Monday, November 10, 2008

The Great Knuth Read

I've started a companion blog called "The Great Knuth Read". It concerns a multi-part monograph written by Donald Knuth entitled The Art of Computer Programming which describes a range of computer algorithms. It is considered the most important collection of books in the field of computer sceince, and the most comprehensive treatment of algorithms. The blog will document my reading of these mongraphs, and what points I think are most important.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Plagiarism talk 2008

As Final Year Project Co-ordinator for one of the School of Computing's undergraduate degrees - DT228, BSc in Computer Science, I am constantly trying to send the message to the students that plagiarism is wrong and will not benefit them at all. This week I gave the students a PowerPoint presentation followed by clips from a Father Ted episode.

In the PowerPoint presentation I included actual responses people have given me as to why they copied their entire projects, including;

  • They said it so much better. Shouldn't I use their words?
  • I meant to include citations, but I forgot/ran out of time.
  • I showed this work to my supervisor before I submitted it and s/he didn't comment on it.
  • We were doing a group project.
  • I didn't realise I was doing it.
  • I didn't think I would get caught.

After each of these suggestions I discussed reasons why they don't work, and that the main person responsible for the project is the student themselves. It is their chance to show off their skills, and do something they really enjoy, why waste it?

Also, based on the success last year's screening of clips of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip concerning plagiarism, this year I decided to show them clips from the Father Ted episode A Song for Europe. It concerns the main characters attempt to enter the Eurovision Song Contest, and when they fail to write any music, they copy the music from a little known Norwegian Eurosong entry from the 1970s.

The episode had three scenes in it that I think are particularly significant to the topic at hand;

  • In one scene when Ted and Dougal first think about copying the music, they both know it is wrong, but Ted slowly convinces Dougal it's alright to copy (I was hoping the students would look at that and see how easy it is to convince yourself it's alright to copy, if you let youself, so you have to resist temptation).

  • In another scene just before Ted and Dougal are about to perform the copied song, they realise it is much more well-known than they thought, Ted is in sheer panic "WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO? WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?" (I looked around as this scene was being played and am fairly convinced that the students were picturing themselves in that situation, if they had copied and were about to do the final demo of their projects, and realising that they would be caught, it would be utterly terrifying, and thus worth avoiding).

  • The closing credits of the episode shows that people who copy get no reward. Nil Point!

I'm hoping that this will have the desired outcome, mixing a comedy with a serious point to remind them not to steal.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Bletchley Park saved, whew !

Bletchley Park (aka Station X), which was the single most important code-breaking site during the Second World War, has been saved, thankfully. It was in a state of serious disrepair, and in danger of falling down, but thankfully English Heritage has stepped into the breach and has committed £330,000 to repairing the buildings, and are in talks to donate another £600,000 to get the rest of the repairs done over the next three years.

Bletchley Park is the birthplace of modern computer science, not only is it where Alan Turing developed the Turing-Welchman bombe, and the banburismus and turingismus algorithms in Hut 8, but it is also the home of Colossus - the world's first programmable digital electronic computer, which included the first use of shift registers and systolic arrays.

This intervention may have been partially in response to the fact that in July approximately 100 of the UK's top computer scientists wrote a letter to The Times identifying that Bletchley Park is of extraordinary historical significance and "in a terrible state of disrepair". Just look at the list of names below, these are some of the real giants of Computing.

Sir, The work undertaken at Bletchley Park during the Second World War in breaking German wartime codes played a significant part in winning that war and securing our future. The work included the decryption of messages enciphered on the German Enigma machines and the breaking of the German “Fish” High Command teleprinter ciphers. Bletchley Park also played a significant role 65 years ago in the design and development of Colossus, one of the world’s first programmable electronic computers. It is therefore fitting that the world’s first purpose-built computer centre should be home to the National Museum of Computing.

Over the years, Bletchley Park has survived building redevelopment (1938), an air raid (1940), the destruction of sensitive material and information (post-1945) and more recently (1991), a second attempt at demolition and redevelopment. That Bletchley Park has survived to the present day is due to the foresight of Milton Keynes Borough Council, which declared the park a conservation area in February 1992, and the formation of the Bletchley Park Trust just three days later.

The trust currently runs this gem charitably, receiving no external funding. Although there has recently been some progress in generating income, without fundamental support Bletchley Park is still under threat, this time from the ravages of age and a lack of investment. Many of the huts where the codebreaking occurred are in a terrible state of disrepair.

As a nation, we cannot allow this crucial and unique piece of both British and world heritage to be neglected in this way. The future of the site, buildings, resources and equipment at Bletchley Park must be preserved for future generations by providing secure long-term financial backing. Is it too much to ask that Bletchley Park be provided with the same financial stability as some of our other great museums such as the Imperial War Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum?

Professor Keith van Rijsbergen
Chair, 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, Computer Science & Informatics sub-panel
Professor Bill Roscoe
Director of Oxford University Computing Laboratory
Professor Jean Bacon
University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory
Professor Lawrence Paulson
University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory
Professor Ian Sommerville
Professor of Software Engineering, University of St Andrews
Professor Robert Churchouse
Emeritus Professor, Cardiff University, formerly at GCHQ 1952-1963
Tom Anderson
Richard Anthony
Jim Austin
Liz Bacon
John Barnden
Peter Barnes
David Barron
Sue Black
Cornelia Boldyreff
Richard Bornat
Roger D. Boyle
David Brailsford
Stephen Brewster
Rodney Brunt
Antony Bryant
Alan Bundy
Edmund Burke
David W. Bustard
Muffy Calder
Paul Chung
John A. Clark
Dave Cliff
Bernie Cohen
Tony Cohn
David Corne
Peter Cowling
Stephen Cox
Susan Craw
James Davenport
Alice Diggory
Alan Dix
Martin Escardo
John ffitch
Nick Fiddian
Frederic Fol Leymarie
John Glauert
Christopher Grey
Vic Grout
Martin Henson
Jill Hewitt
Jane Hillston
Patrik O'Brian Holt
Roland Ibbett
Tim Ibell
Mike Jackson
Anne James
Peter Jimack
Richard Jones
Steve King
Ann Latham
Bev Littlewood
Wayne Luk
Rob Macredie
Olenka Marczyk
Chris Mellish
Majdid Merabti
John L. Nealon
Julian Newman
Bashar Nuseibeh
Yakup Paker
Mike Pitteway
Lynette Pye
Awais Rashid
Bernard Richards
Geoffrey Sampson
N. Stan Scott
Alex Shafarenko
John Shawe-Taylor
Jawed Siddiqi
Peer-Olaf Siebers
Derek Sleeman
Alan Slomson
Nigel Smart
Peter Smith
Linda Spencer
Susan Stepney
Andrew Sturdy
Tony Sudbery
Austin Tate
Simon Thompson
John Tucker
John Turner
Tony Valsamidis
Vito Veneziano
Steve Vickers
Tom Vickers
Peter Welch
Geraint A. Wiggins
Philip Willis
Jeremy Wyatt

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

ex-Lecturer wins US elections

University of Chicago Law School on Barack Obama;

"From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year."

I have to say, I'll thrilled that an Academic-American has won the elections, being a lecturer opens your mind to alternative views and alternative solutions, it's got to be a good thing for the world.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Stephen Fry blogs on Cloud Computing

Stephen Fry, the writer, actor, novelist, filmmaker and successor to Peter Ustinov as the World's Greatest Raconteur, is also a huge fan of technology, and his blog is full of wonderful insights about the marvels of computers. His most recent blog posting explains the ideas of Cloud Computing in a wonderfully clear way;

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hackers Clone Elvis

OK, not quite, but still, a group of computer security experts, The Hacker's Choice, created a fake RFID-backed passport under the name "Elvis Aaron Presley" with a picture of Elvis, brilliant. They have released a video showing the cloned passport being approved by a security scanner at a Dutch airport.

Of course this is not the first time that RFID passports has been cloned, in 2006 researchers at the Black Hat conference demonstrated RFID chip cloning. Also, incredibly last year it was revealed that RFID chips only have a two year warranty, despite being issued in documents designed to last for ten years !!?!!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Knowledge Visualization of Wikipedia

One is the Master's students is doing some very interesting research into Knowledge Visualisation of Wikipedia articles. His website for this work is;

Here are some videos;

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Problem of Plagiarism (Reprise)

In a previous posting I mentioned the fact that I am Final Year Project Co-ordinator for one of the School of Computing's undergraduate degrees - DT228, BSc in Computer Science. And part of my duties is to ensure that no plagiarism is committed in the projects. Usually there is at least one one student who commits some form of plagiarism, but I am very, very pleased to say that this year there were no cases of plagiarism.

This is really excellent, particularly because one element of this role that I really hated was dealing with students who have copied. The Dublin Institute of Technology has a formal set of procedures that are undertaken when a student is suspected of unfair practice, which involves a panel of enquiry which can be incredible stressful and difficult for both the student involved and the staff.

This year during my weekly meetings with students I emphasised that the School has a "zero tolerance" policy on plagiarism, and gave them several presentations on what plagiarism is and what it is not. Additionally I created handouts for the students on plagiarism and we undertook creativity exercises on the topic. Finally, and I think this may have been the thing that most resonated with some students, I showed them part of an episode of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" entitled "The West Coast Delay" which concerns a live comedy show broadcast on the East Coast of America that inadvertently plagiarises another comedian's material during a sketch, which results in the production team scrambling to break into the taped West Coast feed to correct their error. The panic and problems that this causes is played out dramatically in the episode, which I think may have stuck in the students' minds.

Bottom Line: Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hackers and Hollywood: Best Presentation Award

As I mentioned in a previous posting, I had a paper at the 3rd International Conference for Internet Technology and Secured Transactions whose title is "Hackers and Hollywood: Considering Filmic Cyberthreats in Security Risk Analysis". It was well received by the international audience of Computer Security researchers, and was presented with the Best Presentation Award at the conference dinner yesterday. This was a totally unexpected surprise for me, I authored the paper to discuss a small issue in the process of undertaking risk analysis in computer security policies, and definitely didn't imagine it was going win an award.

I guess the fact that the paper was about movies helped in its appeal a lot, everyone in the audience had familiarity with some of the movies mentioned and the issues being discussed were relatively straightforward, that said, to have a group of lecturers present you with an award for giving the best lecture of the conference is a real honour and makes me think that I must be doing something right. The presentation (without video clips) is available below;
Hackers and Hollywood

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Web 2.0: Tag Clouds

Just looking at tag clouds (or weighted lists) to see if they could be useful as a teaching tool. A tag cloud is set of related tags with the size of each tag corresponding to its frequency. Typical tag clouds have between 50-100 tags. Also, sometimes tag clouds can be interactive, the tags can be hyperlinks allowing the user to drill down on the data.

I am working on creating tag clouds from my lecture notes to see what the most commonly used words in my lectures are, and compare them to my idea of what I think I am emphasising in my lectures, to see if there is any kind of conceptual drift.

Some interesting examples of tag clouds include;

Friday, May 23, 2008

Oideachas 2.0

I attended EdTech 2008 which was on yesterday and today in Dundalk Institute of Technology. A former Masters student of mine, Ronan Carty, presented a paper based on his dissertation entitled "Oideachas 2.0" concerning the use of Web 2.0 by Irish computer science lecturers, and future directions of Web 2.0. Ronan researched a range of learning and teaching theories, and surveyed over 100 lecturers on their views and usage of Web 2.0. Following this he developed a prototype learning environment that incorporates Web 2.0 Tools.

Ronan's presentation was really splendid, he took the audience through his research, discussing in detail some of the responses that the lecturers had given, he did this with great insight, critial thinking, and humour. After that he showed them his prototype learning environment which clearly wowed them. His system is built in AJAX and allows both teachers and students to configure their learning environment dynamically, excellent stuff! His disseration can be found here;

There were other excellent papers presented at EdTech 2008, including; Crystal Fulton's paper on blogging as a facilitator in the learning process, Namgyal Damdul's paper on developing an eXtreme Programming (XP) game, and Seamus Fox's paper on the measurement of the quality and efficiency of online teaching.

Conferences are also an opportunity to catch up with old friends, it was my great pleasure to meet up with Tim Savage who is in the Department of Computer Science in Trinity. I knew Tim as a lecturer on Trinity's Masters in IT in Education which I also taught on for a while, plus we both worked on a report commissioned by the Information Society Commission entitled "Innovation in Learning in the Information Society: A Comparative International Study". Tim is doing some really interesting research into Blended learning, and his work on Immersive Virtual Worlds looks very great.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Hackers and Hollywood

I submitted a paper to the 3rd International Conference for Internet Technology and Secured Transactions and I'm pleased to say I just got word back that the paper has been excepted. The paper, whose title is "Hackers and Hollywood: Considering Filmic Cyberthreats in Security Risk Analysis", looks at the way computer hackers (really "crackers") are portrayed in movies to determine if that influnces the security policies of organisations.

Defining what exactly constitutes a hacker movie was the first step. To do this a large number of potential candidates movies were reviewed to determine whether or not they were truly hacker movies, and using Grounded Theory a series of guidelines were developed to explain why some movies were added and others rejected.

  • GUIDELINE 1: A hacker movie must feature a hacker in it, it is insufficient to have an act of hacking in the movie, the hacker must appear in the movie as being either the main protagonist or antagonist, or at least be a well-developed character with their hacking being integral to the plot.
  • GUIDELINE 2: Not all cyberpunk movies can automatically be considered as hacker movies.
  • GUIDELINE 3: Only Science Fiction movies that feature recognisable hacker scenarios should be included.
  • GUIDELINE 4: No animated movies will be considered.
  • GUIDELINE 5: No movies will be considered whose sole focus is cryptography.
  • GUIDELINE 6: No hacker documentaries will be considered, only movies.
Following this a list of 50 movies featuring a total of 60 hackers were compiled from the 1960s to the 2000s. And from here a general list of characteristics that hackers are most commonly portrayed with in movies was complied which was then compared with the reailty of hacking.

More detail here;

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Search for Creativity

Creativity is something I am very interested in; What is it? How does it work? Is it different from Innovation? Can we teach it? Are some people better than others at it? How does it relate to programming and design?

I have been investigating concepts related to creativity and have been looking for sources of creativity. Part of this research has been working on projects with Edward de Bono to look at models of supporting creativity, e.g. The Six Thinking Hats, the CoRT techniques and Po. Some of the other models of creativity I have investigated, experimented and published research additionally with the following techniques; MindMaps, BrainStorming, Analogies, and Freewriting.

But models are not enough, to help identify sources of creativity I am looking at a range of people in a range of fields to determine if there is any commonality. I'm looking at inventors and their approaches. I'm looking at how literature is created, and how different authors have created their works. I am also looking at comics to see if their writing differs significantly from books. By looking at Television writing I am hoping to see if writing for a medium that is not only visually-based, but action-based, is significantly different. Finally I am looking at RPGs to see if they can aid creativity.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Vision of Students Today

A short video summarizing some of the most important characteristics of students today - how they learn, what they need to learn, their goals, hopes, dreams, what their lives will be like, and what kinds of changes they will experience in their lifetime. Created by Michael Wesch in collaboration with 200 students at Kansas State University.

Wow !

Monday, March 3, 2008

IBTS and the Missing Laptop - Part III

I e-mailed the IBTS regarding this decrypt-recrypt thing, here's what I got;

from "Corrigan, Arthur"
to Damian Gordon
cc "Bowler, Patrick"
date 3 Mar 2008 08:20
subject Missing laptop

Dear Damian

Thank you for your recent email in relation to the stolen laptop in New York. The reason the information on the laptop was re-encrypted because the IBTS had provided the New York Blood Centre the data on an 256 bit encrypted CD and in order to load this information on to laptop they had to decrypt it and then re-encrypt it again as it was being loaded on to the laptop.
I hope this answers your query.


Arthur Corrigan

IT Manager
Irish Blood Transfusion Service

This really didn't make a lot of sense to me, so I sent this;

from Damian Gordon
to "Corrigan, Arthur"
date 3 Mar 2008 16:18
subject Re: Missing laptop


I'm not trying to be difficult about this but I really don't understand what you mean, in your original email you said "The reason the information on the laptop was re-encrypted because the IBTS had provided the New York Blood Centre the data on an 256 bit encrypted CD and in order to load this information on to laptop they had to decrypt it and then re-encrypt it again as it was being loaded on to the laptop."

I don't get this, why couldn't they upload encrypted data onto the laptop from the CD, that shouldn't be an issue. You can copy encrypted data from a CD to a laptop without having to do this.

My main problem is this, if the CD was decrypted and re-encrypted "on the fly" or whatever, the reality is that as it was being decryped the results of that information had to be stored somewhere, to allow that data to be again re-encrypted, and chances are that it was on the virtual memory of the laptop. So even if there was never a file created on the laptop with the decrypted data, the decryption process had to happen somewhere, and if it was on the virtual memory of the laptop, then it could be possible to restore that data.

I would be very grateful if you could check for me exactly why the data had to be de-crypted and re-encrypted, and is it possible that it occured in the virtual memory of the laptop,

many thanks,


Looking forward to their response.

Friday, February 29, 2008

IBTS and the Missing Laptop - Part II

Just got a call from the IBTS to clarify the situation for me, here are the highlights;

1. Yes, the IBTS knew that employees of the NYBC would be transporting confidential data around on their laptops and bringing it home because they would have to be working late hours on this project, so the IBTS gave them permission to do this.

2. Regarding the statement in the letter that the data was "encrypted with a 256-bit encryption. Those records were transferred to a laptop and re-encrypted with a 256-bit encryption", the person I spoke to said that he didn't really know what that actually meant, maybe the data was unencrypted at some stage and maybe it wasn't, but was happy to confirm that, yes, the laptop mentioned here was the laptop that was stolen.

3. I queried the statement "To our knowledge there has never been a report of a successful attack against a 256-bit encryption key.", he said that this was what he had been told by the NYBC and they took care of all of the encryption stuff.

IBTS and the Missing Laptop - Part I

Yipee, it's like winning the lottery, I just got a letter today from the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) telling me some great news, my donor records were one of the 171,324 records that were on a laptop that was stolen in New York on 7th February.

I have been dreading this since the news broke on the Irish news over a week ago. In summary, the IBTS 'loaned' this data to the New York Blood Centre (NYBC) because they need a new data extraction tool that it seems no one in Ireland is capable of developing. An employee of the NYBC had a copy of the data on his laptop and lost the laptop when he was mugged outside of his home. I find it very disturbing that anyone was allowed to bring this type of data outside of a secure centre.

According to the letter I recieved the data was "encrypted with a 256-bit encryption. Those records were transfered to a laptop and re-encrypted with a 256-bit encryption", what does this mean? Why did it have to be re-encrypted, does this mean at some point the data was unencrypted? If it was, and this is the same laptop that was stolen, that is bad news.

But it's OK because according to the CEO of the IBTS Andrew Kelly the chances of decrypting this information is "extremely remote", and, "To our knowledge there has never been a report of a successful attack against a 256-bit encryption key." He should read the 2005 paper "Cache Attacks and Countermeasures: the Case of AES" by Dag Arne Osvik, Adi Shamir and Eran Tromer who in one attack managed to obtain an entire 256-bit AES key after 65 milliseconds.

The Data Protection Commissioner undertook an investigation of the entire event and according to their conclusions the IBTS seems to have done everything correctly, well that's alright so.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Dangers of Teaching

I have just finished teaching a module on the D.I.T.'s MSc in Applied eLearning, which I really enjoyed doing. I always approach the idea of teaching other teachers or lecturers with a bit of trepidation since I never know what sort of interaction I’m going to get. It is one of the problems of being a lecturer or teacher that in your job you become used of coming into a room and everyone becoming silent and taking notes on everything you say. This can sometimes lead teachers to conclude that even in non-work situations they always have something significant or important to say. Round Table journal comparing Eamon de Valera to a teacher said ”He can lecture but cannot negotiate, and his enthusiasm for abstract propositions prevents him from facing realities”. I definitely feel there are times when this sort of characterization applies to all of us, so it’s always a bit of a worry teaching teachers, will they ruin the flow of the lecture by always trying to score points or will they be open to the process.

I think one of the few things keeping teachers from going totally over-the-top is the students, invariably there will be students who keep you modest either from their knowledge of the subject, or their genuine curiosity, or their remarkable humanity. This brings me back to what I started this posting about, which was teaching the D.I.T. lecturers, I was blessed with a group of colleagues who came to learn and share, there was no one-upmanship or showing off, so to them and to all students who are willing to participate in the process I offer you my sincerest thanks, in the words of Albert Schweitzer;

“Sometimes our light goes out but is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.”

Sunday, January 20, 2008

“Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” by Dr. Randy Pausch

Dr. Randy Pausch is a highly respected and honored professor of Computer Science and co-founder of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. In September Dr. Pausch gave a lecture titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” which was part of what is called “The Last Lecture” series. The series is designed for top lecturers around the country to impart what they feel are their most important life lessons, as if it were their last. What made Dr. Paush’s lecture special was that it really was his last. A year before his lecture Dr. Paush was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. But to see Professor Pausch’s humor-filled talk one would never know that he has been told that he only has months to live. The inspirational lecture was given to just 400 students, but it quickly went ‘viral’ on the Internet.