The Joy of Cheating

As a professional scientist, as a computer security person and educator, I worry about cheating.  It’s easy to fool yourself, to think your results are significant when they simply are not and much of scientific ethics and the scientific method exists to catch these issues.  In many ways the apprenticeship that graduate students serve is to teach them about the fundamental honesty that is absolutely needed in science.  You throw the dice, get an experimental result and if it doesn’t agree with your pet hypothesis – you live with it.   I like to say “I don’t gamble for mere money”.

Cheating is a different issue in the real world. Computer security issues are not usually direct attacks on an established protocol but cheats based on human frailty.  No one expects to break a username/password combination by exhaustive trial and error (at least not until they have the /etc/shadow file :->), but people break into machines all the time by trying common combinations of usernames and passwords.  (I must admit the people who use root or administrator with Yahweh deserve the fruit of their blasphemy).

I was reading an interesting book on cheating, “how to cheat at everything” by  Simon Lovell.  (you can find it on amazon).  There are a fair number of combinatorial problems where the odds are different than one would naively expect – these will be homework for my security class.  Some of the hustles are simply magic tricks gone astray, but many of them involve a level of brazenness that is breathtaking.   It really reinforces the inherent sneaky streak that any good computer security person needs.  Between palming a small mirror to see the cards as you deal,  marking only a few cards (for example the face cards for poker or the low cards) to give an edge on your betting, and using slight of hand to swap dice between ones with two sixes and normal ones there isn’t much a dedicated cheat won’t do to fleece his mark.  Even my favorite Nigerian scams make an appearance.  It’s a good read.

Written by Rob in: laboratory practice,pedagogy,security |

Learning Objectives == Obstacles to Good Teaching

And now for something completely different (and related to my day job).

My august university has been going through the throws of reacrreditation and I’ve been reluctantly dragged into the mess. One of the big issues is that we have to formulate learning outcomes. The term ‘learning outcome’ may mean something to members of the college of education but doesn’t mean anything in computer science. So of course, we did our best to define them, which was NOT GOOD ENOUGH. So I actually read some of the (very poor quality) education literature and found what they were talking about.

Learning outcomes must be specific, measurable, and quantitative things that students actually do in the course. Great for a lesson plan, possibly acceptable for elementary school, but insane at a undergraduate and graduate college level.

For example, with “introduction to object-oriented programming”, a sophomore course in computer science, we have general aim of “students will be introduced to the principles of object-oriented programming using the Java language”. Unfortunately, that’s not specific, measurable or quantitative.

So we change it. Let’s follow the instructions.

Students will be introduced to the principles of object-oriented programming using the Java language. They will learn object creation, extension with sub-classing, …, procedural control. Closer, but still not right – we’re specific, and maybe measurable, but not quantitative and it doesn’t say what the students do.

Here’s what they want, and what is simply incorrect.

Students will be introduced to the principles of object-oriented programming using the Java language. They will learn object creation, extension with sub-classing, …, procedural control. They will write the 10 (insert your nonsense number here) principles of object orientation, they will write the 4 (ditto) control structures of Java, they will write the 20 ways to sub-class,… .

Fine – except there aren’t an agreed upon 10 principles of object orientation (which is still an active area of language research), or any of the other things. In science in general, and especially at the professional level expected at university level instruction, there isn’t a simple way to quantify the knowledge. We either end up writing detailed lesson plans for every lecture – plans that are obsolete before class starts – let alone after a few years or we make the aims looser.

I vote for looser aims. Unfortunately I’m not on the accreditation committee.

Written by Rob in: pedagogy |


I realized that I haven’t put one of these in, and could, in principle, be up the proverbial estuary without a means of propulsion.

Opinions, comments, and reviews on this site are my opinions and only my opinions.  They are not warranted to be accurate or unbiased.  They should not be construed to be the opinion or an endorsement by Georgia State University, the State of Georgia or any other legal entity.

so there.

Written by Rob in: Uncategorized |

Another New Ph.D.

Congratulations to Jeff C. on completing his dissertation defense.  There are still a few things to finish up Jeff, but you’re on your way.

Written by Rob in: Uncategorized |

Just a thought

After spending the 4th (you know the English should celebrate being rid of us troublesome “yanks”) shooting off fireworks in the great state of Alabama – where it is legal and trying to have fun messing around in boats – a thought occurred to me (rare event – I know).

It’s much more fun to be pushed around by the wind albeit slowly, than to be shoved around by a noisy infernal combustion engine however fast.

Written by Rob in: outdoors |

Trail Fever

Patrick McManus is one of my favorite outdoor humorists.  While his focus is more on hunting, fishing and “base camping” than I’m wont to, he has a unique way of bringing out the oddball side of the outdoor life.

One of his stories, “cabin fever”, describes the effects of living in enforced isolation, and he describes various varieties of cabin fever – such as “continent fever” (I’ve had this), “villa fever”, and “two-man tent fever”.

I’d like to add one more to this list, “trail fever”.  Trail fever affects adult scout leaders who don’t quite trust each other, themselves, or the scouts to handle themselves in the back country.  It’s symptoms are the “troll-like” behavior seen with the other fevers, including sensitivity to otherwise minor issues that can be resolved by simply talking.

While returning to “civilization” (I wonder about whether we’re really civilized) can cure it, I think there are some good preventive measures.

  1. Experience and training.  Train together, build experience together, learn to trust each other and the scouts.  Develop the skills to handle anything (almost) that mother nature can throw at you.
  2.  Be Prepared.   Not just the scouts motto.  Think about what might happen and then choose equipment (or figure out alternative uses for equipment) that can help.   For example, if you are concerned about hypothermia – make sure someone has a light thermal blanket and remember that you can use packliners (trash bags) or raingear as a warming suit.
  3. Self-awareness.  Monitor your self.  If you find that you’re snapping at someone or that they are consistently annoying you – take some time off and when you’re calm talk to them.  If you don’t then the annoyance will only build.
  4. Communicate.   I like to tell my students, after doing a bit of slight of hand, that I dropped out of wizard school before learning mind reading.  No one else sees things the way you do – someone else might have a different viewpoint.  For me at Philmont the challenge was to get everyone through a challenging trail without injuries – and not how fast we went.  Other challenges – like how fast we went or how much we carried are valid challenges – just not my challenge.

On thinking about this, these same issues apply to managing a lab, and probably off the trail in regular life as well.

Written by Rob in: backpacking,outdoors,scouting |

The Tao of Backpacking

Just a short post with some philosophical reflections on the art and practice of backpacking.

Backpacking is not running.  It’s not a competitive sport like soccer, tennis or even (gag) golf.  So what is it? It’s what I call a “Zen sport”, where self-control and self-awareness are critical.  It’s a sport of resilience – not endurance or performance – where you get up, break camp, walk until you’re tired, make camp, eat, and go to sleep.  Then you do the same thing again and again and again.

Backpacking is an excuse to be in the country – to walk in beauty and harmony with the natural world that we urbanized people so seldom see.

The only reason to bring a watch on  a trip is to time the water purification pills.

Like a Zen master, one of the young assistant scoutmasters at my son’s troop used to answer any question like: “when will we get there?” or “How far have we gone?” or “How far do we have to go?” with the simple answer “10.2″

Until you understand the beauty of that answer, you won’t really enjoy the sport.

Written by Rob in: backpacking,outdoors |

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