Welcome to the February 27, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Stuxnet Missing Link Found, Resolves Some Mysteries Around the Cyberweapon
Wired News (02/26/13) Kim Zetter
Symantec researchers have found a variant of the Stuxnet virus that predates other versions of the malicious code, which reportedly was developed by the United States and Israel in an attempt to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. The older variant, known as Stuxnet 0.5, was designed for a different kind of attack against centrifuges used in Iran's uranium enrichment program. The variant appears to have been released in 2007, two years earlier than other variants of the code, and a command-and-control server used with the malware was registered in late 2005. Symantec discovered the 2007 variant during a routine search of its malware database while looking for files that matched patterns of known malware. The discovery of the older variant resolves several mysteries about a part of the attack code that appeared in the 2009 and 2010 versions of Stuxnet but was incomplete in those variants and had been disabled by the attackers. The 2009 and 2010 versions contained the Siemens S7-315 and S7-417 models of the attack code, but the 417 code had been disabled. The 2007 variant reveals that the 417 attack code had at one time been fully operational before the attackers disabled it in later versions of the malware.
Stanford Researchers Build Complex Circuits Made of Carbon Nanotubes
Technology Review (02/27/13) Katherine Bourzac
Stanford University researchers say they have developed one of the most complex carbon nanotube circuits to date, in the form of a hand-shaking robot with a sensor-interface circuit built from carbon nanotubes. The demonstration carbon nanotube circuit converts an analog signal from a capacitor into a digital signal that can be read by a microprocessor. The system also shows that nanotube transistors can be made at high yields, says Stanford professor Subhasish Mitra. Although the nanotube circuit is still relatively slow, the work is an important demonstration of the potential of carbon nanotube computing technology. "This shows that carbon nanotube transistors can be integrated into logic circuits that perform at low voltage," says IBM's Aaron Franklin. The Stanford researchers developed an error-tolerant circuit design that enables them to build circuits that work even when the starting materials are flawed. "We want to build up the circuit complexity, then go back to improving the building methods, then make more complex circuits," says Stanford professor Philip Wong.
Intel Demos Perceptual Computing Software Toolkit
Computerworld (02/25/13) Matt Hamblen
Intel researchers are experimenting with ways to use the human voice, gestures, and head-and-eye movements to operate computers. The research is expected to help developers build computer games, doctors control computers used in surgery, and firefighters when they enter flaming buildings. One of the toolkits Intel is developing, called the Perceptual Computing software developer kit, recently was freely distributed to outside developers, who will compete for $1 million in prizes by building applications that will be judged by Intel engineers. Meanwhile, Intel's Barry Solomon recently demonstrated how the Perceptual Computing software can render facial expressions and hand gestures on a computer screen, accompanied by an overlay of lines and dots to show the precise position of the eyes and fingers. "There's a lot of nuance that you don't get from the keyboard and a mouse," says Intel's Craig Hurst. He notes Intel hopes to build a community of developers that use the software. "Once developers see how easy it is to get access to these development capabilities, there will be an explosion in the ecosystem," Hurst says. "This work is a very high priority for Intel."
IT Security Organizations Facing Shortage of Skilled Professionals
eWeek (02/25/13) Brian Prince
There is a severe shortage of skilled cybersecurity professionals, according to an International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium survey of more than 12,000 information security professionals from around the world. The survey found that 56 percent of respondents said their organizations are short-staffed. Among the study's notable findings, communication skills was the second most commonly cited factor for success, cited by 91 percent, right behind "a broad understanding of the security field," and leadership skills were mentioned by 68 percent of respondents. "I think there's an understanding--not only on the part of professionals in this industry but also on the part of hiring managers--that a really good information security professional not only has the technical knowledge but also has a desire to stay on top of their field and have those broad managerial skills," says the consortium's Julie Peeler. Security certifications are viewed as a reliable indicator of competency when hiring, cited by nearly 70 percent. The average annual salary is $101,014 and is 33 percent higher than the average annual salary of those without the certification. The number of security professionals is expected to rise steadily around the globe by more than 11 percent annually over the next five years.
Quantum Algorithm Breakthrough
University of Bristol News (02/24/13)
An international research group says it has made an important step toward practical quantum computing by implementing a full quantum algorithm without knowing its answer. Scientists from the University of Bristol and the University of Queensland led the group. The researchers implemented the phase estimation algorithm, a core central quantum algorithm that achieves an exponential speedup over all classical algorithms. "Unlike previous demonstrations, we built a full quantum circuit to implement the phase estimation algorithm without any simplification," says project director Xiao-Qi Zhou. "We don't need to know the answer in advance and it is the first time the answer is truly calculated by a quantum circuit with a quantum algorithm." The project paves the way for important applications such as quantum simulations and quantum metrology in the near term and factoring in the long term, says professor Jeremy O'Brien, director of Bristol's Center for Quantum Photonics. He says quantum algorithms eventually could facilitate the design of new materials, pharmaceuticals, or clean energy devices.
Teaching Robots Lateral Thinking
MIT News (02/25/13) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have demonstrated how robots could use lateral thinking to make up for their physical shortcomings. MIT's Jennifer Barry developed an algorithm that enables a robot to push an object across a table so that part of it hangs off the edge, where it can be grasped. Meanwhile, MIT researcher Annie Holladay developed an algorithm that enables a two-armed robot to use one of its graspers to steady an object set in place by the other. Most experimental general-purpose robots use a motion-planning algorithm that could have to search up to a 10-dimensional space, depending on the number of joints in each robotic arm. Barry found a concise way to represent the physical properties of the object to be pushed. That description enabled Barry to characterize a much smaller space of motions that would propel the object in useful directions. Holladay's algorithm identifies paths that introduce collisions and blocks them. "I might look for a place for the other hand that will block bad paths and kind of funnel the object into the path that I want," Holladay says. Her algorithm also handles situations in which the robot is setting an object on a table, but the object sticks to the rubber sheath of the robot's gripper.
UCLA Researchers Develop New Method of Controlling Tiny Devices
UCLA Newsroom (02/22/13) Bill Kisliuk
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers have developed a method for switching tiny magnetic fields on and off with an electric field. The researchers developed a composite that can control magneto-electric activity at a scale of about 10 nanometers, approximately 1,000 times smaller than a red blood cell. In earlier experiments, the instability of magnetic particles at such a tiny scale made controlling their movement, as well as the energy reaching them, impossible. The researchers used a composite of nickel nanocrystals combined with a single crystal of piezoelectric material to control the north-south orientation of the particles in addition to their tendency to spin around, which are important for activating and deactivating a magnetic field. The findings could change the way electromagnetic devices are designed. The researchers say their work also could lead to the significant miniaturization of equipment ranging from memory devices and antennas to instruments used to analyze blood. In addition, the discovery could lead to changes in digital information storage and the powering of motors in small handheld devices.
Happy, Snappy Tweets Gain the Most Twitter Followers
New Scientist (02/26/13) Paul Marks
Georgia Institute of Technology researchers examined the content and retweeting results of tweets sent by 500 non-celebrities over a 15-month period. The researchers looked for 2,800 terms that convey positive and negative emotions, including slang, swear words, emoticons, and common acronyms. The researchers were able to determine whether Twitter users who used each term gained or lost followers by scoring each term on a sliding scale of positivity. "Twitter is used quite heavily as a news medium," notes Georgia Institute of Technology's C.J. Hutto. "My weak connections on Twitter care less about what I had for breakfast than they do about this neat bit of news I discovered." The research suggests it is the content of tweets, rather than a followers list, that has the biggest impact on the size of a Twitter audience. "Twitter users who engage with their existing followers via mentions, replies, and favoriting had positive follower growth, while users who mostly broadcast to no one in particular had dramatically suppressed growth rates," Hutto observes. Readability also was a key element, and the team built a Tweet Reading Difficulty Index to quantify the tweets' comprehensibility. They discovered that those whose tweets scored higher on the index had more followers.
The Melting Pot of New York, Seen in Its Multilingual Tweets
Co.Exist (02/22/13) Zak Stone
The Twitter NYC map plotted out the languages in New York City that are most frequently spoken on social media by visualizing the whereabouts of the 8.5 million geolocated tweets sent from devices in the five boroughs between January 2010 and February 2013. Tweets were categorized by language using Google’s translation tools, color-coded, and then mapped out. Project co-creator Ed Manley notes the map clearly shows Manhattan as the epicenter of Twitter activity in New York, as well as the most multilingual area on Twitter. However, English remains the predominant language in New York, constituting 95 percent of tweets analyzed by the project. Spanish was the second most-used language with 2.7 percent of tweets, followed by Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, and French. Manley identifies South Brooklyn, Coney Island, and Jackson Heights as the most popular neighborhoods for tweets made in languages other than English. On the other hand, New York's six leading foreign languages are Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and French Creole. The populousness of Chinese speakers in New York is not reflected in the number of Chinese tweets, while the high number of Portuguese and French tweets may be attributed to visitors.
U.S. Students Get Cracking on Chinese Malware Code
IDG News Service (02/21/13) Jeremy Kirk
Mississippi State University students will analyze samples of malicious software used in a seven-year hacking campaign against 141 U.S. companies and organizations. Wesley McGrew, a research assistant, teaches a reverse engineering class that will have 14 computer science and engineering students examine the malicious code. "By providing them with real malware samples and teaching them all the proper safety procedures for handling, we allow them to have the expertise of looking at real malicious software," McGrew says. He also notes it is extremely valuable to possess malware that has an impact on the economic advantage of one company over another or the security of a country. "This is exactly what [students] should be learning to look at," he argues. Many of the students are participants in the U.S. National Science Foundation's Scholarship for Service program, and will take security-related jobs with the federal government. The university also is part of the U.S. Department of Defense's Information Assurance Scholarship Program, which seeks to increase the nation's expertise in cybersecurity. "It puts them in positions that the country is desperately trying to fill right now," McGrew says.
Tool Boosts Success of Online Collaborations By Redistributing the Burdens of Leadership
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (02/20/13) Byron Spice
Carnegie Mellon University researcher Kurt Luther has developed Pipeline, an open source tool designed to help leaders finish complex, collaborative projects by redistributing leadership responsibilities. Luther says Pipeline makes it easier to assign, critique, and track the progress of individual tasks within a project and makes it easy for leaders to delegate responsibility to others. Pipeline also enables project leaders to designate different levels of trust to specific individuals, giving up a degree of authority in return for greater accountability. "As a leader, I can trust someone to make decisions on my behalf on some portion of the project, but if that person makes a mistake, I can see it," says Luther, a post-doctoral fellow in CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute who developed Pipeline as a Ph.D. student at Georgia Institute of Technology. He notes Pipeline works in a middle ground between a traditional hierarchical organization and a wiki Web site. Pipeline also includes systems to streamline management. Luther says Pipeline could be used to create a "marketplace" of projects and collaborative communities could incorporate it into their websites.
STEM Tops Education Agenda in Chicago
Center for Digital Education (02/20/13) Tanya Roscorla
Chicago is partnering with the U.S. Navy to develop science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) summer camps, enrichment programs, and more dual-enrollment programs. The city and the Navy announced the initiative three days after President Obama used his State of the Union address to call for revamping high schools to help prepare graduates for a high-tech economy. The need to find skilled recruits for high-tech jobs has prompted Chicago and the Navy to make intensive STEM camps available to more than 1,000 students. After-school programs and mentorships could comprise the enrichment component, and students would gain a head start on college-level classes in computer science through the dual-enrollment programs. Over the past year, Chicago has launched five STEM schools, and pilot Web development courses will begin in the fall. "STEM is where the job growth of the future is going to be, and that's why we've obviously made it a priority here in Chicago on our education reform agenda," says Beth Swanson, mayor Rahm Emanuel's deputy chief of staff for education.
Coming to a Smartphone Near You: Personalized Experiences
Technology can provide personalized service that traditionally has been offered in the form of personal interactions with front desk clerks and concierges, and even offers to improve on service in some ways, according to a study published in the Journal of Service Research. Automated service systems and applications can personalize recommendations for users in any location as they gather both explicit and implicit user preferences by tracking navigation and recording customer choices and Internet browsing habits. The information immediately can be applied to future recommendations. This is far more thorough and effective than a human service provider who can only collect information about customer preferences through methods such as customer satisfaction forms and tracking preferences on social media. In the future, the study's authors imagine an app that personalizes experiences through systems that integrate across all service platforms, ranging from hotels to flight booking. Some customers still prefer a "lazy, chatty conversation with a bank teller or hotel front desk clerk, but for every customer who enjoys a lazy chat, there is surely someone who wants a minimalist, information-driven experience," says study co-author Karen Joy Nomorosa.
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