Friday, 1 April 2011

Gravity satellite yields 'Potato Earth' view

It looks like a giant potato in space.

And yet, the information in this model is the sharpest view we have of how gravity varies across the Earth.
The globe has been released by the team working on Europe's Goce satellite.

It is a highly exaggerated rendering, but it neatly illustrates how the tug we feel from the mass of rock under our feet is not the same in every location.

Gravity is strongest in yellow areas; it is weakest in blue ones.

Drag the slider to see how Earth's gravity varies around the globe 

Scientists say the data gathered by the super-sleek space probe is bringing a step change in our understanding of the force that pulls us downwards and the way it is shaping some key processes on Earth.

Chief among these new insights is a clearer view of how the oceans are moving and how they redistribute the heat from the Sun around the world - information that is paramount to climate studies.

Those interested in earthquakes are also poring over the Goce results. The giant jolt that struck Japan this month and Chile last year occurred because huge masses of rock suddenly moved. Goce should reveal a three-dimensional view of what was going on inside the Earth.

"Even though these quakes resulted from big movements in the Earth, at the altitude of the satellite the signals are very small. But we should still seem them in the data," said Dr Johannes Bouman from the German Geodetic Research Institute (DGFI).
Ocean currents (Bingham) Built from Goce data: To understand how ocean currents move you need to understand the role of gravity
Technically speaking, the model at the top of this page is what researchers refer to as a geoid.

It is not the easiest of concepts to grasp, but essentially it describes the "level" surface on an idealised world.
Look at the potato and its slopes. Put simply, the surface which traces the lumps and bumps is where the pull of gravity is the same.

Described another way, if you were to place a ball anywhere on this potato, it would not roll because, from the ball's perspective, there is no "up" or "down" on the undulating surface.

It is the shape the oceans would adopt if there were no winds, no currents and no tides.
The differences have been magnified nearly 10,000 times to show up as they do in the new model.
Goce artist's impression (Esa) Goce flies lower than any other scientific satellite
Even so, a boat off the coast of Europe (bright yellow) can sit 180m "higher" than a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean (deep blue) and still be on the same level plane.

This is the trick gravity plays on Earth because the space rock on which we live is not a perfect sphere and its interior mass is not evenly distributed.

The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (Goce) was launched in March 2009.
It flies pole to pole at an altitude of just 254.9km - the lowest orbit of any research satellite in operation today.

The spacecraft carries three pairs of precision-built platinum blocks inside its gradiometer instrument that can sense fantastically small accelerations.

This extraordinary performance allows it to map the almost imperceptible differences in the pull exerted by the mass of the planet from one place to the next - from the great mountain ranges to the deepest ocean trenches. Just getting it to work has tested the best minds in Europe.

"Ten years ago, Goce was science fiction; it's been one of the biggest technological challenges we have mastered so far in the European Space Agency," said Dr Volker Liebig, the organisation's director of Earth observation.

"We measure one part in 10 trillion; that's beyond what we understand in our daily experience."

An initial two months of observations were fashioned into a geoid that was released in June last year. The latest version, released in Munich at a workshop for Goce scientists, includes an additional four months of data. A third version will follow in the autumn. Each release should bring an improvement in quality.

"The more data we add, the more we are able to suppress the noise in the solutions, and the errors scale down," said Dr Rune Floberghagen, the European Space Agency's Goce mission manager. "And of course the more precisely you know the geoid, the better the science you can do using the geoid.

"We are seeing completely new information in areas like the Himalayas, South-East Asia, the Andes mountain range, and in Antarctica particularly - the whole continent is desperate for better gravity field information, which we are now providing."
Japan trench gravity image Goce sees gravity differences at Japan and the tectonic boundary (blue) that triggered the quake
One major goal of the Goce endeavour is to try to devise a universal reference to compare heights anywhere on the globe.

Professor Reiner Rummel, the chairman of the Goce scientific consortium, explained: "Usually, heights in the UK, say, are connected to one benchmark which is connected to mean sea-level, which might be measured at Liverpool, for example. The French do the same, the Australians do the same and the Chinese do the same - but mean sea-level differs from one country to the next. Now, with Goce, we can unify this so that we don't get the sort of surprises we had when they built the Channel Tunnel and discovered a half-metre offset between the UK and France."

The mission has funding up until the end of 2012 when, like all European Space Agency Earth observation missions, it must seek further financial support from member states to continue.

Goce has delivered the data promised in its primary mission - some 14 months of observations in total - but researchers would like to see it fly for as long as is possible.

Because it operates so low in the sky - a requirement of being able to sense gravity signals which are incredibly weak - it needs an engine to push it forwards through the wisps of atmosphere still present at its altitude.

Without this engine, Goce would rapidly fall to Earth. But the mission team reported here in Munich that Goce probably has sufficient propellant onboard to drive its engine until deep into 2014.
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Privacy group wants Google cash

Google Buzz screenshot showing logoGoogle users who signed-up to Buzz found some of their contact details made public by default
A leading US privacy group has filed an objection to agreements Google has reached over its social network Buzz.

The Buzz experiment was heavily criticised because it automatically enrolled all Gmail users without seeking prior permission.

Legal action was taken by a group of Gmail users, with Google agreeing to set up a $8.5m (£5.2m) privacy fund.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is unhappy that it is not one of the beneficiaries of the fund.
This is despite the fact that it filed the original complaint about the service with the Federal Trade Commission.
It has asked for $1.75m (£1.09m), claiming that it is a more independent group than some of those being given money.

It said that the majority of funds would be allocated to groups that "receive support from Google for lobbying, consulting or similar services".

It asked the court to reject a deal "that encourages organisations to stand by quietly while others do the actual work of safeguarding internet privacy".

It declined to say which groups provided lobbying services.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Brookings Institution are among those who have received funds.

Moving on Earlier this week, Google reached an agreement with the US Federal Trade Commission, following the conclusion of its investigation.

The FTC said that Google wrongly used information from Google Mail users to create Buzz.
Google has agreed to undergo a privacy review once every two years for the next 20 years.
In a statement after the FTC settlement, Google said it had "put this incident behind us".

"We are 100% focused on ensuring that our new privacy procedures effectively protect the interests of all our users," it said.

It declined to comment directly on the EPIC case.
Apologies Buzz was launched as an application within Gmail in February 2010.

Like rival Facebook, it allowed users to post status updates, share content and read and comment on friends' posts.

But it also gave users a ready-made circle of friends based on the people they most frequently e-mailed.
This list could automatically be made public, which privacy experts said could be a huge problem for journalists, businesses or people having an illicit affair.

Following anger from users, Google made changes and apologised for insufficient testing of the service.
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Are you experienced? Business and the web user experience

LaptopsShort attention span: User experience designers want you to stick with one choice for longer
It is a bright Thursday morning and, like millions of people all over the world, I am sitting in front of a computer. Unlike them, however, it is not to work.
Instead, I am a test subject sitting inside a research lab at the London offices of internet giant Google.

A researcher explains that the computer will record everything I do, while a camera pointing at me will track my facial expressions.

With clipboard in hand, she tells me to imagine that I am looking to buy something and want to find out more online.

So I start the PC and head to the web.
Then the questions start: What am I looking for? How do I decide what looks interesting? Why click on one

link rather than another?
The new architects The experiment may seem odd, but it is precisely what thousands of businesses now do each day as part of what is known as user experience design.

In the past, companies would simply slap information on a website — but today, with so much competition online, top destinations put a great deal of thought into making their products better.

As a result, designing online user experiences is now an important process for any company that is serious about the web, from huge names such as Google and Facebook all the way down to small businesses.
"User experience designers are the digital equivalent of architects," says Andy Budd, the managing director of web agency Clearleft, based in Brighton, England.

"Just as architects are crafting the physical world around you, user experience designers are doing the same with the digital landscape you use every single day."
Google home page Google takes the user experience seriously, despite its famously spartan homepage
Practitioners, who refer to what they do simply as "UX", try to understand people's desires and motivations in order to make sure that online services are satisfying, pleasurable and a joy to use.

By observing people's behaviour online, asking them careful questions and testing different options, researchers can sometimes be the difference between a visitor sticking with a site or getting frustrated and going somewhere else.

Many online businesses are still dominated by usability decisions made by engineers or graphics designers, who tend to prioritise efficiency or beauty over the needs of users.

But over the last few years, user experience design has emerged as a distinct concept.
Primarily championed by scientist and researcher Donald Norman in the 1990s, it developed more rapidly as the web became more prevalent in people's lives.

In recent years it has evolved into a fast-growing field that many see as integral to building great products.
Google, for example, now has hundreds of UX experts working all over the world, each of them operating in labs similar to the one I am sitting in.

Pattern recognition
The researcher who has been grilling me about the way I use the web is Lidia Oshlyansky.
She joined the Californian company last year, having previously done a similar job for the world's biggest mobile phone manufacturer, Nokia.

"When you're doing user experience testing, you're looking for patterns," she says.
"If one person says something about the way they use the product, that's interesting — but if lots of people are saying similar things, then you might have found something important."

The fact that a company such as Google spends so much time perfecting its web design may surprise some.
It is, after all, famous for its spartan homepage and dedication to speed above everything else.

In fact, to many people it seems that Google is almost anti-design, especially compared with a rival such as Apple, known for its focus on luxurious products.

"We have this reputation, and it's been touted quite a bit," admits Ms Oshlyansky.
"But there is actually an emphasis on the user experience."
Still, she points out, making things fast can be an important part of a user's experience of an online service: "Speed is part of what we do, though."
Lidia Oshlyansky Google's Lidia Oshlyansky says user experience testing is all about spotting patterns
Since the world of user experience design is still young, many professionals began their careers doing something very different.

Ms Oshlyansky, for example, spent several years as a social worker in Chicago before deciding to change track.

Today her job involves travelling around the world to study ordinary web surfers and find out how they think and use Google's products.

Once she has collected the raw information and understood what it means, she works with the company's engineers and web designers to improve what a product does.

This can be as simple as using different words to describe things to users, or changing the size, shape or prominence of buttons.

Sometimes it becomes more complicated, with new features being added to help people do what they need to do or getting rid of aspects of a service that can impede its purpose.

Even though the benefits of this research can be clear — more engaged customers, and more of them — Ms Oshlyansky says it can be a battle to explain the difference a good UX practitioner can make to a product, especially since many people believe they have an innate sense for design.

Still, says Mr Budd, demand for smart designers is outstripping supply as more businesses realise that how a user feels about their service can often be as important as what it does for them.

"I wouldn't say that good user experience design was vital to the success of every online business any more than I would say that good customer service was vital to every offline business," he says.

"But it can be a strong competitive advantage, and will continue to grow in importance over time."
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Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Cyber security summit signs UK-US university deal

Battle map on screenThousands of cyber security experts will need to be trained in the next few years, the summit concluded
A conference on cyber security has ended with a university deal to train a new generation of experts in fighting off criminal and terrorist IT attacks.

The summit in Cardiff agreed that the UK and the US would need to produce many thousands of people with this expertise over the next few years.

Delegates at the University of Wales event included the UN, the US defence department, Microsoft and IBM.

The US says government systems are under continued attack.

The US federal government recently announced plans to spend more than $13bn a year within the next five years on protecting its systems.

In the UK, cyber crime is costing the economy up to £27bn every year, it is estimated.
US officials say cyber criminals, terrorists and other nations are getting better at penetrating state and private networks, whether to spy, to steal data or damage critical infrastructure.

Last week, the head of the Pentagon's cyber command said the US military lacked the people and resources to defend the country adequately from concerted cyber attacks.

The two-day summit was organised by the University of Wales Global Academy and the Geospatial Data Center of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

It also included professors from Harvard University, the University of Oxford, University of Memphis, Boston University and the University of Central Florida.

'Overriding issue' The University of Wales and the Geospatial Data Centre at MIT signed an agreement to jointly develop cyber security leadership and training programmes.

University of Wales vice-chancellor Professor Marc Clement said he believed the summit was a "major coup" for Wales and the deal signed would put Wales at the forefront of cyber security defence.

He said the university hoped to "work closely with many of the participating academics to take forward the agenda identified by the summit and to advance relations between MIT and the University of Wales".

He added: "We now plan to develop a joint training programme for taking forward educational developments in the field of cyber-physical security, an area that the summit agreed was the overriding issue for government, business, and universities."

Professor John Williams, director of the Geospatial Data Centre, said: "Cyber-physical security is now considered the number one threat to national security, being deemed more critical than conventional nuclear attacks.

"Last year alone, the US logged over 300,000 virus attacks on their networks and noted that organised crime now makes more money from cyber crime than any other activity."

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Spiders and crabs inspire robot locomotion

Worm robot, F HerreroThe worm robot mimics the movements of real world worms
The walking patterns of crabs, lobsters and spiders are helping to inspire new ways of getting robots to move around.

Closer study of the neural networks controlling the legs of invertebrates has revealed the rhythmic nerve impulses that govern gait.

These have been adapted into modular control elements that can be transferred into robots to help mimic natural movement.

European researchers have already put the control systems into a robot worm.

Smart step

The rhythmic impulses are known as central pattern generators (CPGs), and are among the best known of all neural circuits, according to Fernando Herrero, one of the Spanish researchers employing them to control a robot.

CPGs allow the body to automate certain repetitive tasks, such as chewing or walking. Although the activity requires some initial input to get started, the repetitive motion effectively runs on autopilot.

One reason that CPGs are so well understood is that the relative simplicity of invertebrate neural systems, compared with those of mammals, makes it much easier to map how their nerves interconnect.

This access, said Mr Herrero, has allowed researchers to understand the ways in which CPGs generate the rhythmic impulses that help a spider or crab scuttle around.

Research is also allowing the impulses and rhythms to be recorded and used to generate control sequences for a robot's artificial limbs.

Traditionally, said Mr Herrero, robot makers get their creations moving by defining a series of rules that dictates what the legs of that machine should do to get about.

"CPGs autonomously generate rhythms without specifying any rule and thus can deal better with unexpected situations," he said.

Even better, said Mr Herrero, CPGs are discrete circuits that can be linked together, like building blocks, to create ever more complex behaviour.

Instead of trying to define rules for all the limbs on a robot and get their movements co-ordinated, CPGs make it possible to build up from one joint or sub-section of a limb.

Lobster, PA Multi-legged animals are proving popular models for robots because they are more stable.
"You can concentrate first on each part of each leg, and design a controller mini-CPG for the ankle, for the knee, the hip and so on," he said. "Then, you connect them in such a way that you get a leg-CPG, that is, the ankle, knee and hips mechanism act co-ordinately."

Using control systems inspired by nature means that they also have some basic intelligence, said Mr Herrero. That allows the machines to modify their rhythm to cope with the unexpected and then return to pumping out the original tempo.

Mr Herrero, along with colleagues Pablo Varona and Francisco Rodriguez, has used CPGs as a control system to make a worm robot writhe around like the real thing. The robot is based on similar machines created by Dr Juan Gomez from Madrid's Carlos III University.

The worm robot has eight sections and its control system was derived by letting the movement rhythm evolve in a simulator. Once evolved, the system was downloaded to a robot which then undulated like a worm and managed to move around with ease.

"The key is to combine the right set of bio-inspired strategies with human engineering approaches to build a new generation of more autonomous robots," said Mr Herrero.

The research was detailed in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.
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Hackers target business secrets

Filing cabinet, EyewireMany net-savvy thieves are scouring corporate networks for saleable secrets
Intellectual property and business secrets are fast becoming a target for cyber thieves, a study suggests.
Compiled by security firm McAfee, the research found that some hackers are starting to specialise in data stolen from corporate networks.

McAfee said deals were being done for trade secrets, marketing plans, R&D reports and source code.

It urged companies to know who looks after their data as it moves into the cloud or third-party hosting centres.

"Cyber criminals are targeting this information based on what their clients are asking for," said Raj Samani, chief technology officer in Europe for McAfee.

He said some business data had always been scooped up when net thieves compromised PCs using viruses and trojans in a search for logins or credit card details.

The difference now was that there exists a ready market for the data they are finding. In some cases, said Mr Samani, thieves were running campaigns to get at particular companies or certain types of information.

The McAfee report mentioned cases in Germany, Brazil and Italy in which trade secrets were either stolen by an insider or cyber thieves tried to get hold of via a concerted attack.

In some cases, said the McAfee report, companies made the job of the criminals easier because they did little to censor useful information about a corporate's culture or structure revealed in e-mails and other messages.

Such information could prove key for thieves mounting a "social engineering" in which they pose as employees to penetrate networks.

The report detailed efforts by firms to watch casual and contract employees and the use of behavioural analysis software to spot anomalous activity on a corporate network.

Perimeter defences Thefts of intellectual property or key documents could be hard to detect, said Mr Samani.
"You may not even know it's stolen because they just take a copy of it," he said.

Defending against these threats was getting harder, he said, because key workers with access to the most valuable information were out and about using mobile devices far from the defences surrounding a corporate HQ.

"Smartphones and laptops have crossed the perimeter," said Mr Samani.
The report comes in the wake of a series of incidents which reveal how cyber criminals are branching out from their traditional territory of spam and viruses.

2010 saw the arrival of the Stuxnet virus which targeted industrial plant equipment and 2011 has been marked by targeted attacks on petrochemical firms, the London Stock Exchange, the European Commission and many others.

Mr Samani said that, as firms start to use cloud-based services to make data easier to get at, they had to work hard to ensure they know who can see that key corporate information.

Otherwise, he warned, in the event of a breach, companies could find themselves losing the trust of customers or attracting the attention of regulators.

"You can transfer the work but you cannot transfer the liability," said Mr Samani.
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