Welcome to the December 11, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought
The New York Times (12/10/13) Tamar Lewin
A recent University of Pennsylvania study of a million users of massive open online courses (MOOCs) found that, on average, only about 50 percent of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses. Although MOOCs were started with the goal of providing courses for students in poor countries with little access to higher education, the study found that about 80 percent of those taking MOOCs had already earned a degree of some kind. In response to some of the initial shortcomings of several MOOC programs, their designers are making changes to broaden their appeal. For example, edX is producing videos to use in some high school Advanced Placement classes, and Coursera is experimenting with using its courses, along with a facilitator, in small discussion classes at some U.S. consulates. In addition, Udacity is revamping its software so future students could have more time to work through the courses. "We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement," says Udacity founder and Stanford University professor Sebastian Thurn. Meanwhile, some MOOC pioneers are developing a connectivist MOOC model, which is more about the connections and communications among students than about the content delivered by a professor.
NSA Uses Google Cookies to Pinpoint Targets for Hacking
The Washington Post (12/11/13) Ashkan Soltani; Andrea Peterson; Barton Gellman
New documents released by former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden indicate the agency is using Internet cookies in its efforts to hack the computers of suspicious individuals. NSA's Special Source Operations (SSO) division reportedly focuses primarily on Google's proprietary "PREF" cookie. Google uses PREF cookies to uniquely track users who utilize Google services or visit sites that contain Google Plus "widgets" in order to show them personalized ads. PREF cookies make this possible because they contain numerical codes that enable websites to identify a person's browser. SSO shares this information with NSA's offensive hacking division, Tailored Access Operations, which uses the numerical identifiers to filter out the Internet communications of individuals who are already under suspicion so it can send them malicious software that gives the agency access to their computers. The information gleaned from PREF cookies, which does not contain personal information such as names and email addresses, also is reportedly shared with the U.K.'s Government Communications Headquarters. The documents do not address the nature of the cyberattacks carried out by the NSA with the help of PREF cookies, and it is unclear how NSA is obtaining PREF cookies, or whether Google is providing them to the agency.
Government's IT Skills Shortage Points to a Future of Failure
NextGov.com (12/10/13) Brittany Ballenstedt
A new Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation report, "A Future of Failure? The Flow of Technology Talent into Government and Civil Society," highlights U.S. government agencies' need for highly skilled technology talent, especially in light of recent examples such as the mismanaged HealthCare.gov rollout and the U.S. National Security Agency's massive telecommunications surveillance program. "Deep questions remain about the ability for many areas of government and civil society to identify, cultivate, and retain individuals with the necessary skills for success in a world increasingly driven by information technology," the report says. The report also notes the government's efforts to recruit and retain highly skilled talent face several hurdles, including inadequate compensation, the inability to pursue groundbreaking work, and a culture averse to hiring and retaining innovative individuals. In addition, the report says the private sector is seen as more lucrative and more likely to foster a culture of innovation, openness, and creativity, while government agencies are seen as stifling innovation. "While the problem is daunting, the stakes are high," the report says. "It will be critical for civil society and government to develop sustainable and effective pathways for the panoply of technologists and experts who have the skills to create truly 21st century institutions."
DARPA Cyber Defense Challenge: $2 Million Prize
InformationWeek (12/09/13) Patience Wait
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is sponsoring a Grand Cyber Challenge to address the lag between the discovery of a cyber-vulnerability and the time it takes before the incident is remedied across the entire network. DARPA wants to advance the development of automated cyber-reasoning by having competing programming teams develop systems capable of evaluating software, identifying flaws, creating patches, and deploying them on a network in real time. Competitors in the Grand Cyber Challenge can choose either an unfunded track, in which they will underwrite the cost of the competition themselves, or a funded track, in which teams can apply for funding. The unmanned cyberdefense tournament will last more than two years, with the overall winner receiving a prize of $2 million, the second-place finisher receiving $1 million, and the third-place winner receiving $750,000. The challenge will be based on the C-language family, with binaries created just for the tournament, says DARPA's Mike Walker. Although DARPA's long-term goal is to develop a deployable network defense that can protect military networks, the agency is not expecting that outcome by the end of this competition.
New York City Schools STEM Tide of Future Unemployment With Science, Math Focus
New York Daily News (12/09/13) Ben Chapman
Aiming to position itself as a global leader in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, New York City has launched dozens of programs to teach students the skills that will prepare them for STEM jobs. For example, the Bronx Academy for Software Engineering (BASE) is teaching computer programming to high school students, which is expected to lead to jobs or college after graduation. Mentors from local tech companies help BASE students, sometimes resulting in internships. BASE shows female students various STEM career possibilities, and last month took a group of students to visit the headquarters of online fashion retailer Gilt in Manhattan. "The best part was seeing women working in tech at a very high level,” says 14-year-old BASE student Josephine Larbi. STEM-related fields in the United States are growing at almost twice the rate of other fields, and offer about 25 percent higher pay, according to the Department of Commerce. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been building the tech industry since the economic crash of 2008. New York City attracted major tech companies such as Google and Facebook through economic incentives, and the city partnered with the private sector to fund incubation centers and offer early-stage financing to startups.
Researchers Compete to Bring Humanoid Robots to Life
Computerworld (12/06/13) Sharon Gaudin
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is sponsoring the Robotics Challenge in Homestead, FL, Dec. 20-21, during which 17 teams of researchers will compete to give humanoid robots the abilities needed to collaborate with humans during natural or man-made disasters. The teams will have 30 minutes to complete each of eight tasks, including climbing a ladder, removing debris, opening and walking through doors, cutting a hole in a wall, turning valves, and driving a car. The Florida competition is the second of the competition's three phases, with the final phase planned for late 2014, when the winner will receive a $2-million prize. DARPA is hoping to improve robots' task-level autonomy, because communications during a disaster could be poor, requiring robots to have the intelligence to act more independently, says DARPA's Gill Pratt. Human controllers remain necessary for the time being, due to the unique challenges of developing software for a humanoid robot. "The humanoid shape is inherently unstable," says Worcester Polytechnic Institute Ph.D. candidate R.J. Linton, who believes a humanoid robot capable of assisting humans during a natural disaster will be possible within the next 10 years.
Crackdown Successfully Reduces Spam
CNet (12/06/13) Seth Rosenblatt
Two Google security researchers report that a pair of authentication standards designed to help combat spam and phishing attacks are being widely adopted. Industry players and standards organizations began working in 2004 to get email providers to adopt a number of authentication standards, such as DomainKey Identified Email (DKIM) and Sender Policy Framework (SPF), which would help prevent email address impersonation. Google researchers Elie Bursztein and Vijay Eranti say adoption of both DKIM and SPF is rising, and they estimate that 91.4 percent of the nonspam email sent to Gmail users now comes from authenticated senders. The researchers note that more than 3.5 million domains are using the SPF standard, accounting for 89.1 percent of email sent to Gmail, and more than 500,000 domains are using DKIM, accounting for 76 percent of email sent to Gmail. Nearly 75 percent of incoming email is authenticated using both standards, and about 80,000 domains also allow Google to use the Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) standard to reject unauthenticated emails. Bursztein and Eranti say the widespread adoption of these authentication standards has made it easier to block the billions of spam and phishing emails sent every year.
Running Shoe Warns of Danger
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (12/06/13)
The European Union is backing the development of a running shoe that would help reduce injuries by providing feedback on running form and the workout routine. The RUNSAFER system would measure the biomechanical data of the user in real time. The measurement system consists of a microcontroller, a radio frequency module, and batteries, as well as accelerometers and global positioning system sensors that capture the biomechanical signals from the body and the running pace and transmit them via Bluetooth to the runner's smartphone. An app uses algorithms to evaluate the data and then make suggestions, and the data is transferred to a website for further processing, evaluation, and display. The system can be installed and removed from the soles of the running shoes. The Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems and five partners must overcome challenges related to waterproofing, weight, and durability in order to reduce the size of the prototype.
Can the DOD Tap Gamers to Prevent Cyber Attacks?
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (12/08/13)
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking to crowdsourcing to uncover software security flaws by turning the process into games that generate mathematical proofs that automatically search for vulnerabilities. Under its Crowd Sourced Formal Verification (CSFV) program, DARPA has launched its Verigames website, which offers five free games that can be played online. As cybersecurity needs grow, so too does the need to prevent cyberattacks efficiently and inexpensively. CSFV aims to use games to enlist volunteers to work through games and puzzles that pinpoint flaws in unrelated software programs, which are then flagged for DARPA to fix. "We’re seeing if we can take really hard math problems and map them onto interesting, attractive puzzle games that online players will solve for fun," says DARPA's Drew Dean. "By leveraging players' intelligence and ingenuity on a broad scale, we hope to reduce security analysts' workloads and fundamentally improve the availability of formal verification." DARPA's Verigames will gauge the effectiveness of the crowdsourcing method which, if successful, could eventually be used for more critical software, such as medical systems, communications networks, and military programs.
Carnegie Mellon Researchers Create Brand Associations by Mining Millions of Images From Social Media Sites
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (12/05/13) Byron Spice
Carnegie Mellon University researchers recently conducted a study in which they analyzed 5 million images from public social media platforms. They examined images associated with 48 brands in four categories, including sports, luxury, beer, and fast food. The researchers developed an automated analysis process that produced clusters of photos that are typical of certain brands. "We cannot completely replace text-based analysis, but already we have shown this method can provide information that complements existing brand associations," says Gunhee Kim, who joined Disney Research Pittsburgh after completing his Ph.D. earlier this year. The researchers obtained photos that users had shared and tagged with one of the 48 brand names. They developed a method for analyzing the overall appearance of the photos and clustered similar appearing images together, providing core visual concepts associated with each brand. The researchers also developed an algorithm that isolated the portion of the image associated with the brand. "Our work is the first attempt to perform such photo-based association analysis," Kim says. "We cannot completely replace text-based analysis, but already we have shown this method can provide information that complements existing brand associations."
Algorithms Are Watching
The Current (12/05/13) Julie Cohen
University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers are conducting research involving the use of algorithms in data mining and the analysis of social networks to study how information moves within large social graphs. "In every aspect of life, as long as an area generates data, an algorithm is required," says UCSB professor Xifeng Yan. Although classical algorithms have not fundamentally changed in the last 20 years, UCSB professor Ben Zhao says the way they are applied has changed. "Today, folks are much more interested in whether algorithms can lend themselves to parallel processing on an extremely large scale," Zhao says. The researchers note that as algorithms become more sophisticated, their influence over people's lives increases exponentially. They want to understand how much this impacts users and to what extent data tracking influences what can be seen on a daily basis. Many algorithms try to mimic the human learning process, and in certain circumstances they operate more efficiently and effectively. "For simple rule-based tasks, algorithms can outdo humans anytime, partly because they can compute and access massive quantities of data quickly," says UCSB professor Subhash Suri. He says algorithms also can be used in medicine, as they could be implemented in a way similar to the recommendation systems used by online merchants.
Moore's Law Isn't Making Chips Cheaper Anymore
IDG News Service (12/05/13) Stephen Lawson
Chip makers can no longer expect to make processors smaller, faster, and less expensive with each generation by packing more transistors onto a silicon wafer. They will have to choose two out of three, with regard to Moore's Law. Speaking at a recent press roundtable in San Francisco, Broadcom chairman Henry Samueli says keeping the law of microprocessors going requires the use of expensive manufacturing techniques that cancel out the cost savings that should come with each new generation. "The cost curves are kind of getting flat," Samueli says. Although process nodes themselves still have room to advance, he suggests they could hit a wall in about 15 years. Chips will probably reach 5 nanometers after another three generations or so, a point at which there would be only 10 atoms from the beginning to the end of each transistor gate. Further advances may be impossible beyond that. "As of yet, we have not seen a viable replacement for the [complementary metal-oxide semiconductor] transistor as we've known it for the last 50 years," Samueli points out.
Spelman College Charts a New Path by Encouraging Women in STEM Studies
PBS NewsHour (12/09/13) Gwen Ifill
In an interview, Spelman College president Beverly Daniel Tatum discussed the move by the historically black women's liberal arts college to shift its focus towards science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Tatum recently won the Carnegie Corporation's annual Academic Leadership Award for her efforts to encourage women to pursue STEM careers and for her decision to replace intercollegiate sports with wellness activities. "A third of our students are STEM majors," Tatum says. "And we want to [ensure] that they can move into fields where they are underrepresented and make a difference to our economy and to our nation." Although Spelman remains a traditional liberal arts college, a third of the school's incoming students want to pursue science. "They may be thinking about health careers initially. But once they start to explore biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, they see a wider range of options," Tatum says. She says Spelman has a higher rate of graduation in STEM for interested students, particularly those of color, than other institutions, where many interested students become discouraged. Spelman also actively engages in community outreach with regards to STEM. For example, Tatum and her associates volunteer at local schools in the Atlanta region to encourage middle schoolers to pursue science.
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