Road to Intensive Teaching: Post 1

I’m back on the road for intensive teaching mode again and, as always, the challenge lies in delivering 16 hours of content in a way that will stick and that will allow the students to develop and apply their understanding of the core knowledge. Make no mistake, these are keen students who have committed to being here, but it’s both warm and humid where I am and, after a long weekend of working, we’re all going to be a bit punch-drunk by Sunday.

That’s why there is going to be a heap of collaborative working, questioning, voting, discussion. That’s why there are going to be collaborative discussions of connecting machines and security. Computer Networking is a strange beast at the best of times because it’s often presented as a set of competing models and protocols, with very few actual axioms beyond “never early adopt anything because of a vendor promise” and “the only way to merge two standards is by developing another standard. Now you have three standards.”

There is a lot of serious Computer Science lurking in networking. Algorithmic efficiency is regularly considered in things like routing convergence and the nature of distributed routing protocols. Proofs of correctness abound (or at least are known about) in a variety of protocols that , every day, keep the Internet humming despite all of the dumb things that humans do. It’s good that it keeps going because the Internet is important. You, as a connected being, are probably smarter than you, disconnected. A great reach for your connectivity is almost always a good thing. (Nyancat and hate groups notwithstanding. Libraries have always contained strange and unpleasant things.)

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (Newton, quoting Bernard of Chartres) – the Internet brings the giants to you at a speed and a range that dwarfs anything we have achieved previously in terms of knowledge sharing. It’s not just about the connections, of course, because we are also interested in how we connect, to whom we connect and who can read what we’re sharing.

There’s a vast amount of effort going into making the networks more secure and, before you think “Great, encrypted cat pictures”, let me reassure you that every single thing that comes out of your computer could, right now, be secretly and invisibly rerouted to a malicious third party and you would never, ever know unless you were keeping a really close eye (including historical records) on your connection latency. I have colleagues who are striving to make sure that we have security protocols that will make it harder for any country to accidentally divert all of the world’s traffic through itself. That will stop one typing error on a line somewhere from bringing down the US network.

“The network” is amazing. It’s empowering. It is changing the way that people think and live, mostly for the better in my opinion. It is harder to ignore the rest of the world or the people who are not like you, when you can see them, talk to them and hear their stories all day, every day. The Internet is a small but exploding universe of the products of people and, increasingly, the products of the products of people.

This is one of the representations of what the Internet looks like, graphically.

Computer Networking is really, really important for us in the 21st Century. Regrettably, the basics can be a bit dull, which is why I’m looking to restructure this course to look at interesting problems, which drives the need for comprehensive solutions. In the classroom, we talk about protocols and can experiment with them, but even when we have full labs to practise this, we don’t see the cosmos above, we see the reality below.

Maybe a green light will come on!

Nobody is interested in the compaction issues of mud until they need to build a bridge or a road. That’s actually very sensible because we can’t know everything – even Sherlock Holmes had his blind spots because he had to focus on what he considered to be important. If I give the students good reasons, a grand framing, a grand challenge if you will, then all of the clicking, prodding, thinking and protocol examination suddenly has a purpose. If I get it really right, then I’ll have difficulty getting them out of the classroom on Sunday afternoon.

Fingers crossed!

(Who am I kidding? My fingers have an in-built crossover!)

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