Springer and Scala


I need to learn the Scala programming language. Unfortunately the University of York’s library does not seem to have an electronic copy of “Programming in Scala” (Amazon link) but it did have an electronic copy of  Springer’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Scala” (Amazon link). But this is a very poor book, referring back to examples that don’t exist, offering a very confusing explanation as to what object-orientation is and, to cap it all, illustrating examples with pseudo code rather than Scala itself.

Of course, it’s not the worst example you’ll find from Springer – “Unleash the System on Chip using FPGAs…” is easily the worst book I have ever seen in print (see my review on Amazon here) – and, of course they also publish many useful books and conference proceedings and so on. But they appear to have close to a monopoly on many aspects of computer science publications and use that ruthlessly.

If it wasn’t for other factors I’d suggest the European Commission needs to take a close look at them. Hardly worth it in the UK’s case these days though.

Court blocks the publication of a scientific paper


The English High Court (the highest civil court) has blocked the publication of a scientific paper that would have revealed the full details of a zero day vulnerability in Volkswagen’s immobiliser mechanisms – the temporary injunction against publication has been granted to stop the publication of “Dismantling Megamos Crypto: Wirelessly Lockpicking a Vehicle Immobilizer” – due to be presented at a Usenix security conference.

One of the paper’s authors is Flavio D. Garcia, who is based in the UK (the University of Birmingham) and so would have to respect the injunction or face contempt proceedings (and the possibility of prison) – the two other authors Roel Verdult and Baris Ege, both of Radboud University Nijmegen are not in or from the UK so it’s not clear to me how effective the injunction would be against them if they opted to defy it.

It’s difficult to see this as an open-and-shut case about academic freedom – as Volkswagen were not trying to supress the fact of the vulnerability, merely the details of how to conduct the crack – but it does concern me. Many security researchers make it their normal practice to publish the full details of zero day exploits – some arguing that the pressure thus applied is the only way to ensure the problems get fixed. It’s a legitimate argument to make and it should not, in my view, be a matter for the courts to judge on as a matter of routine.

I am not a lawyer but my understanding is that temporary injunctions are usually granted pending a full hearing – to preserve the status quo ante while the full legal arguments are heard: so this may have some time to run yet.

Universities target plagiarism but maybe fraud should be the real worry


A simple graphic explaining the differences be...
A simple graphic explaining the differences between plagiarism and copyright issues (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first thing I had to do when I started work on my PhD course at York was to complete an online learning unit on plagiarism.

It was fairly tedious, as I had already had to sit through several hours worth of lectures at Birkbeck on the issue when preparing for my MSc project report.

Maybe plagiarism is the big issue with students – after all there are thousands of scientific papers out there and the temptation to “rip and paste” much be great for students struggling with deadlines.

In in my case I took no chances – this is the very first sentence of the report:

Multiprogramming computer systems face a fundamental problem of being able to run programs that, in sum, require more memory than is physically available (Tanenbaum, 2009, pp. 173 -174).

Is it over the top to cite for such a basic idea? Perhaps, but it didn’t harm anyone.

Yet it seems that plagiarism is not the real issue with researchers (and this presumably includes PhD students) – just 9.8% of biomedical paper retractions were for this reason. But 43.3% were for fraud.

And the proportion of crooked papers is rising – up by an order of magnitude between 1976 and 2007 – and that’s a rising proportion of a rising number too. But the better news is that this is an increase from 3 to 83 (out of 310,000 in 1976 and 868,000 in 2007).

Could I have fiddled my MSc report (I didn’t of course) – I suppose I could. Although I supplied all the software I used to conduct my experiments and plot their results (apart from some R used to draw pie charts and so on), I doubt that anyone would have had the time to actually replicate the results. Perhaps if my paper had broken new ground (as opposed to reconfirming some thirty year old findings that did not seem to have been validated for modern software before) then maybe somebody would have had to do that…