Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the November 12, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


How to Steal Data From Your Neighbor in the Cloud
Technology Review (11/08/12) Tom Simonite

RSA researchers have shown that it is possible for software hosted by a cloud-computing provider to steal secrets from software hosted on the same cloud. The researchers ran malware on hardware designed to mimic the equipment used by cloud companies such as Amazon, and they were able to steal an encryption key used to secure emails from the software belonging to another user. "The basic lesson is that if you've got a highly sensitive workload, you shouldn't run it alongside some unknown and potentially untrustworthy neighbor," says RSA's Ari Juels. The researchers found that, since virtual machines running on the same physical hardware share resources, the actions of one can hinder the performance of another. This phenomenon allows an attacker in control of one virtual machine to spy on the data stored in memory attached to one of the processors running in the cloud environment. The RSA software abused a feature that allows software to get priority access to a physical processor when it needs it. By regularly asking to use the processor, the attacker could probe the memory cache for evidence of the calculations the victim was performing with the email encryption key. A worrisome application of this attack would be to use the method to steal the encryption keys used to secure Web sites offering services such as email, shopping, and banking.


Executives & Academics Partner to Advance STEM Education & Careers
Education Week (11/07/12) Tom Vander Ark; Sarah Cargill

The Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF), a network of executives and college presidents advancing innovation solutions to education and workforce challenges in the United States, is focusing its efforts on facilitating programs in deeper learning and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. "We're looking to create synergies between these two streams of work," says former Gates Foundation officer Steve Barkanic. BHEF thinks that partnerships and pilot programs involving corporations and higher education can help to cultivate a new generation of STEM students and professionals. In its first regional workforce development initiative, BHEF helped the University System of Maryland to develop the Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students, which creates a residential honors program focused on cybersecurity skills development. BHEF also is promoting a project at City University of New York and IBM to create new student pathways in energy sustainability and large-data analytics. "It's an exciting opportunity to use a living environment as a laboratory," Barkanic says. BHEF's work is helping to make post-secondary science more engaging and applied, which should lead to more STEM graduates.


Hacking Contest Seeks to Attract Women to Information Security
IDG News Service (11/09/12) Jeremy Kirk

The Power of Community (POC2012) security conference in Seoul recently held the final round of a hacking contest called the Power of XX, a women-only skills competition intended to spark interest in computer science among young women. The competition included 48 five-member teams that worked to solve challenges in areas such as Web application attacks, programming, system hacking, and cryptography. The challenges were designed with neophytes in mind, compared to other hacking competitions that are generally designed for experts in the field. A perception exists that women are not necessarily as good as men in terms of computer skills, notes a male contest organizer. There are distinct differences between how men and women approach computer science problems, according to POC2012 organizer Jeong-hoon Shin. Women tend to be more detail oriented, work slower, and think more about the problems, while men tend to rush through the problems with less thought, Shin says. "The most important things are patience, endurance, and taking on new challenges," notes female computer science student Jeong-jinn Kang.


Customize Your Favorite TV Show
NewScientist.com (11/08/12) Paul Marks

With TVs utilizing gestural and voice controls, and analytics to examine your backlog of DVRed programs and suggest new shows, a team of French developers thought something was still missing. "We think its time users had search and browsing tools to use with these digital video collections," says Herve Bredin of the Computer Sciences Laboratory for Mechanics and Engineering Sciences in Orsay. Bredin and a team from the Toulouse Institute for Computer Science Research have developed StoryVisualizer (StoViz), a PC-based service that can successfully parse a TV episode based on characters, narrative, and setting. StoViz does this by deinterlacing the visuals and dialogue of a scene into individual threads, seeking specific details such as an actor's face, background scenery, and specific words and phrases of dialogue. This allows the program to construct a collection of scenes from across an episode or an entire series based on any of these threads on the fly. Bredin says his team has successfully tested StoViz on three different series so far. He hopes StoViz will eventually become a feature in many DVRs.


Structure of Network Drives Friends to Congregate into Many Small, Highly Interconnected Communities
PhysOrg.com (11/08/12)

Indiana University in Bloomington and University of Messina researchers have discovered, for the first time, the dynamics of how Facebook user communities are formed, using mathematical tools typically utilized to study complex systems. This work could ultimately help identify the most efficient way to spread information, such as advertising, or ideas over large networks. First, the researchers acquired a snapshot of the structure of the users' friendship network using several techniques of statistical sampling applied to the anonymized public profiles of Facebook users. Then, the researchers validated the results by comparing the outcome of several statistical methods and by using various algorithms. The researchers found that Facebook communities emerge as a result of the network's structure, which is based on creating networks of friends. It therefore has little bearing on how individual users behave. Users have a tendency for aggregating in small-sized communities that are very interconnected, and this type of structure is known to optimize the efficiency of communications among users. This approach could be used to confirm a social theory known as Mark S. Granovetter's "strength of weak ties," in which loose interconnections among users return better opportunities and more efficient communication channels.


Computer Simulations Shed Light on Cancer Prevention
HPC Wire (11/07/12) Ian Armas Foster

New York University (NYU) researchers are using high performance computing (HPC) resources to model airborne cancerous chemicals, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), and their effect on DNA strands in human cells. HPC accelerated the process of determining which carcinogens manipulated the DNA so effectively. The NYU researchers, led by professor Suse Broyde, used the Longhorn, Lonestar, and Ranger systems at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) to perform these simulations, along with resources in the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment. The researchers used TACC's resources to develop a series of computer simulations, which revealed "structural, energetic, and dynamic properties of the DNA containing the PAH-derived lesions," Broyde says. After modeling three different carcinogens in two different configurations each, Broyde's team determined that dibenzo[a,l]pyrene was most likely to induce tumors. Determining which carcinogens pose the greatest risk is critical to preventative medicine, as doctors can warn patients which chemicals they should be more wary around. The research also could lead to the development of more effective chemotherapeutic drugs.


Computational Neuroscience: Memory-Making Is All About the Connection
A*STAR Research (11/08/12)

A*STAR Institute researchers have developed a model that describes the exact synaptic conditions required in memory formation. The work builds on a previously proposed model of auto-associative memory, a process whereby a memory is retrieved or completed after partial activation of its constituent neural network. The earlier model suggested neural networks encoding short-term memories are activated at specific points during oscillations of brain activity. Changes in the strengths of synapses, and thus the abilities of neurons in the network to activate each other, lead to an auto-associative long-term memory. The new model describes the activity of a single neuron to incorporate specific characteristics of cells in the hippocampus, including their inhibitory activity, which allows the researchers to model neural networks in the hippocampus that encode short-term memories. "This study has significant implications in the construction of artificial cognitive computers in the future," says A*STAR researcher Eng Yeow Cheu. "It helps with developing artificial cognitive memory, in which memory sequences can be retrieved by the presentation of a partial query."


Touch-Screen Technology to Address Malnutrition in Older People
University of Sheffield (11/07/12) Amy Pullan

U.K. researchers from Sheffield University recently showcased the Novel Assessment of Nutrition and Aging (NANA) system during an event at the House of Parliament in London. NANA is the product of a three-year cooperative effort by a team of academics from the University of Sheffield and three other U.K. universities aimed at creating a system for measuring diet, cognition, mood, and physical function among seniors. Malnutrition, especially, is a major issue for seniors in Britain, with one-third of those living independently at risk of malnutrition. A touchscreen-based system, NANA tracks diet and other metrics through straightforward user inputs, giving seniors an easy way to visualize their daily habits. NANA makes it easy for anyone to enter items of food and drink consumed throughout the day, both as complete meals and snacks. NANA keeps tabs on what users actually consume by comparing before and after they eat and drink. Although developed with seniors who live independently in mind, NANA also has attracted attention from several elder care facilities, which say they also experience malnutrition concerns with roughly one-third of their residents.


Measuring Metabolism Can Predict the Progress of Alzheimer's with 90 Percent Accuracy
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (11/07/12)

Tel Aviv University researchers have developed a method for identifying early signs of Alzheimer's disease in the brain's metabolism. They developed predictive models that use metabolic information to monitor the progression of Alzheimer's, and the research is the first step toward identifying biomarkers that could lead to better detection and analysis of the disease at an early stage. "We hope that by studying metabolism, and the alterations to metabolism that occur in the very early stages of the disease, we can find new therapeutic strategies," says Tel Aviv University researcher Shiri Stempler. The researchers used data collected from the brain's hippocampus region, and were able to build a predictive model that relates abnormalities in metabolic genes to the progression of Alzheimer's disease. "The correlation between metabolic gene expression and cognitive score in Alzheimer's patients is even higher than the correlation we see in medical literature between beta amyloid plaques--found in deposits in the brains of Alzheimer's patient-- and cognitive score, pointing to a strong association between cognitive decline and an altered metabolism," Stempler says. In the future, the researchers want to identify biomarkers in the blood that are associated with these metabolic changes, which could lead to an easy, non-invasive blood test for the disease.


Tattoo Recognition Database Could Help Combat Crime and Terrorism
Government Technology (11/06/12) Sarah Rich

Michigan State University (MSU) researchers have devised biometric tattoo recognition technology that matches images of tattoos on individuals with tattoos in a database. MSU's tattoo-recognition system does not require submitting keywords into the database to describe a tattoo when querying a specific tattoo image. The university does not want to add a keyword submission component to the technology because the assignment of a keyword to a tattoo image is not unique, since different individuals may use different keywords when describing the same image, says MSU professor Anil Jain. "Some tattoos like a cross or a skeleton may be easy to assign keywords, but in many cases, the tattoo images are very complex so a single keyword is not enough and some of the keywords may not even be appropriate for that tattoo image," Jain notes. In cases where the image of the tattoo is not captured on a camera, witnesses can describe the image of the tattoo to a forensic artist, who can then cross-reference the sketch with the images in the tattoo database to find a potential match.


Blue Waters Petascale Supercomputer Now in Friendly User Phase
NCSA News (11/06/12)

U.S. National Science Foundation-approved science and engineering teams now have access to the full Blue Waters petascale computing system. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and Cray are currently conducting functionality, feature, performance, and reliability testing of the system at full scale. As the tests are completed, a representative production workload of science and engineering applications will run on the full Blue Waters system. The selected users will have access to the entire system during this window in order to help the Blue Waters team test and evaluate the full system. University of Illinois researchers used the system to explore aspects of the HIV capsid's structural properties in a 100-nanosecond simulation. University of California, Santa Barbara researchers employed the system to complete their calculation of the spectroscopy of charmonium, the positronium-like states of a charm quark and an anticharm quark. NCSA notes that Blue Waters is designed for the most data-, memory-, and compute-intensive computational science and engineering work and to provide sustained performance of 1 petaflop on a range of science and engineering applications.


Georgia Tech Turns Stale Physics Book into Mobile Experience
Center for Digital Education (11/05/12) Tonya Roscorla

Georgia Tech researchers are turning physics textbooks into applications for e-books, making the lessons more interactive and more interesting for students. For example, the researchers have already turned the first chapter of "The Infrared Handbook" into an e-book app. The first chapter of the physics textbook contained radiation theory and static graphs, along with calculator programming and the radiation calculator slide rule. The app allows users to calculate blackbody radiation by changing inputs including temperature, relative humidity, visibility, and range. "That really allows you to understand how the graph changes depending on those input parameters, and just seeing it happen in real time is so much better I think than looking at static images," says Georgia Tech researcher Leanne West. She notes "the goal in the long term is to take pieces of [the book] and do just what we did with the first chapter where you make it more up to date, user friendly, with today's world."


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