Welcome to the November 1, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Teams Up With Operator of Online Courses to Plan a Global Network
New York Times (10/31/13) Tamar Lewin
Coursera and the U.S. government recently launched a partnership to create learning hubs around the world where students can go to get Internet access to free courses supplemented by weekly in-person class discussions with local teachers or facilitators. The hubs represent a new stage in massively open online courses (MOOCs), addressing the lack of reliable Internet access in some countries, as well as the conviction that students do better if they can discuss course materials, and occasionally meet with a teacher. The State Department recently ran a pilot project using Coursera courses to open space where people could take free online courses in priority fields, such as science, technology, Americana, and entrepreneurship. "We have a list of MOOCs from different providers that we suggest, but Coursera has had a unique interest in working with us to collect the data to understand the learning outcomes from facilitated discussions, and has given us additional materials to give out to the facilitators," says the State Department's Meghann Curtis. Coursera now has 100 university partners and has developed a network of translators who are making the materials in some courses available in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Kazakh, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, and Ukrainian.
Future Internet Aims to Sever Links With Servers
University of Cambridge (10/30/13) Tom Kirk
The European Union is funding a new Internet architecture called Pursuit that is designed to eliminate the need to connect to servers and enable content to be shared more efficiently. Pursuit would overhaul the existing structure of the Internet's IP layer, which links isolated networks. Pursuit's researchers say the new architecture would enable a more social and intelligent system that would enable users to obtain information without needing direct access to the servers where content is initially stored. Individual computers would be able to copy content received to enable other users to access data from multiple locations other than the original source, allowing all online content to be shared in the peer-to-peer manner used by some file-sharing sites. Pursuit would enable the Internet to meet rising global demand, eliminate the problem of server crashes, and improve user ability to control access to their private information. "Our system focuses on the way in which society itself uses the Internet to get hold of that content," says the University of Cambridge's Dirk Trossen. "It puts information first." Pursuit researchers hope that in the future, online searches will rely on Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) instead of Uniform Resource Locators, and these highly specific URIs would enable the system to determine the information or content.
NSA Infiltrates Links to Yahoo, Google Data Centers Worldwide, Snowden Documents Say
Washington Post (10/30/13) Barton Gellman; Ashkan Soltani
New leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden indicate that NSA has secretly gained access to the main communications links that connect Yahoo's and Google's data centers worldwide. By intercepting those links, NSA has been able to gather data at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans, according to the documents and officials. Classified documents dated Jan. 9, 2013, reveal that NSA's acquisitions directorate sends millions of records daily from internal Yahoo and Google networks to data warehouses at the agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, MD. The report says that in the preceding 30 days, field collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records, including "metadata" that displays who sent or received emails and when, in addition to content such as text, audio, and video. To gain access to the data, NSA primarily used a tool called MUSCULAR, operated jointly with the U.K.'s Government Communications Headquarters.
Can Automated Editorial Tools Help Wikipedia's Declining Volunteer Workforce?
Technology Review (10/31/13)
University College Dublin researchers have developed an algorithm that assesses the quality of Wikipedia pages based on the authoritativeness of the editors involved and the longevity of the edits they have made. "The hypothesis is that pages with significant contributions from authoritative contributors are likely to be high-quality pages," say researchers Xiangju Qin and Padraig Cunningham. Given this information, Wikipedia users should be able to judge the quality of any article more accurately. The researchers started with a standard way of measuring the longevity of an edit by combining the size of an edit performed by a given author and how long this edit lasts after other revisions. The researchers also measured the authority of each editor by measuring how well connected they are to a network of established Wikipedia editors. Finally, the researchers combined these metrics of longevity and authority to produce a measure of the article quality. The researchers tested their algorithm on more than 9,000 articles that have already been assessed by Wikipedia editors. "Articles with significant contributions from authoritative contributors are likely to be of high quality, and that high-quality articles generally involve more communication and interaction between contributors," the researchers conclude.
Computer Science Education: The 'Why' and 'How'
eSchool News (10/30/13) Laura Devaney
Some U.S. states are starting to boost computer science education as a way to prepare students for high-paying jobs that will help boost the economy. In May, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill to count Advance Placement (AP) computer science as a math or science credit. The state previously offered computer science as an elective, and many students passed over the course for others that met graduation requirements. However, only 35 of the state’s 622 high schools offer AP computer science. Nationwide, just 10 percent of schools offer programming classes, and only 10 states count computer science toward math or science requirements for high school graduation. Experts say the sooner students develop a love for computer science, the better, and in- and after-school activities will be key to helping cultivate and sustain their interest in the subject. Data from the New Jersey Institute of Technology suggests that 150,000 new computing jobs will need to be filled each year for the next 10 years. Computer science is the highest-paid college degree and jobs are growing at twice the national average, but fewer than 2.4 percent of graduates earn degrees in the subject, according to Code.org.
Using Computers, Scientists Simulate Movement of Largest-Known Dinosaur
Washington Post (10/30/13) Brady Dennis
British and Argentinian researchers have developed computer simulations that examine how and whether the Argentinosauraus, the largest known dinosaur, could have roamed the South American landscape more than 90 million years ago. Given its average weight of 80 tons and average length of 100 feet, scientists have long wondered about how it physically could have moved such a massive frame. That uncertainty has persisted because only a handful of vertebrae, ribs, and leg fossils have been found. "It is frustrating there was so little of the original dinosaur fossilized, making any reconstruction difficult," says University of Manchester researcher Phil Manning. However, the researchers used a laser scanner to create a detailed three-dimensional image of the dinosaur. They also used computer-modeling software to reconstruct how the dinosaur moved along the ground, taking into account body mass, muscle size, shape, and bone structure. Based on their simulations, University of Manchester professor Bill Sellers says, "There’s nothing mechanically that would stop you having an 80-ton dinosaur built like this."
The Quest to Build a Truly Free Version of Android
Wired News (10/30/13) Klint Finley
Replicant is an independent version of Android that contains no proprietary software, and was developed based on the concept of free software. Most of the code in the Android Open Source Project is open source, but a lot of the software that interacts with hardware components, such as global positioning system chips and cameras, is proprietary. In addition, Google software, including Google Play, Gmail, and Google Maps, requires Google's permission to distribute. Replicant's founders began exploring Android source code in 2008 when the first Android phone was released, to create a version without proprietary software. Replicant now supports 10 different devices and includes only free code. Although Replicant lacks the Google Play marketplace for Android apps and media, it offers a free and open source app store called F-Droid. Reverse-engineering the software to support all of the hardware on a particular device without using proprietary drivers is Replicant's most daunting challenge. "We are constantly trying to figure out what magic happens in a locked-down black box and we don't always succeed," says Paul Kocialkowski, one of Replicant's core developers. Kocialkowski says that although other open source mobile operating systems exist, Android represents the free software community’s greatest chance for a genuinely free mobile operating system.
Analyzing Hundreds of Cells in a Few Mouse Clicks
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (10/28/13) Laure-Anne Pessina
Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) have developed Active Cell, a technique for analyzing hundreds of images of cells in just a few mouse clicks. The researchers say Active Cell uses complex mathematical equations and sophisticated algorithms to virtually analyze dozens of images in just an hour, which is the equivalent of analyzing hundreds of cells, on a standard computer. When seen on a computer display, the data looks like a flattened sphere that can be changed into various shapes, with lines around its surface similar to a world-map globe. Users can scroll their mouse over a three-dimensional digital microscopic image, using the globe to identify and separate single cells from within the image. The globe fixes itself to the target cell and adopts its contours, delineating the cell's shape, size, and density in real time. "With this method, all you need to do is drag the globe near the target cell, click on it, and it's automatically analyzed," says EPFL's Ricard Delgado-Gonzalo. The researchers uploaded Active Cell to the open source Icy platform in order to make their results as widely available as possible. "In addition, we're currently designing a website user-guide and a tablet version of the tool," Delgado-Gonzalo says.
Open Source Software Projects Need to Improve Vulnerability Handling Practices, Researchers Say
IDG News Service (10/30/13) Lucian Constantin
Many open source software developers need to improve the way in which they handle vulnerability reports, according to Rapid7 researchers who recently reported vulnerabilities in seven popular open source software applications. Starting in August, the researchers chose seven of the most popular open source Web applications and looked for vulnerabilities in them. Within two weeks the researchers found security flaws in all of them, say Rapid7's Christian Kirsch. The researchers found an issue that could enable remote authenticated attackers to execute commands on the underlying operating system in six applications, including Moodle, vTiger, Zabbiz, ISPConfig, OpenMediaVault, and NAS4Free. After discovering the vulnerabilities, the researchers alerted the developers and worked with the Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center to coordinate the disclosures. Just two of the seven projects patched the issues disclosed to them, while four projects say they will not correct the authenticated remote command execution issue because they think it is by design. One project failed to communicate its plans, Kirsch says. Across the seven projects, the researchers found at least seven different approaches to handling incoming vulnerability reports, says Metasploit's Tod Beardsley.
Of Fact, Fiction and Cheney's Defibrillator
New York Times (10/27/13) Gina Kolata
A scenario in which a hacker wirelessly reprograms a person's implanted defibrillator for malicious purposes, dramatized last year on the TV show "Homeland," is within the realm of possibility, however unlikely it may be, according to some experts. The devices transmit data from a patient's home to a doctor's office, notifying the physician of a malfunction. However, to be reprogrammed, patients with certain devices must go to the doctor's office and be positioned within inches of the reprogramming machine. Other defibrillators can be reprogrammed from about 30 feet away, but only if the reprogramming machine can identify them with the use of a wand held near the patients' collarbones. University of Michigan professor Kevin Fu co-authored a 2008 paper that demonstrated a method to hack into and reprogram an implantable defibrillator so it releases fatal electric shocks. The University of Washington's Tadayoshi Kohno worked with Fu and colleagues to decipher the defibrillator and the programming device's communication language, enabling them to generate their own commands. The University of Rochester Medical Center's Spencer Rosero notes that since the group disclosed their findings, device manufacturers have added features, such as the identifying wand, to make the device's software harder to penetrate. Fu and others think remote defibrillator reprogramming is less of a threat than the accidental introduction of malware into electronic medical devices.
Contactless Payment Data Can Be Picked Up at a Distance
BBC News (10/30/13)
University of Surrey researchers have constructed a device that could reliably intercept synthesized payment data from 45 centimeters away, foiling contactless cards' key safeguard of not transmitting payment information further than 10 cm from a reader. The device would enable fraudsters to harvest payment details without provoking suspicion. Surrey's Thomas P. Diakos built the eavedropping equipment out of a pocket-sized cylindrical antenna, hardware hidden in a backpack, and a shopping trolley. Surrey's Johann Briffa notes the equipment is inconspicuous, compact, and relatively inexpensive. "The results we found have an impact on how much we can rely on physical proximity as a security feature," Briffa says. "The intended short range of the channel is no defense against a determined eavesdropper." He says the research team has begun to investigate how wave-and-go card security mechanisms can be defeated and payment information exposed. "The test demonstrated that payments data can be received," Diakos says. "What can be done with it is another question." However, the U.K. Cards Association says the Surrey researchers' method cannot collect information significant enough to be used to commit card fraud.
IST Researcher Explores Student Online Collaboration
Penn State News (10/25/13) Stephanie Koons
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and Carnegie Mellon University are using a U.S. National Science Foundation grant to study blended learning in which online and traditional components are used together in instruction. "We hope that this project will contribute to higher quality collaborative environments for students in online and blended learning environments," says PSU senior researcher Marcela Borge. The three-year project will "merge what we know from the fields of human-computer interaction, the learning sciences, and computational linguistics to support an online collaborative learning environment," Borge says. The researchers will create a collaborative environment that will be able to analyze student posts and evaluate their ability to plan, build on ideas, assess ideas, and make progress. Embedded agents will offer suggestions in the chat environment for students to use specific strategies, for example. Instructors will be able to turn features on and off and monitor team interaction. The researchers also will study which types of prompts and feedback are the most successful. "The goal is to develop a system that can be used to support collaborative learning in any educational context," Borge says. "This poses many challenges, but we are confident that our team can come up with innovative solutions."
The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think
The Atlantic (10/23/13) James Somers
Indiana University professor and artificial intelligence expert Douglas Hofstadter directs the Fluid Analogies Research Group (FARG) in a mission to understand how humans think and to write software that functions in the same manner. FARG believes the mind is akin to a unique piece of software and to understand how software works, you must write it yourself. If successful, the group will not only explain human thought, but also make truly intelligent machines. Although in the early 1980s Hofstadter was hailed as a leader in the emerging AI field, his popularity waned as AI proved more difficult than first envisioned and mainstream AI embraced more attainable goals. For example, IBM in 1988 started a language translation project called Candide, opting for a machine-learning approach instead of trying to create a system with a true understanding of semantics, syntax, and morphology. However, Hofstadter dismisses AI shortcuts such as IBM's Deep Blue, which mastered the game of chess but had no deeper insights. "To me, as a fledgling AI person, it was self-evident that I did not want to get involved in that trickery," he says. Although many believe that Hofstadter's work will not yield tangible results in his lifetime, Hofstadter points out that Einstein developed the light-quantum hypothesis in 1905, but it was not accepted until 1923.
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