Friday, December 12, 2008

Securing the world, one term at a time

So, the Michaelmas term is over for me and I'm getting ready to fly home for a break. I spent some time during the week evaluating how the term has gone, personally and professionally. Mostly I've written here about fun stuff I've been doing, it's probably obscured that I've been pretty busy getting started as a research student, putting in some long hours in the Computer Laboratory (above) when needed, and learning a lot.

"What does a computer security PhD student do all day?" is a pretty fair question, as I've seen from talking to other Gates scholars that being a PhD student can mean almost anything, depending on field of study, research group, and supervisor. Humanities PhD's read fairly obscure stuff they dig out of the library, some Biology PhD's spend most of their time setting up experiments for their advisor and collecting data.

Even within computer science, which is already a different beast, security is truly unique because one needs to understand broadly a huge number of fields to design security that actually works in the real world. A huge system like the internet or global finance can fail in thousands of ways, and security researchers need to understand all of them fairly well to do things right.

So, I'm forced to jump around pretty crazily from topic to topic. One day I'll be thinking about terrorism and bombs, the next about cryptographic protocols, and the next about the business model for sending spam. The security research group is appropriately diverse, about 10-20 people in various roles doing about 20 different projects simultaneously each. The best part is that we spend a huge amount of time brainstorming and discussing security topics with one another, which is the way to really learn. For me, that's the payoff in being a PhD student: I spend at least an hour a day over lunch learning security from some of the real experts in the field, plus seminars, "official" group meetings on Friday afternoons, and then there are usually afternoon teas. I haven't sat down yet with the group and not learned something.

I spend most of my time talking to people, getting ideas, then reading a lot about them. I've learned to walk around with a notepad, and every time I hear a term like "SCADA" which I didn't know, I pull up the relevant Wikipedia page next time I sit down. I constantly have a pretty big queue of topics I need to read, because they're all things a security PhD needs to know.

Here I am in my office. I'm here quite a lot, I don't spend much time in a laboratory despite the name. The days pass pretty quickly though, with some mixture of:

  • Tracking the daily security news
  • Reading research papers
  • Learning about various other fields which intersect with security
  • Discussing/brainstorming ideas
  • Coding up demo attacks, poking around products looking for issues
  • Going to seminars
  • Writing up ideas and sharing them
  • Supervising undergraduates and passing on the gift.
So I'm never idle, I have an enormous stack of papers to try and work through on my "vacation." Fortunately I'm really enjoying the subject matter, though it's sometimes frustrating to work so hard and feel that there is still a mountain I don't know.

As it happened, I was quoted in this news story today, so hopefully I'm at least a little bit on the way...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Varsity Match CXXVII

As mentioned, college sports in the UK are played primarily within the colleges at Cambridge or Oxford. Today was the exception. The Varsity Match is the annual rugby game between the two schools, played since 1872. We made the trek down to London to Twickenham stadium, among the most famous rugby stadiums in the world, and it was well worth it.

It had some of the atmosphere of a Cal-Stanford big game, a smaller crowd, but very involved. In the morning was the under-21's match, which was nice because a few teammates of mine from the Churchill team were involved. These two teams were basically all-star teams of the best undergrads playing in each university's college league. We won handily and it got everybody warmed up nicely.

The main match in the afternoon was easily the best rugby game and among the most entertaining sporting events I'd ever seen. Oxford owned the first half, with a guy called TMS Catling putting on an incredible display scoring 3 long tries, and we were down 25-10 at half. In the second half Cambridge fought incredibly well, the forwards controlled the game and we got within 33-29 with a few minutes left and had some chances from Oxford's 5 meter line. Time ran out and Cambridge came up just short, but it was an epic game and the highest scoring in the 127-match history between the two schools.

More importantly, I got to travel down with a group of 10 good friends I've made here, and everybody had a great time, particularly some of the group who barely knew anything about the sport. It was a great end to the quarter.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Masquerade Ball

Churchill Guest Night, once-per-term event for grad students and their guests. Unlike most of the Churchill events the undergrads had all gone home so this one was much more mature. Actually, not at all, it was overall the craziest night of the quarter. Sir Winston would have been proud.

This picture shows 5 of the gentleman from my apartment building: Brian, Myself, Matt, Andrew, and Simon.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmastime in Cambridge

Spent the day out and about soaking up the Christmas spirit. The Mill Road Winter Fair was going on, basically an outdoor holiday street fair in Cambridge's bohemian district. Not a whole lot of note, but there was an awesome drum band performing here, and it was fun walking around and seeing decorations and everything.

Next we got some ice skating in. They set up an outdoor skating rink in the winter on Parker's Pieces, one of the main park areas in town. It was good fun, although the three boys were all fairly experienced skaters, while Jess had a few unfortunate encounters with the ice. Fortunately as always she was a good sport.

These 3 are the friends I've spent the most time with so far. Andrew (left) and Brian live in my building and are Gates scholars, so they're always around, and Jess is the only female Gates Scholar in Churchill so she's forced into a lot of time hanging out with the guys.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Rowing on the river Cam

I hate to admit it, but in terms of popular sports, rowing is #1 here, followed by a toss-up between rugby and football (soccer). Today we went out to watch the Fairbairns race, the biggest race of the fall. Nothing is going to make rowing a great spectator sport, but the setup is nice on the River Cambridge, it's narrow and windy and there is a path for people to bike alongside the boats. Having some friends rowing also makes it fun. Above is the St. John's novice women's boat. St. John's is one of the richest colleges, and the one that everybody hates for some reason. Their race was a struggle.

Churchill, on the other hand, with lots of pride in the pink oars and outfits, put in a respectable strong showing, finishing 18th of 54.