Dawn of the Zero Day

It was 7:45am. I’d woken up fifteen minutes before my alarm sounded. This was a rare occurrence considering how often I’ve slept through it these days, and since I’d gone to bed sometime after 2am. Having slept uncomfortably, I checked my phone for social updates for some motivation to get up. Be careful what you wish for.

I was tagged in a post by a friend. He often posts computer science gems to keep us in the loop. This was a simple post on tumblr. And after absorbing the gravity of its message, I could stay in bed no more.

It was a description of a zero day exploit that can allow anyone to gain access to anyone else’s Skype account. Various thoughts rushed through my head. The people must be told about this. I need to protect myself against it. Where do I go from here?

Needless to say, I’d got out of bed with haste only to deadlock standing still thinking about my options. Why did I care? This was big news, and very new. The post was made a few hours before, and it was only a matter of time before it went mainstream. At that point, if I didn’t have the correct defences up, it would be endgame.

I fired up my laptop and thought about the problems Skype themselves would be having in dealing with this. Coming up with a rapid fix to such a broken feature isn’t too hard, but ensuring it doesn’t break something else is. I logged in to Skype, relieved that my account wasn’t yet hijacked in the few hours the post was up. The nature of the flaw meant I had to make some changes to my Facebook profile, closing a few doors that left me wide open. This was a case where professional paranoia was no longer paranoid.

I then spent a good 30 minutes changing details on my Skype profile. I remained dissatisfied with the process, however. There was a striking sense of instability about the whole thing, and I wasn’t convinced my data was safe.

This sparked a chain of thoughts about how I’ve been increasingly alerted to this sort of thing, and whether I would feel safe at all considering how often these things happen. The new age of zero day exploits had long since dawned, and the state of security is in such disrepair that leaks no longer effectively fix them. Is a paradigm shift in standards necessary to effect change? How can we enforce industry strength security properly? I digressed.

Deciding it wasn’t worth wasting any more time over, I figured I needed to start heading out. There wasn’t much time to enjoy my usual Starbucks breakfast, and I felt too unsettled on the tube to play Pokemon on my DS. So here I am, on the (kind of) wrong tube train, deciding what the next best courses of action are. And pondering when I’m going to feel safe enough to break the news to a wider audience against a perceived duty to inform.

UPDATE — 13:00 – As the exploit appears unusable now that Skype have disabled password resets while they find a fix, I’ve linked a source describing the methods.

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End Of An Era

I know I’ve not posted on here for quite a while – and the excuse of being busy is starting to wear thin, but it couldn’t have been more accurate! An update on some of the significant things that have happened over the last few months:

My last post was an election manifesto, much like it was around that time the year before. Running in a student union election the second time round made a lot of things easier to anticipate, though I did not win the position of Felix Editor in the end. Since then I’ve had the chance to appreciate and reflect on the amazing time I’ve had taking up the positions of News and Science Editor, working with an extremely devoted and professional team under high calibre Editors-In-Chief, and I’ve had a fantastic experience from which I’ve learnt a great deal.

So comes the end of my time in Felix, and my time at university too. My decision to switch to the three year course (I forgot I was featured on that link, cringe..) feels like my time here at Imperial has been balanced enough to prevent me from feeling like I can’t wait to leave. I’ll definitely miss seeing my friends so frequently, the many hours I spent in the labs, and the cosmopolitanism of the campus.

The day after I found out I lost the election, I found out I’d won the Cadzow Smith award from the Worshipful Company of Engineers. This was an award for which engineering students from eleven universities in London were nominated to compete, and I (and Imperial) took the prize! I’d mentioned this in a previous post, along with the déjà vu that came with. The ceremony was held a few weeks ago in the city, where I was presented with a commemorative medal. A number of engineering traditions surrounding the Queen were upheld, and I couldn’t help but relate to some CGCU events where I’d seen similar things.

That said, it definitely needs mentioning that this year, I’ve never felt more a part of the RCSU. The committee’s endeavours for their faculty union’s students are simply unparalleled, and they’ve been instrumental in my positive experience at Imperial being sustained and ending on a high. While I may be an Engineer by degree, I’ve certainly felt like a Scientist at heart, and the committee’s warmth and amiability has been ever-pleasing. Leaving Imperial with both ICU Colours and being the first non-RCSU person to obtain RCSU Colours is heart-warming.

Another reason I may have felt like a Scientist could have been due to my final year project, which I frantically started working on whilst shutting down most social aspects in my life after the elections. My project was titled “optimised kinetic simulation of muscles”, and it was anything but as simple as it sounds. This was a joint effort from the Department of Computing and the National Heart and Lung Institute, with me in the middle under supervisors from both sides. My Computing supervisor was Professor Wayne Luk, who leads the Custom Computing research group. He encouraged me to use the Maxeler platform and FPGAs to hardware accelerate my work. My Medical supervisors were Professors Roger Woledge and Nancy Curtin, whose research revolved around muscle contraction and understanding the underlying interactions.

There were a few novel aspects to our methods which ended up with us producing measurements that were never before observed. The reason for this was that we sought to run our simulation about a million times for statistically significant results, and this would have taken about 371 days. My three-stage optimisations brought them down initially to 27 days, then to three hours, and finally to 30 minutes.

Getting the report done was a massive mountain to climb, since I’d decided to do it the correct way – using LaTeX. I found myself bonding with the fourth years in labs who were in the same physical and mental situations, and couldn’t help but appreciate that feeling of being ‘in it together‘ as we slaved for hours upon hours down there every day.

The night before the final presentation, I realised I had to change a large amount of slides since my message wasn’t coming across very well. I spent this night loaded on so much caffeine it was doing more harm than help, and was barely able to sleep. Fortunately, feedback from my supervisors after the presentation was that they couldn’t have known I had barely slept and it looked like I had practiced for weeks! Needless to say, when I got home I crashed, only to wake up the next day and fully realise the gravity of the situation – after having submitted my report and given my presentation, I was essentially free!

I later attended my final Summer Ball, got my results, and though I’m graduating in October with a 2:1 (yay!) in Computing, it certainly hasn’t felt like I’m leaving yet – my supervisors agreed for me to come back over the summer and continue working on our research – the project itself received a First Class grade and I was one of the people asked to present at the open day!

My summer work is classed as a UROP placement under my Computing supervisor, and research is progressing smoothly. We’re making steady strides with our optimisations and modifications for better accuracy. It’s essentially exploratory work and the computations serve as a guide for where to look next regarding the actomyosin interactions. We also have an expert from Maxeler on board, who happily provided me with access to their workstations at their HQ in Hammersmith, it’s all very exciting!

I think it’ll feel like I’m leaving when September draws near, the most I’ve got now is the peculiarity of being a visitor in my own labs due to a deactivated ID card. In any case, I look back on the last three years as the best time of my life so far, and I look to the future, as always, with much enthusiasm!

-Alex Kara

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Vote Alexander Karapetian for Felix Editor!

Voting over – thanks for all the support guys! Results will be announced next week :)

Vote Now! | My Facebook event for campaigning  |  My Felix articles

Hello there! Thanks for visiting,

I’ve been working for Felix for three years now, and I love this paper. In my experience undertaking roles such as News Reporter, Copy Editor, Photographer, Web Editor, News Editor (2010-11) and Science Editor (2012-12), I’ve learnt a lot about how to keep Felix running, and I feel the time has come for me to take the reins.

I’m a third year Computing student, and I’ve always had a keen interest in writing and journalism. I’ve contributed to The Guardian, The London Student and The Medical Student before and Felix has certainly taken up most of my time during my degree. Since the day I started at Imperial, I’ve dedicated myself to staying on top of news every week. So why should you vote for me?

Transparency: Your Felix, your rules

A vote for me is a vote for openness, approachability and sociability throughout Felix. Whenever I go out representing the cat, I do my best to get people involved. Anyone should be able to contribute, and everyone should know our door’s always open. If elected, I will set up and man a Felix stall in the JCR every week to get to know our readers personally, to listen to your criticisms, and to give you a platform to approach us and get involved.

We’re not just a newspaper, but a society too. We’ve seen some incredible efforts put in this year and watching freshers, postgraduates and everyone in between become such an integral part of Felix is wonderful and needs to be continued. As your Editor, I promise not to just look after Felix, but also to do my best to keep you, the readers, happy. I will communicate transparently to help make Felix your paper, one that you can truly be proud of, and one that reflects the excellence of this university.

Stability: A bigger Hangman

We need to bring back Hangman. I’ve listened to your comments and it’s pretty clear that you want Felix to be funny. You just want it done right. We’ve learnt some valuable lessons this year, and if you elect me, I promise to triple Felix’s comedic content and launch two new Hangman subsections to give you those much-needed laughs. Satire, and I’m talking Mock The Week style repartee localised to Imperial, would feature prominently in my Felix.

We’re a student paper, not The Guardian, and you can rest assured that while I will continue to stay on top of college issues and bring you interesting features weekly, we’ll keep it as entertaining as possible for you. More comics, more wit, more investigative journalism and more opportunities for you to write in and get involved. It’s your content, done your way.

Professionalism: No more mistakes

We can do so much more with the resources we have. Felix is based near PhotoSoc in the West Basement of Beit Quad, and we’re down the corridor from Stoic TV as well as IC Radio. If elected, I will closely collaborate with the rest of the Media Group to produce more entertaining shows, as well as revamping FelixOnline to get relevant student-led videos showing up on our online articles too.

Together, we can be a very strong media outlet, and I will ensure our output resonates with your interests at the core. We will introduce ways to allow you to anonymously tip-off Felix about any potentially newsworthy material, and with our resources, we can deploy a team armed with cameras to capture the moments as they happen. If elected, I will also improve our quality control so that we catch mistakes and errors effectively. We’re all tired of seeing errors in an article’s research, spelling or grammar, and I vow to put a stop to them.

Outside the box: Keeping the Cat free

South Kensington isn’t our only campus, and I feel it’s important to ensure we’re reporting on Imperial as a whole where relevant. If elected, I promise to look into ways of distributing the paper to other campuses that do not currently receive Felix, and I will proactively look into producing a sister publication targeted at Silwood Park whilst ensuring I, Science and Phoenix are comprehensively taken care of. As Science Editor this year I’ve helped keep our section open to contributors to I, Science, and unified collaboration is key to our prosperity.

If elected, I will adhere to a rigorous schedule to keep the distribution points filled and will introduce improvements to the way we deliver to Charing Cross and the Reynolds. There’s no reason our website has to follow the same deadlines as the paper, too. I’ll increase our frontline reporting, post to the website more frequently, and as we’ve been on the same design for nearly two years now, I feel a departure from the current style will be beneficial, introducing a fresh look and feel.

Alexander Karapetian: Your Editor

Felix is an award winning publication and I have been tirelessly involved in ensuring its production to the highest standard in both content and coverage thus far. If elected, I will aspire to elevate its standard and maintain its award winning status, and your vote can make it happen. Unleash the true potential of Felix and vote Alexander Karapetian for Felix Editor. Thanks!

Join the Facebook event and invite your friends

Read my Felix articles

Vote at: www.imperialcollegeunion.org/elections by placing a 1 next to my name.

Voting is open from March 12, 00:01 to March 16, 23:59

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alexkara15

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Deja Vu

So it’s coming up to that time of year again, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find some time to myself to relax. In my last post, I mentioned that there were pressing times ahead – little did I appreciate how much of an understatement that was. As I wake up after a 14 hour sleep following an all nighter with childhood best friend Charles, attempting to understand the curious depths of Photoshop, a chilling realisation hits me. I’ve been here before.

We pulled the same all nighter this time last year (+/- 5 days), the same time I was swamped with work due to the huge Operating Systems lab we had, Pintos. This year, it’s not one massive piece of work, but a sum of parts – with my final year individual project, 3 group projects and a piece of coursework all running simultaneously, all but one due in before elections. Ah yes, elections – that happened last year too.

In fact, quite a few things are repeating again. Around this time last year, I got through to the interview stage of a national engineering leadership award run by the Royal Academy of Engineering. I also broke many stories in Felix regarding cyber security and privacy issues. Interestingly, here I am again, shortlisted for the Cadzow Smith engineering leadership award (run by the Worshipful Company of Engineers). It would appear that universities nominate one person each for the prize, so I feel privileged to get this far. It would also appear that Imperial’s nominees have won first prize in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2007,2008, 2010 and 2011… No pressure.

As for the stories regarding privacy issues? Well, I’ve been sustaining more than my average output for Felix these few weeks, and it’s not like I wrote a story on methods which could be used to rig the National Student Survey after being alerted to it by Computing students. It’s not like I provided commentary either, or like it got into the London Student newspaper too…

The feeling of déjà vu given by all of these re-occurrences combined is slightly frustrating, and the workload doesn’t help, but I’m going to power on and see everything through giving it my all, just like I did last time. One thing I appreciate is that I’m at least in better company this time round.

Alex Kara

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Achievement Unlocked: App-ortunist

So I’ve recently rekindled my love for mobile development and have been getting stuck in to some side projects alongside my university work. I’d like to say I found the free time to do it but it’s more of a case of having to be more efficient at everything else without sacrificing quality. Over Christmas I started coding an app for Imperial’s student radio station, IC Radio, to let users stream the station’s output. I initially targeted iPhone and iOS since I’d already had some experience with it and I was rather excited to have my first submission to the app store approved two weeks ago!

I updated my IC Radio iOS app last week with Sorin, so it’s currently what I like to call version 1.1, and 1.2 is in the pipeline with additional functionality such as showing the upcoming show schedule. I anticipated calls for an Android version so I started it alongside the iOS app. As much as I approached it with an open mind, I was hit with the barrage of problems that arose from the fragmentation of Android, such as not being sure which SDK to target and various annoyances in the Java platform, quite early on. I’m hoping as time goes by and I become more familiar with the methods, my disdain and awkward affair with this hideous layer on Java will diffuse. Nonetheless, I will finish coding the app and release it to the Android marketplace in due time.

I do find it rather peculiar, however, that though my initial idea was to have an app to myself so I could listen to the stream and discover new music on demand (I got into Simian Mobile Disco through them, with Sleep Deprivation being a hit during my A level Computing coursework), I’m unable to write the same functionality for my Windows Phone. Why? Well, the stream is given in the form of an m3u playlist – fairly standard. Not a standard WP7 likes to support though. I’m thinking of workarounds such as converting the playlist file on the fly when it’s downloaded, since it really just redirects to an mp3 stream, but it’s upsetting how in this case, I’m unable to ‘eat my own dog food‘ without resorting to listening on my iPad using my iOS app.

Otherwise, I have some more exciting side projects lined up, I’ve recently decided to reimplement a few ideas I had when I wrote programs targeting the .NET Compact Framework and using SQLCE for my Windows Mobile 2003SE PDA in secondary school. I suppose one could say I was a bit of a mobile developer hipster, writing mobile apps before they were called apps, but I definitely see a one-to-one mapping from those old programs to current devices and think they’ll satisfy my hobbyist programming desires while I crack on with a large project involving optimising a kinetic simulation of muscles.

In terms of other things going on, Kelly and I have been having some nice ideas for further improving our Science section in Felix which we’ll be implementing very soon, and I’m closely looking forward to buying myself a Kinect for Windows and developing for that with my beloved Visual Studio 2010 (which Microsoft just released an Achievements system for!) Microsoft’s vision for the Kinect sensor is quite a heartfelt appeal to developers who love to free existing systems and push them to their boundaries. My Robotics lecturer recently told the class that the device is among the state of the art for depth perception and I’m really keen on seeing what comes out of Kinect development, as well as contributing to it myself.

The Christmas holidays were work filled, but I got an Xbox with Kinect and a few games which I’m having fun playing here on my projector when I have time. I’m found on Xbox Live at AlexKara15 to those who want to add me on yet another social network :)

Otherwise, my group project presentation went well, and I’m sad to see this mark the end of my last major group project at Imperial. I don’t believe we’ve seen the end of my infamous WAVE gameplay mechanics just yet, either. I’ve uploaded my first year AI group project with Fraser onto my personal Department of Computing profile as well, which can be found here. Also, the RCSU Science Challenge 2012 was launched, and I met Lord Robert Winston, who’s a professor here. He said he’d never had his picture taken with an iPad before. I’m not sure whether I’ll enter again this year, but it’s likely after having won last year’s maths prize.

So, once again we have both exciting and pressing times ahead. Much anticipation to see how this all pans out!

Alex Kara

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Happy New Year! I hope 2012 brings you prosperity and good tidings. That is all :)

– Alexander

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Six months on…

So the dust settled and it comes to not only the end of the summer holidays, but the end of the first term of my final year of study at Imperial. It’s been an eventful three months, but for the sake of continuity I’ll briefly summarise the three before. I took a rain check on going to the Build Windows conference and as it turns out, unfortunately hadn’t the time. The Royal Academy of Engineering were also somewhat reluctant to fund the trip if it didn’t include some sort of industrial visit. I did, however, visit some Windows Phone 7 developer camps and learn more about C# and Windows Azure.

Otherwise, I kicked off the third year giving up my old position as News Editor for Felix, our student newspaper, and taking up another in Felix Science. Being a Science Editor on top of the flexibilities of the final year projects meant I could spend more time across the board, and I sustained my usual output for the News section as a reporter on top of my new workload. I’ve learnt a lot having to research various intriguing stories for Science, (albeit having been typecast to the more physics and quantum themed stories) and we signed off with a feature on snowflakes. We’ve received a few compliments about the section and I’m really proud of how it’s going so far, managing to push four pages almost every week. I’m also particularly happy I wrote a few Comment pieces, notably a head-to-head debate on different University systems and a discussion following a study on the effects of social media here and there. The academic workload isn’t set to decrease, however, and as the final year group project draws to a close, the individual project begins.

I remained actively involved in both RCSU and CGCU events (Scientists’ and Engineers’ unions, respectively) throughout these three months and met a lot of new people (notably the first years) who brought a wave of enthusiasm that refreshed the whole experience. As expected, though, I’ve been very busy balancing academic study, group projects, Felix and the occasional partying. The evidence stands, I’ve only been able to update this blog now!

I’m not living with Fraser this year, but I’ve moved slightly further down the road closer to medic central, one might say. He’s spending time being an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) and I won’t doubt the Computing freshers are learning extensively from him and having their minds blown on a regular basis. I’ve been using my spare time entering various writing competitions, I was lucky enough to take the mathematics prize for the Science Challenge 2011, the award ceremony for which was in November. In addition, I’m preparing an app to help publicise IC Radio, our radio station. It should be finished very soon, especially since I got my first Mac to be able to use Xcode outside of the labs and work from home.

I hope to be able to find time to continue playing Pokémon Black sometime soon, and I have extra co-op content in Portal 2 to get done with Sorin, my Partner In Science who’s just about recovering from the second year compilers coursework. Nonetheless, I look forward to the ever-increasing and unavoidable festivities of the coming week. Merry Christmas everyone!

Alexander Karapetian

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