired U.S. National Security Agency deputy director Cedric Leighton says the construction of a national network could give government-supported hackers more capabilities to launch and repulse cyberattacks.
India Plans Fastest Supercomputer by 2017
Indian Express (09/16/12)
India's Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) has drafted a proposal for developing a range of petaflop and exaflop computers over five years. The exaflop supercomputers would be at least 61 times faster than the Sequoia, the world's most powerful supercomputer, which has registered a top computing speed of 16.32 petaflops. India's telecom and information technology minister Kapil Sibal shared the roadmap in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Sibal also wants to return the task of coordinating overall supercomputing activities to the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITY). The proposal calls for the Indian government to give the task of setting up a National Apex Committee to oversee the implementation of the proposed Supercomputing Mission to DEITY, and have C-DAC establish petaflop and exascale supercomputing facilities and development projects.
U.S. Tech Workers By the Numbers
Computerworld (09/20/12) Sharon Machlis
Median earnings for computer and math jobs rose 2.8 percent between 2010 and 2011 to $70,594, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. This marks a larger increase than the 1.7 percent for all computer, engineering, and science occupations and 1.2 percent for U.S. jobs across all sectors. However, women holding computer and math jobs earned 85 percent of what their male counterparts did, with median earnings of $62,155 compared to $70,594 for men. What is not clear is whether this is because more women tend to hold lower-paying jobs within those fields, whether they have fewer average years in the workforce, or whether there is inequitable pay for similar work. Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have the highest proportions of tech workers, with 10.3 percent, 8.6 percent, and 7.8 percent, respectively. The states with the lowest proportion of tech workers are Mississippi, Arkansas, and Nevada, with 2.9 percent, 3.1 percent, and 3.1 percent, respectively. The percentage of tech workers in the U.S. workforce held steady from 2010 to 2011 at 5.2 percent.
Wired Is the New Wireless: Spreading the Web in China
New Scientist (09/14/12) Hal Hodson
Although 538 million of China's 1.3 billion people had access to the Internet as of June 2012, most of the country's population is still offline, which led Chinese researchers to develop new technology they say revolutionizes how the Internet is distributed. The researchers combined 3G and 4G connectivity standards into one set of fiber-optic lines, called radio-over-fiber (RoF). "Our aim is to build a broadband access network using just one integrated intelligent system of radio-over-fiber and distributed antennas," says Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications researcher Kun Xu. RoF works by encoding different types of wireless signals into a beam of light and sending them down a fiber-optic cable. All of the processing that enables Internet traffic to turn into radio signals happens at a central station, making RoF cheaper to build, run, and maintain than conventional wireless distribution networks. "The future city will not need big, high-power cell towers, expensive coaxial cables, or repetitive network infrastructures for different wireless services," Xu says. "All the services, wired or wireless, will be supplied by this system and controlled by one central office."
Stuxnet Tricks Copied by Computer Criminals
Technology Review (09/19/12) Tom Simonite
Security researchers warn that the techniques used in sophisticated, state-supported malware are being used by less-skilled programmers to target Web users. State-backed malware often targets previously unknown software vulnerabilities, known as zero-days, and their methods can be quickly copied by other programmers, notes Kaspersky Lab researcher Roel Schouwenberg. For example, Stuxnet recently installed fake device drivers using digital security certificates stolen from two Taiwanese computer component companies, allowing them to get past any security software. Now, other malware are using fake certificates in a similar way to hide malicious software from antivirus programs. "Stuxnet was the first really serious malware with a stolen certificate, and it's become more and more common ever since," Schouwenberg says. Kaspersky researchers now are studying Flame's modular design, which makes it harder for security companies to track a specific piece of malware. Security researchers say Flame may be the most advanced malware yet developed. "I think we will definitely see more of that [modular] approach," Schouwenberg says. "It provides an up-sell opportunity for these guys if they can sell something, and then offer upgrade kits to improve it later."
Improving Our Depth Perception in Augmented Reality
National Science Foundation (09/17/12) Miles O'Brien
Led by computer science professor J. Edward Swan II, Mississippi State University (MSU) researchers are working to improve depth perception in augmented reality (AR) environments. "As AR continues to develop, with many of the ideas for mobile AR now being ported to [personal digital assistants] and improved hardware for medical and other relatively stationary applications, his ongoing AR perception research is paving the pathway for working AR systems," says U.S. National Science Foundation researcher Lawrence Rosenblum. In the MSU lab, volunteers use a haploscope, a head-mounted display device, to position virtual objects and real ones. "This thing on my head is a tracking device, which tracks my head when it moves, and the device sends information to a computer through this wire," says MSU researcher Gurjot Singh. The information is then fed into a computer, which draws the scene onscreen according to the data as well as the user's location in space. Swan says AR has many potential applications, ranging from the military to medicine and the sports world.
NASA Funds 8 Advanced Robotics Projects
InformationWeek (09/19/12) Dan Taylor
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has selected eight advanced robotics projects from U.S. universities to fund as part of the White House's National Robotics Initiative (NRI). The research will help improve robotic technology and support the long-term goal of human exploration of Mars. The proposals include the development of human avatar robots capable of exploring hazardous environments, active skins for tactile feedback, tele-manipulation of humanoid robots on rough terrain, and long, thin continuum robots. The projects will address challenges in co-robotics, or having robots work alongside humans. "Where robots were once kept in cages and separated from people, we are now seeing robots built to co-exist with humans, helping people at work and throughout society," NASA says on its NRI Web site. "The NRI is targeting these new machines that will work with humans as co-workers, co-explorers, co-inhabitants, co-drivers, creating and capturing the new discipline of co-robotics." The research could have applications in manufacturing and business.
The Machines Are Taking Over
New York Times Magazine (09/16/12) Annie Murphy Paul
Giving computer programs the ability to educate students like a personal tutor is the goal of Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Neil Heffernan, whose efforts have yielded ASSISTments, a program that helps students learn while evaluating their progress. ASSISTments incorporates actions that human tutors follow to promote and accelerate learning, such as reminding students of steps they have already completed, encouraging students to generalize, and providing immediate feedback. Heffernan and others also are working on a computerized tutor that is responsive to students' moods, by specifically measuring boredom, frustration, and confusion without disrupting the tutoring process. Data for identifying such emotions is collected via facial-expression recognition software and a chair outfitted with sensors to measure students' posture. Heffernan and a collaborator are trying to streamline the technology so that the program can gauge a student's mood according to the pattern of his or her responses to questions. ASSISTments is designed for modification by teachers and students, and analysts say it demonstrates how education could be transformed by computer instruction supplemented by human teaching.
Home Sweet Lab: Computerized House to Generate as Much Energy as It Uses
NIST News (09/12/12) Jennifer Huergo
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently unveiled a laboratory designed to demonstrate that a typical suburban home for a family of four can generate as much energy as it uses in a year. The facility will be used to improve test methods for energy-efficient technologies and develop cost-effective design standards for energy-efficient homes. The two-story, four-bedroom, three-bath Net-Zero Energy Residential Test Facility incorporates energy-efficient construction and appliances, as well as solar water heating and solar photovoltaic systems. "It will also allow development of new design standards and test methods for emerging energy-efficient technologies and, we hope, speed their adoption," says NIST director Patrick Gallagher. The researchers will use software and mechanical controls to simulate the activities of a family of four living in the house. A solar photovoltaic system will produce electricity to run lights and appliances when weather allows, and excess energy will be fed back to the local utility grid via a smart electric meter. The house will tap energy from the grid on days it cannot generate enough by itself, but over the course of a year it will produce enough to offset that energy, for a net-zero energy usage.
Improved Positioning Indoors
TU Munchen (09/17/12)
New positioning technology developed by researchers at Technical University Munich (TUM) could potentially make navigation systems more useful indoors. The NAVVIS system combines visual information with realistic three-dimensional (3D) images to direct users to their desired destinations. The team developed a special-location recognition system for the project and tested the technology on campus by taking photos of a building and simultaneously mapping its prominent features such as stairs and signs. The technology works with a smartphone app, which lets users view the map images to find their current location. When users take a photo of their surroundings, the program compares the photo with images stored in its database, determines their exact position and the direction in which they are facing, then provides arrows to point the way in a 3D view. Besides navigation, NAVVIS has other potential uses such as for virtual tours or augmented reality applications. "So, for instance, visitors to the Louvre would not only be able to locate the Mona Lisa, but also view information about the painting or find directions to other works by da Vinci," says TUM researcher Robert Huitl.
The Computer as Music Critic
New York Times (09/16/12) P. 12 Joan Serra; Josep Lluis Arcos
Joan Serra, Josep Lluis Arcos, and colleagues at the Spanish National Research Council's Artificial Intelligence Research Institute have studied the evolution of popular music over the years. They used computers to analyze nearly 465,000 Western popular music recordings released between 1955 and 2010, including folk, rock, funk, pop, and hip-hop. The researchers first looked for static patterns characterizing the generic use of primary musical elements such as pitch, timbre, and loudness, then measured a general trend for these elements over the years. The researchers constructed a music vocabulary to generate a text that could represent the popular musical discourse of a given year or age, and found that Zipf's law applies to music, with regard to the most common note combinations. Beyond the static patterns, the team found that the number of different transitions between note combinations declined over the decades. Since the 1960s, the variety of timbre in pop music has declined, which means artists and composers tend to use the same sound qualities. The researchers also found that recording levels have consistently increased since 1955, which confirms that music has gotten louder.
BYU Researchers Detect Fraud With Highest Accuracy
The Universe (09/18/12)
Brigham Young University (BYU) researchers have developed MetaFraud, a fraud-detection system that uses information from publicly available financial statements. The researchers used business intelligence software to develop a model that can detect fraud with up to 90 percent accuracy. "This improved detection is crucial given the broad societal costs of management fraud," says BYU professor Jim Hansen. The MetaFraud framework consists of several base-level artificial intelligence "learners" that feed their results into a far-reaching business intelligence algorithm that learns and adapts over time. The researchers analyzed 9,000 instances from more than 15 years and found that MetaFraud correctly predicts fraud with 80 percent accuracy, and more than 90 percent accuracy when MetaFraud reports a high level of confidence, which it was able to do 70 percent of the time. "This is a very low-cost method of taking data that's already out there, already public, and then in a few minutes calculating, with a fairly high degree of certainty, if fraud is happening in that company," says BYU researcher Anthony Vance.
New Class of Materials Discovered; Could Boost Computer Memory
Today@UNL (09/18/12) Tom Simons
An international team of researchers say they have discovered a new class of materials that could be useful in developing novel methods of creating computer memory. The researchers explored layered heterostructures at the atomic scale, in which different materials were deposited in layers a few atoms thick. They found that the new class of materials has ferroelectric properties, which could be used to create new types of data-storage devices. "Our discovery shows a possibility that researchers could engineer properties at the atomic scale and create new, artificial materials exhibiting novel functional properties not existing in their constituents," says the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Evgeny Tsymbal. The researchers used advanced synthesis methods to fabricate heterostructures by depositing atomic layers of different materials, layer by layer, in stacks with a thickness of a few nanometers. "Crucially, our computations and analysis were decisive for the understanding of the origin of ferroelectricity in the experimentally synthesized heterostructures," Tsymbal says. The materials also exhibit magnetoelectricity, which Tsymbal notes is an important functional property that allows it to affect electric polarization by the application of a magnetic field.
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