1 March 1971


English: St. Agnes' Church Andersonstown. Cele...
English: St. Agnes’ Church Andersonstown.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forty-three years ago this day – in Belfast – was much like this day – in York (I am in the University library as I write this) – sunny and bright, not very warm but showing signs that winter was on the way out.

That morning, in school, our P1 teacher did as she always did – and asked us to suggest a topic for the “diary” we would write in our jotters.

My hand went up – and I suggested that we should write that it was the first day of Spring.

The suggestion was not a popular one. Most of the boys (it was an all boys class) lived in Lenadoon, and that weekend (1 March 1971 was a Monday) there had been serious rioting there. At that time Northern Ireland was on its headlong plunge into semi-civil war (the nadir was the following year) and Lenadoon was very much in the front line. As Ed Moloney details in A Secret History of the IRA, escalating the conflict through rioting was the central tactic of the Belfast leadership of the IRA at this time – and, of course, the British Army were more than happy to facilitate them in that.

The teacher picked my suggestion – and I am sure she was right to cling to the hope that the children might want to concentrate on something other than armed conflict – though some of the boys still wrote and drew about their weekend of CS gas, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters.

I was marked out as a teachers’ pet – a key moment in my education experience. And I suppose there is also the metaphor of me picking “science” over “politics” – a choice I have been making and remaking (with different answers at different times) ever since.

Things only got worse in Lenadoon. That summer the Northern Ireland government – in a further and more or less final demonstration of its fundamental ineptitude – introduced internment with out trial – managing to both inflame opinion by negating human rights and, in general, putting the wrong people in jail anyway.

Then, in early July 1972, Lenadoon was at the very centre of the conflict with the IRA and British Army exchanging gun fire along Lenadoon Avenue (see the video) while at the end of that month the British Army moved in with overwhelming force in “Operation Motorman” and occupied a number of buildings in the estate.

The displaced families then moved into the school – Blessed (now Saint) Oliver Plunkett – and, essentially, the school closed, and I moved to Holy Child in Andersonstown, joining the great Mrs McManus’s P3 class.

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Reflections on the riots: part one


AddRoundKey operation for AES
Image via Wikipedia

This is a blog about computing (along with some maths and science) – and not about politics, and having disciplined myself to stick to that for the last nine months, I intend to keep it that way, even as I write about the biggest political event of the year.

But I will allow myself two short political observations: firstly, that disrespect for the law and contempt for order are not new things in London. If you read Albion’s Fatal Tree you will see that there have long been many in the capital who have made their at least part of their livelihoods from criminality and who celebrated their fellows. Pretending that recent events represent some terrible breakdown in ancient respect for authority is ahistorical.

And, before people start to say it is the fault of rap music or other “alien” influences, do they remember this? Perhaps the Fast Show is the real cause of the disorder?

So, that over, what is the science point? Well, it was consistently reported during last week’s disturbances that the looters were sharing their intelligence through BlackBerry smart phones, specifically through “BlackBerry Messenger” (BBM). Given that the UK has one of the most sophisticated signals intelligence set-ups in the world at GCHQ, the fact that the police were clearly left in the halfpenny seats by the looters suggests to me that nobody there has yet proved that P=NP or developed an algorithm to crack the one way functions used to  encrypt the BBMs.

According to Wikipedia Blackberry encrypt everything with “Advanced Encryption Standard” (AES). A brute force attack on this would, on average, require 2^{255} attempts (for the 256 bit encryption), so that is not a practical option (eg the universe is very roughly 4^{17} seconds old).

Now, it could be that the US government has cracked this thing and just refuses to tell even its closest ally (I dare say the name Kim Philby is still spat out in various places), but my guess is that AES is safe, for now.

As I have said before that is probably a pity: while a world where P=NP would be one where internet commerce was broken, it would also be one with many compensatory benefits.

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