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Welcome to the September 29, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Companies Rush to Fix Shellshock Software Bug as Hackers Launch Thousands of Attacks
The New York Times (09/26/14) Nicole Perlroth

Companies and individuals were scrambling to determine what systems might remain vulnerable following warnings from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last week about the newly discovered Shellshock bug affecting a widely used Bash Unix shell. Apple and Google both issued statements on Friday saying most of the systems running their respective OS X and Android operating systems should not be affected by the bug, even as they noted some users may still be vulnerable. Fears that Shellshock would almost immediately be exploited were confirmed, with security researchers reporting a spike in Internet scans searching for vulnerable systems. Incapsula on Friday reported witnessing about 17,400 attacks in the previous 24 hours targeting more than 1,800 Web domains, with more than half of the attacks originating from IP addresses in the U.S. and China. The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology rated Shellshock a 10 out of 10 in terms of its severity, potential impact, and the ease with which it can be exploited. Experts, including the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, are advising users and administrators to keep on top of software updates and seek out patches for hardware such as routers.
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Supercomputer Ushers in New Era of Australian Research
ARNnet (Australia) (09/25/14) Brian Karlovsky

The Pawsey Supercomputing Center's Petascale Pioneers program recently installed the final stage upgrade for Magnus, the most advanced scientific supercomputer in the Southern Hemisphere. The upgrade resulted in Magnus breaking the petaflop barrier. Magnus is an eight-cabinet Cray XC30 supercomputer that features more than 35,000 cores using Intel Xeon E5-2600 v3 processors and 95 TB of memory. The center has awarded almost 90 million central-processing unit-hours for pioneering research projects, but it still has nearly three times more requests for time than it can accommodate. The projects chosen under the program focus on areas of research from geoscience to astrophysics, chemistry, and bioinformatics. The projects were accepted based on their ability to take advantage of the state-of-the-art technologies provided by the Pawsey Supercomputing Center and Magnus. Projects were specifically chosen for grand-challenge scientific problems that would be impossible without the immense processing power of petascale supercomputing. "In addition, we are pleased to enable collaborative research projects between local and international researchers," says Pawsey executive director Neil Stringfellow.

New Discovery Could Pave the Way for Spin-based Computing
University of Pittsburgh News (09/25/14) Joe Miksch

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have discovered a way to fuse electricity and magnetism in a single material, a breakthrough they say could lead to new ultrahigh density storage and computing architectures. The discovery is a form of magnetism that can be stabilized with electric fields rather than magnetic fields. The researchers created a material that has a thick layer of strontium titanate and a thin layer of lanthanum aluminate, and found the interface between the materials can exhibit magnetic behavior that is stable at room temperature. The magnetic properties are detected using "magnetic force microscopy," an imaging technique that scans a tiny magnet over the material to gauge the relative attraction or repulsion from the magnetic layer. "Magnetic materials tend to respond to magnetic fields and are not so sensitive to electrical influences," notes Pittsburgh professor Jeremy Levy. "What we have discovered is that a new family of oxide-based materials can completely change its behavior based on electrical input." Spintronics pioneer Stuart Wolf, head of the University of Virginia's nanoSTAR Institute, says, "This work is indeed very promising and may lead to a new type of magnetic storage."

Harvard Researchers Take Aim at Shellshock-like Woes With New Scripting Language
IDG News Service (09/25/14) Joab Jackson

News of the Unix shell bug Shellshock has helped give a boost to Shill, a new scripting language being developed by Harvard University researchers to help prevent those types of vulnerabilities. Shill is designed to limit the ability of shell-based scripts to access resources beyond what they need to handle the task at hand, following the principle of least privilege, according to doctoral student and Shill team member Scott Moore. "The idea of Shill is to give you control over what you want a program or script to access," Moore says. He notes that is unlike many existing scripting languages, which grant programs the same level of privileges as the current user. Moore says limiting its access allows Shill to head-off vulnerabilities such as Shellshock, which enable an attacker to inject commands into a script. He compares Shill to the U.S. National Security Agency's SE Linux technology, but applied to the script level. The Harvard team currently is developing Shill for the FreeBSD Unix operating system and is considering porting the language to Linux. They also will be presenting Shill at the USENIX Symposium on Operating Systems Design and Implementation this week in Broomfield, CO.

New Technology May Lead to Prolonged Power in Mobile Devices
UT Dallas News (09/26/14) LaKisha Ladson

University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) researchers have developed technology that could lead to wearable computers with self-contained power sources. The technology accesses the power of a single electron to control energy consumption inside transistors. The researchers found that by adding a thin layer of chromium oxide film onto a transistor, the layer acted as a filter for the energy that passed through it at room temperature. The device produced a signal that was up to seven times steeper than that of traditional devices. The researchers say the filter is one way to reduce the thermal noise in transistors. "Having to cool the thermal spread in modern transistors limits how small consumer electronics can be made," says UT Dallas professor Kyeongjae Cho. "We devised a technique to cool the electrons internally--allowing reduction in operating voltage--so that we can create even smaller, more power-efficient devices." The researchers also created a vertical-layering system, which they note will be more practical as devices get smaller. "One way to shrink the size of the device is by making it vertical, so the current flows from top to bottom instead of the traditional left to right," says UT Dallas professor Jiyoung Kim.

Code the Ode: Center for Digital Humanities Marries Technology and Humanistic Studies
Princeton University (09/25/14) Jamie Saxon

Princeton University's new Center for Digital Humanities was born out the opportunity that computational tools offer to enhance traditional humanities scholarship, according to center director and Princeton professor Meredith Martin. The facility will nurture and support interdisciplinary initiatives across the humanities, computer sciences, and library sciences, and Martin sees computers' rapid digestion and storage of massive volumes of data as essential to such projects. "Instead of digging through archives trying to find the answer, in collaboration with a computer scientist, the humanist can come up with ways of using existing or new tools to generate a lot of answers very quickly," she says. Among the projects the center will support in its first year is a comparison of the Namibia-Angola border over time using aerial photos, employing digitization and geographic information systems to integrate qualitative and quantitative data into a layered visual archive. Other projects will focus on digitizing early alphabet books, and a "virtual archeologist" system that can restore ancient frescoes through a combination of algorithms and a processing system mimicking the procedures traditionally followed at excavation sites. "The next generation of humanists will need to be equipped not only with a classically humanistic framework...but also with the practical and intellectual tools of digital analysis," Martin says.

Putting the Squeeze on Quantum Information
Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (09/25/14) Lindsay Jolivet

Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) researchers have demonstrated that information stored in quantum bits can be exponentially compressed without losing data, a breakthrough they say is an important proof of principle, which could be useful for efficient quantum communications and information storage. "Our proposal gives you a way to hold onto a smaller quantum memory but still have the possibility of extracting as much information at a later date as if you'd held onto them all in the first place," says CIFAR's Aephraim M. Steinberg. In an experiment, the researchers prepared quantum bits (qubits) in the form of photons, which conveyed information in the form of their spin and in their path. The researchers showed the compression would scale exponentially, meaning it would require only 10 qubits to store all of the information in about 1,000 qubits, and just 20 qubits to store all of the information in about a million qubits. "This work sheds light on some of the striking differences between information in the classical and quantum worlds," Steinberg says. "It also promises to provide an exponential reduction in the amount of quantum memory needed for certain tasks."

Computer Scientists Aim to Accelerate Data-Intensive Workflows With NSF Funding
Penn State News (09/24/14) Stefanie Tomlinson

The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year, $850,000-grant to four Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers to improve time-to-completion of data- and compute-intensive bioinformatics workflows on supercomputers. Their research will concentrate on lightweight data layout restructuring at multiple granularities to augment locality; co-tuning of tasks to overlap compute-, communication-, and I/O-phases; and locality-aware load-balancing and coordinated resource partitioning to leverage high-performance computing platforms. "Our new bioinformatics workflow acceleration methodologies aim to minimize data movement between various levels of the memory hierarchy, exploit compute-node heterogeneity, and maximize data locality," says principal investigator and PSU professor Kamesh Madduri. The project's initial goal will be to expedite multiple elements of genetic variant detection workflow in bioinformatics. Designing methodologies and task-specific optimizations targeting the massive parallelism and scalability potential of current heterogeneous supercomputers to enable easy transfer and application of such techniques to dedicated academic cluster and commercial cloud settings is a key objective of the researchers. "Genetic variation detection workflows are ubiquitous in disease studies and will soon become a key component of personalized medicine technologies," says PSU's Paul Medvedev.

Digital Archaeology Changes Exploration of the Past
UWM News (09/24/14) Kathy Quirk

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) researchers are studying how technology tools such as iPads and three-dimensional (3D) scanners can replace notebooks, sketchpads, pencils, and cameras at archaeological sites and museums. Mobile computing increasingly is becoming the normal way of collecting, mapping, and archiving archaeological data, according to UWM professor Derek Counts. The researchers used tablet computers at a site to document excavations, look up information on relational databases, create spreadsheets, complete drawings, take photos, and make audio and video recordings to insert into their notes as they work. Off-the-shelf apps facilitate the processing of information and the creation of "born-digital" data. "Tablets have long-lasting batteries, are highly portable, include high-resolution cameras, and have really made mobile computing a reality in the field," Counts says. The researchers also are studying how innovations in 3D imaging and printing can help archeologists, focusing on how structured-light 3D scanning can capture both the surface and geometry of artifacts. The technology could help digitally reassemble archaeological objects that have been broken and scattered over a wide area. Digital scans also will enable researchers to study artwork remotely, leaving the originals in museums in their countries of origin.

New Computer Codes to Aid Greener, Leaner Aircraft Design
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (09/23/2014)

Imperial College London researchers have developed software that accurately predicts how composite materials behave when damaged, which they say makes it easier to produce lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft. The software forms the basis of a computer model that shows how an aircraft's components would behave if they suffered small-scale damages. The researchers say any tiny cracks that spread through the composite material can be predicted using the new model. The model will help create less bulky panels that could be used to make aircraft that are lighter and more fuel-efficient than current designs. "One key challenge in designing with composites is that while the physical mechanisms leading to damage develop at a tiny scale, models predicting these mechanisms need to be applied to much larger components," says Imperial College London's Silvestre Pinho. The researchers focused on experimental investigations into different failure mechanisms that have enabled damage to be represented for entire aircraft components. "We've been collaborating with Dr. Pinho over a number of years on the development of models for failure of composite structures," notes Airbus' Morten Ostergaard. "This is a very challenging area and these models constitute a positive contribution to our capability to predict damage in large components."

Dartmouth's New ZEBRA Bracelet Strengthens Computer Security
Dartmouth College (09/22/14) John Cramer

Dartmouth College researchers have developed Zero-Effort Bilateral Recurring Authentication (ZEBRA), computer security technology that authenticates users while they are using a device and automatically logs them out when they leave or when a new user comes forward. The ZEBRA system includes a bracelet with a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, and radio, which the user wears on their wrist. When the user interacts with the computer, the bracelet records the wrist movement and compares it with the inputs it receives from the user via the keyboard and mouse to confirm the continued presence of one common user. During testing, the researchers say ZEBRA performed continuous authentication with 85-percent accuracy in verifying the correct user and identified all adversaries within 11 seconds. "In this work, we focused on the deauthentication problem for desktop computers because we were motivated by associated problems faced by healthcare professionals in hospitals," says Dartmouth professor David Kotz. "It would be natural to extend ZEBRA to mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablet computers, and we believe this is possible despite some different challenges."

Jeff Hawkins on Why His Approach to AI Will Become the Approach to AI (09/24/14) Derrick Harris

In an interview, Numenta founder Jeff Hawkins says he expects his vision of brain-inspired artificial intelligence (AI) to win out over other approaches. He predicts by the end of the 2020s, universal, memory-based algorithms that work on numerous problems will dominate, and they will be founded on time-based patterns and serve as online learning paradigms. The algorithms will operate according to what Hawkins calls hierarchical temporal memory, which is designed to mirror neocortical function. "Our basic approach is adhering to neuroscience principles so that we will get the properties that brains have," Hawkins says. He also notes Numenta's technology can support computer-vision tasks, creating a cortical-like vision system that incorporates both sensory motor inference and high order inference. Hawkins says his AI approach is distinct from deep learning, which involves the solving of spatial pattern-recognition problems with no consideration of time-based patterns or prediction or anomaly detection. Still, he acknowledges the need for his approach and other AI approaches to ultimately intersect. Hawkins describes the technology Numenta is developing as "a foundation for the next 60, 70, 100 years of computing. It's not replacing computing, but it's as big as computing."

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