Saturday, 9 February 2019

Playing To Win

Last year we were stunned to get an email saying we'd made it through to the Canadian national finals for the first ever CyberTitan student cybersecurity contest.  We knew, on the face of things, that we weren't up at the pointy end of things, though we had made big improvements as we came to see what the competition wanted from us.  We couldn't really understand how we'd finished top two other than the fact that there really weren't many teams in the eastern division.

CyberTitan is the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) of Canada's national competition for Canadian students interested in developing skills in cyber security.  We've become so dependant on ICT infrastructure that it underpins many other critical systems like our food delivery, energy and finance sectors.  Yet this critical infrastructure is taught as an afterthought in Ontario's education system (even as it becomes instrumental in delivering curriculum in all other areas of learning).  Being able to secure and maintain ICT infrastructure isn't a nice idea, it's increasingly a life and death one.

ICTC's creation of the CyberTitan program is a forward thinking move.  With one of the largest job vacancy rates of any field and while other countries create military and civilian agencies to develop this new expression of ill intent, cyber security is being ignored at our own peril, but ICTC is trying to do something about it.

We went to last year's nationals in Fredericton and had a fantastic experience.  Three of our team had never left the province or been on a plane before.  The competition took a radical turn from the Cyberpatriot rounds we'd done previously, but we did our best and managed a fifth place finish being beaten only by teams who have been doing this for years through the American Cyberpatriot competition.

This year we hit the ground running in September.  I'd already arranged a senior team and an all female team, but interest was so high I took the hit and paid the late fee for another team of interested junior students before realizing my department budget had been eviscerated and this would drive me into the red.  Those students named themselves the Cybears and stunned everyone by topping our scores in the first two rounds of Cyberpatriot, the US run competition that CyberTitan follows in the early rounds.  Cyberpatriot tiers the teams after the two opening rounds and then pitches challenges to each tier depending on their ability.  Platinum teams are still in the hunt for the world wide title but lower tiers still get to compete for top of tier and wildcard prizes.

Since this was our first time seeing platinum level challenges, the State Round was a rough ride for our Cybears. They didn't manage to finish in the top 25% of platinum teams worldwide and as a result they are out of the semi-final round coming up next week.  Having to tell our strongest team that they are out wasn't easy, but it did shed light on how we got to nationals last year and how the competition is organized.

Last year we struggled at the beginning but got better and better each round.  We ended up Gold tiered and in the State Round had our best run yet, which is what got us to the Canadian Nationals - CyberTitan only looks at State Round results and doesn't seem to take tiering into account.  Platinum teams trying to climb Everest are considered on equal footing with Gold and Silver teams climbing Blue Mountain or a mole hill.  It would be like having some students write a 4C exam and others a 4U exam and then considering the grades as equal.

This led to an interesting conversation with the frustrated Cybears who, had they backed off on points in the early rounds would have landed in an easier tier and had a direct run to a top score in the State Round.  Do we play dumb and get an easier tier to get higher scores at the end?  That's the path we unknowingly took to the national finals last year.

In talking it through we all eventually came around to the same conclusion:  we go full bore the whole time even if it means a tougher time later on in the competition.  The goal should be to go Platinum and then qualify for the national semifinals and get through the hard way.  This puts us in the best possible place to actually win Nationals.  We could be cunning and play this to get easier tiers and game our way into the Nationals, but just getting to Nationals isn't the point, improving our skills and being competitive in it is.

Next year we're aiming to build an all-star team out of the strongest contenders in this year's three teams.  That team isn't going to try and game its way into a National finalist spot.  We're going the long way around, or not at all.  Meanwhile, our senior team got strong in Windows security management and thanks mainly to the scores of those Windows boys ended up finishing 2nd in Canada in the Gold tier.  Their Cisco networking and Linux results, while slowly improving, are way out of line with other teams around them, so they have an uphill battle to get the points they need to survive the semi-final round.  Since they're in the Gold tier the images won't be as hard as they might be, so points should be findable.  They've gotten better in each round, so a strong national finish is in the cards.

Our junior team is actually our girls' team. Most of them were grade 9s last year with only two in grade 11.  The contest stressed them early but they showed incredible resilience and adaptability, pulling themselves up into the Gold tier and finishing right behind the senior Cybeavers, 3rd in Canada in their tier.

Last year's nationals was a very male centric contest.  This doesn't surprise me as finding females willing to stick with digital technologies has been an ongoing struggle at my conservative, rural school.  The all-female staff of ICTC people at the Nationals noted the lack of female competitors.  Getting women into technology is an ongoing battle, but more than a wildcard entry, I'd love to see the Terabytches win their way into the National finals and be the first all female team to do it.  I'd then like to see them take a serious run at winning it.

Unlike last year when we built a team of graduating seniors who all left us for university, this year we only have one or two graduating seniors.  We have already seen a significant step forward in terms of raising our skills and knowledge of cybersecurity (all three teams beat last year's team's State Round score).  By being able to cultivate talent and build experience year over year, our future teams in this competition look promising indeed.

Two Gold Tier finishes in the 2019 State Round - nice to see!

The Cyberpatriot competition does a lot of things that align with Ontario's computer technology curriculum.  Joining it gives you access to Cisco's Netacademy while also encouraging focus on what to get better at quickly.  The maintenance work we do in Windows 8.1, 10 and Server aligns with Skills Ontario's IT & Networking scope, acting as a great review for our Skills competitors.  We struggle with Linux, but understanding Unix based operating systems is vital for web development, another Skills Ontario scope we're chasing, so getting better there is no bad thing.

With so much student interest, our successes to date, and how complementary CyberTitan is with our other activities, I don't see us dropping it any time soon, though it was mighty difficult to tell the hardest working, most focused and most successful team that they are out because they qualified too well.  Spending the $400 on registration and then another couple of hundred feeding my CyberTitans while they were battling in this cyber-marathon is also hurting now that I'm looking at an eviscerated department budget.

Friday, February 1st, while everyone else is writing day four exams thanks to some nasty winter weather, I've arranged to have all my competitors' exams bumped to Monday and we'll be in a six hour battle to see if we can win our way to the National Finals for the second year in a row.  I hope both teams show up ready to do their best work.  As long as we're running at 100% of our capacity, the results don't really matter, though when we're this close it'd be nice to win!

It looks like at least two eastern division teams are ahead of us
on points, so it looks like our 2018-19 CyberTitan drive is at an end.
As a quick follow up, it looks like we're finally out of the competition after the semi-finals.  The Terabytches did great work in Windows and Cisco, but struggled in Linux and fell short in the semi-finals.  Doing this round we've never seen before in the middle of exams made it very difficult for the everyone, but especially the juniors, to focus on preparing for semis.  The Terabytches (for the first time in the contest) seemed ruffled, making mistakes they hadn't previously when managing images and working within the competition framework.  The penalties received were all good experience though and will only make for a more resilient team next year.  Now we've seen what can go wrong, we know how to avoid it in the future.

The Cybeavers were as strong as ever in Windows, where they were consistently near or at the top of the country.  They struggled in Linux but came in at about the State Round average number of points in that category, so held their own.  The Cisco networking once again stumped them, causing us to lose places and ultimately fall short of at least two other eastern division teams, which means we're probably finished.

Creating senior teams that are strong across all sectors of the competition (Windows OS and Linux OS security management and Cisco networking) is going to be the goal for next year, and looking at our two junior teams, we're spoiled for choice.  Up until last year I was still getting bumped into teaching English and wasn't even a full time ICT teacher.  Computer science at our school is only a couple of sections and digital technologies in general struggle to reach a sustainable level in our building.  That our peripheral program in our rural school is able to produce results like we do is very satisfying and shows my students what they can do if they work together and apply themselves.  We'll keep doing that, one way or another, even if it means winning the hard way.  Next year we'll be doing it with our first ever veteran teams.

If you're trying to drum up interest in ICT in your school, this is a good way to do it!

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Learned Helplessness

Reading often creates strange resonances.  Most recently the latest edition of WIRED struck a chord with Paul Theroux's 1975 classic, The Great Railway Bazaar.  What could a travel book from the seventies have to do with a Twenty-first Century technology magazine?

Theroux was on a train trip across Asia.  In India he came across a taxi driver who did a brilliant job of looking after him.  After weeks on the road he found himself becoming desperately dependant upon this support.  I've read a lot of Theroux and he circles this theme again and again; the idea of how the ease that accompanies wealth leads to a kind of learned helplessness.

Way back in 1974 Theroux suddenly found his confidence eroded by an assistant too good for his own good.  Sahib is one of those words loaded with colonial weight.  In India it was used as a title of respect toward European men.  Theroux takes that supposed superiority and dismantles it with American anti-classist zeal, describing the wealthy people who came to depend on their servants as childlike in their helpless.  It's an interesting twist.  

In The Happy Isles of Oceania, Theroux lives the high life for a week in a luxury hotel cottage used by the PGA.  He becomes frustrated at how isolated, unproductive and paranoid he felt by the end of it, even though his every need was taken care of.  The next week he tried to live on one thousandth the money, or four bucks a day.  By the end of that week spent living rough on an empty beach and kayaking about, he felt empowered, productive and alive.  What most people do with money (having other people serve their needs) often leads them to a state of childlike dependence.  Theroux is often tempted by it and then hates himself for doing it.

In WIRED this week the Angry Nerd goes on a rant about Google's gmail predictive text technology that keeps jumping in front of you as you're trying to write an email.  No, I'm not a fan of this use of AI, I can type quickly and it breaks my flow.  There is a function for AI in writing, but leaping in front of composition, or worse yet, replacing the writer entirely, isn't it.  The Angry Nerd is especially worried about the inflationary nature of this interference:

"Once we embrace the personalized simulacrum, we start letting AI speak for us. Soon we let it speak as us. It’s … almost soothing. Frees up time. I’m nearing inbox zero! Ah, Grandma just checked in. She’s not feeling well. I’ll select “Oh no!” Yes. She’ll care that I care. And she’ll reply, so kindly, so expediently: “Thanks so much!”"

Before we know it the ever so helpful, never resting artificial intelligence is speaking for us, replacing our voice in our most intimate relationships.  This echoes Theroux's eroded competence, but the way AI is doing it is much more insidious than the old fashioned human servant.  The AI never rests, is always there and is always looking for ways to step in front of you and help until you become so atrophied that it assumes your voice.  Worse still, the companies peddling these virtual assistants aren't interested in small scale adoption, they want everyone to have the luxury of a virtual servant.

Between the industrial scale of adoption and the dissemination of personal electronics into all aspects of our lives, it's only a matter of time before we're all as atrophied and helpless as Theroux feared.  If we don't start setting limits on AI to prevent it replacing human being, we're in for a rough ride.  Don't expect the Silicon Valley giants to do what's best for humanity.  They've already proven that profit comes first. They'll happily create a society of illiterate social idiots as long as the money keeps pouring in.

Now, more than ever, we need some Asimovian laws in place to moderate the introduction of artificial intelligence.  We've already run into problems with digital technologies in terms of news and politics.  If we leave artificial intelligence to develop without ensuring it isn't atrophying human potential, it will relentlessly drive us into a dystopia we'll all be too helpless to recognize, let alone escape.