Microsoft versus Linux: did we win after all?

At the end of John Le Carre’s Smiley’s People George Smiley is congratulated for having triumphed in his life’s struggle with Karla, the eminence grise of the KGB and told “George, you won”, to which the British spymaster, perhaps shamed by his need to adopt his opponent’s tactics of threat to the innocent replies “Did I?”

It feels a bit like that this weekend when I look back what is surely Microsoft’s humbling in the face of Android’s triumph. (I don’t claim to be any sort of central figure in this – I just mean I know we have won, but I don’t know what we have won given the compromises required to secure victory).

Free software made the victory possible – but the freedom that counted was the ‘as in beer’ one: Linux proved to be a cheaper platform for the hardware manufacturers to use. I do not detect any greater public understanding of the ideas of the free software movement than a decade ago – even if so many of the old arguments against its use have been killed by the onrushing Android juggernaut.

Indeed, the fact that Apple, whose business model is even more fundamentally hostile to free software than that of Microsoft, are doing so well suggests that no sort of ideological battle has been won at all – for so many consumers it is “shiny thing make it all better” (and Apple do do a fine line in shinnies).

And the site of the great battles of the past – the desktop – has become something hardly worth fighting over. Windows 8 stinks – I replaced it on one of my daughter’s computers with Ubuntu recently – but I suspect what has made it such a turkey for Microsoft is not the tiny numbers who, like me, are getting rid of it, but the falling sales of desktops and laptops in the developed world’s markets.

So, we are not protected by the US after all

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Let me start this post – on the PRISM programme – by making a few things clear.

Firstly, I think the jihadist terrorist threat is real and dangerous and even potentially existential in nature: if these people had atomic weapons do you think they would hesitate to use them?

Secondly, I think the police and security services need to be able to do their job to deter and catch these people.

And, thirdly, I believe that all such actions need to be regulated by law and need to reflect the fundamental protections we expect.

What we now know is that a US based internet – which is what we have when we consider Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest – does not offer those of us who are not US citizens the guarantee that our communications are protected by law. No probable cause is needed to snoop at what we say and do – don’t take my word for it, listen to what the President of the United States has said.

He’s been very clear that the communications of non-US citizens have no legal protection. And I am sure he is right.

Most of us, perhaps until today, sought to resist the efforts to “internationalise” the Internet: why would we want Putin or Assad to have a say on internet regulation? We don’t, and we still don’t.

But equally the current situation is not acceptable either. For Europeans we must now expect and demand that the European Commission intervene swiftly and make it clear to the US internet giants operating on European soil that the current situation is unacceptable and equally make it clear to the US authorities that this is a matter of trade policy: after all communications could be being intercepted to steal trade secrets as much as anything else.

The aim should not be to ban the authorities’ access to communications but to ensure that European citizens who trade with US internet companies are offered the same legal protections as US citizens (and vice versa as far as Europe is concerned).

How to get a job as a developer

Usage share of web browsers (excluding IE) acc...

Last night I went to a Birkbeck training session for prospective mentors. I did not realise before I turned up that all, or almost all, the would-be mentors would be MSc Computer Science graduates.

In the end that fact alone turned what could have been a pretty dull way to spend a Friday night into something quite interesting – I don’t get to talk to developers very often at all, and now I was in a room full of them.

And one of them – a chief executive of a start-up with a fascinating back-story (but he didn’t say ‘put that on your blog’, so I won’t) – told me what he regards as the best way for a would be developer to get their breakthrough job: go to github, find a high profile project from a commercial outfit (he suggested the Chrome browser from Google) and fix a few bugs.

His claim was that he knew several people – including two with jobs at Google – who had got work in this way. I have no reason to think he was doing anything other than telling the truth.

Interestingly, he was pretty surprised when I talked about the poor employment record of computer science graduates – there plainly is some sort of disconnect between the firms recruiting (who say they struggle to fill jobs) and the graduates (who struggle to get recruited).

New comment spam fashion

Comment spam appears to have entered a new phase – recently my spam filter is filling up with comments that link to other pages of links. I assume this is some sort of pay-per-click effort, as I am guessing that Google would automatically bomb any page that was just a series of ads and similar links.

Of course, the key thing about understanding spam is how low the marginal costs are for the spammers – especially if they write scripts that just plaster this all over people’s blogs. Even if just 1 in 100 bloggers does not have a filter installed and only 1 in 1000 visitors clicks on a link on any day, that probably still works as a money making venture if they can get the volume up to a high enough number.

Computer science in English schools: the debate rages on

World cup England
World cup England (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

In recent months a new consensus has emerged about teaching ICT (information and communications technology) in England’s schools: namely that it has been sent up a blind alley where kids are taught little more than how to manipulate Microsoft’s “Office” products.

That recognition is a good thing, though the way in which the government were finally roused into action – by a speech from a Google bigwig – was not so edifying. If the previous Labour government had a distressing and disappointing attitude of worshipping the ground Bill Gates trod upon, the Conservative wing of the coalition seems mesmerised by Google (not least because of some very strong personal and financial ties between Google and leading Conservatives).

But recognising there is a problem and fixing it are two very different things. The proposals from the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, seen contradictory at best: on the one hand he’s said we need a new curriculum, on the other he’s seemingly refused to do anything to establish one. The revelation last week that he’s axed the bit of his department that might create such a curriculum did not inspire confidence.

But the pressure for change is still mounting. In tomorrow’s Observer John Naughton, author of the celebrated A Brief History of the Future: Origins of the Internet – launches his manifesto for ICT (as it’s a manifesto I have copied it in full, but you should really also read his article here):

1. We welcome the clear signs that the government is alert to the deficiencies in the teaching of information and communications technology (ICT) in the national curriculum, and the indications you and your ministerial colleagues have made that it will be withdrawn and reviewed. We welcome your willingness to institute a public consultation on this matter and the various responses you have already made to submissions from a wide spectrum of interested parties.

2. However, we are concerned that the various rationales currently being offered for radical overhaul of the ICT curriculum are short-sighted and limited. They give too much emphasis to the special pleading of particular institutions and industries (universities and software companies, for example), or frame the need for better teaching in purely economic terms as being good for “UK plc”. These are significant reasons, but they are not the most important justification, which is that in a world shaped and dependent on networking technology, an understanding of computing is essential for informed citizenship.

3. We believe every child should have the opportunity to learn computer science, from primary school up to and including further education. We teach elementary physics to every child, not primarily to train physicists but because each of them lives in a world governed by physical systems. In the same way, every child should learn some computer science from an early age because they live in a world in which computation is ubiquitous. A crucial minority will go on to become the engineers and entrepreneurs who drive the digital economy, so there is a complementary economic motivation for transforming the curriculum.

4. Our emphasis on computer science implies a recognition that this is a serious academic discipline in its own right and not (as many people mistakenly believe) merely acquiring skills in the use of constantly outdated information appliances and shrink-wrapped software. Your BETT speech makes this point clearly, but the message has not yet been received by many headteachers.

5. We welcome your declaration that the Department for Education will henceforth not attempt to “micro-manage” curricula from Whitehall but instead will encourage universities and other institutions to develop high-quality qualifications and curricula in this area.

6. We believe the proper role of government in this context is to frame high-level policy goals in such a way that a wide variety of providers and concerned institutions are incentivised to do what is in the long-term interests of our children and the society they will inherit. An excellent precedent for this has in fact been set by your department in the preface to the National Plan for Music Education, which states: “High-quality music education enables lifelong participation in, and enjoyment of, music, as well as underpinning excellence and professionalism for those who choose not to pursue a career in music. Children from all backgrounds and every part of the UK should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument; to make music with others; to learn to sing; and to have the opportunity to progress to the next level of excellence.” Substituting “computing” for “music” in this declaration would provide a good illustration of what we have in mind as a goal for transforming the teaching of computing in schools. Without clear leadership of this sort, there is a danger schools will see the withdrawal of the programme of study for ICT in England as a reason for their school to withdraw from the subject in favour of English baccalaureate subjects.

7. Like you, we are encouraged by the astonishing level of public interest in the Raspberry Pi project, which can bring affordable, programmable computers within the reach of every child. But understanding how an individual machine works is only part of the story. We are rapidly moving from a world where the PC was the computer to one where “the network is the computer”. The evolution of “cloud computing” means that the world wide web is morphing into the “world wide computer” and the teaching of computer science needs to take that on board.

8. In considering how the transformation of the curriculum can be achieved, we urge you to harness a resource that has hitherto been relatively under-utilised – school governors. It would be very helpful if you could put the government’s weight behind the strategic information pack on Teaching Computer Science in Schools prepared by the Computing at School group, which has been sent to every head teacher of a state-maintained secondary school in England to ensure that this document is shared with the governors of these schools.

9. We recognise that a key obstacle to achieving the necessary transformation of the computing curriculum is the shortage of skilled and enthusiastic teachers. The government has already recognised an analogous problem with regard to mathematics teachers and we recommend similar initiatives be undertaken with respect to computer science. We need to a) encourage more qualified professionals to become ICT teachers and b) offer a national programme of continuing professional development (CPD) to enhance the teachers’ skills. It is unreasonable to expect a national CPD programme to appear out of thin air from “the community”: your department must have a role in resourcing it.

10. We recognise that teaching of computer science will inevitably start from a very low base in most UK schools. To incentivise them to adopt a rigorous discipline, computer science GCSEs must be added to the English baccalaureate. Without such incentives, take-up of a new subject whose GCSE grades will be more maths-like than ICT-like will be low. Like it or not, headteachers are driven by the measures that you create.

11. In summary, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prepare our children to play a full part in the world they will inherit. Doing so will yield economic and social benefits – and ensure they will be on the right side of the “program or be programmed” choice that faces every citizen in a networked world.


What people come here looking for…

English: Gwyneth Paltrow at the 2011 Venice Fi...
Image via Wikipedia

Bit of a filler post, but here are the things that are likely to land this website on the first page of a Google search.

The first numerical column is the number of times the site has appeared in a Google search for the term, the second numerical column the average placing of the page in the search (both are for the last month).

Unfortunately only the top 4 search terms (update: by which I mean the four at the bottom of this table) generate more than 10 click throughs. I don’t know what a “cartesian tyranny” is, but plainly I have also come close to cornering the market in that term also.

The Gwyneth Paltrow thing is a bit of a result, though seems to be very few people searching for her or clicking on her name. Come on Gwyn, give me some Google love…

why do people hate apple 110 10
dismal education 12 10
firefox version 7 70 10
best book for linux 16 10
jobs for computer science graduates 50 9.9
differences between udp and tcp 12 9.8
lyx android 35 9.7
compshop 700 9.6
ubuntu get rid of unity 50 9.0
worst degrees 50 8.7
grasp software 110 8.6
cartesian division 30 8.4
groovy tokenize 70 8.4
google voice ireland 30 8.4
most expensive computer ever 30 7.9
how to get rid of unity 30 7.9
whats that coming over the hill 200 7.6
get rid of unity 60 7.6
ubuntu wireless bridge 22 7.5
get rid of unity 11.10 22 7.5
cartesian product latex 70 7.3
what’s that coming over the hill 200 7.2
what that coming over the hill 35 7.1
ubuntu 11.10 afp 12 7.1
latex cartesian product 70 6.7
computer science employment rate 16 6.5
how to become a hacker eric raymond 60 6.2
the fear index wiki 16 6.1
syntactical sugar 22 5.7
gwyneth paltrow 35 5.7
the dismal education 170 5.7
eric raymond how to become a hacker 50 5.6
hits the nail on the head 50 5.1
openjvm 90 4.9
cartesian tyranny 50 1.6
ubuntu 11.10 get rid of unity 90 1.6
how to get rid of unity in ubuntu 11.10 22 1.2
ultimate l 60 1.1
get rid of unity ubuntu 11.10 12 1.0

Does Google cap query returns?

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

When I look at Google “webmaster” returns for this site I note that for more or less every weekday for the last fortnight it reports my site was returned as an answer to a search query exactly 1300 times, the week before that it was 1000 and the week before that 900.

So, am I to assume that Google caps the number of times that a site can appear in a search query?

I suppose I can see some justification for that as a way of stopping people spamming the index – but it also seems quite a crude tool. What if, for instance, some issue I write about a lot (Linux paging?) becomes a hot property and I have already used up my 1300 quota?

Microsoft are not the enemy

For the last six years my job situation has made me wary of commenting on the politics of the free software movement and its enemies, but I have just changed jobs (been a busy week round here) and now I feel I comment freely on what every free software advocate has always known as Public Enemy Number One: Microsoft.

Except, now the time has come, I don’t really feel they are any more. Indeed I feel free software is more threatened by one of the teams that is meant to be on our side – Google, which has embraced the world of software patents and user abandonment with enthusiasm and by another, Apple, that uses Unix but seems oblivious to the idea of user freedom.

Now, I am not saying that, because Microsoft have found themselves in recent months as one of the biggest contributors to the Linux kernel, and marked the 20th birthday of Linus’s famous usenet announcement of a new Unix-like kernel with an appeal for more co-operation, they really are our friends. But we should recognise that the change – even if it did come because they were dragged through the US and EU courts – is a real one. They are at least recognising that we are here to stay and that the server room of the future will be running multiple OSes on virtualised machines of different flavours.

On the desktop our side is still nowhere – perhaps still under 1% globally and the boys and girls in Seattle might quickly turn nasty again if we ever did start to crack that nut, but in the meantime we maybe should be testing just how sincere that offer of co-operation really is… afterall they are not offering to work with us because they think we are weak!

Update; Thanks to the retweeters. Think I should point out my proposal of a compromiso historico with Microsoft is a minority view – as the links below probably suggest.

“Hacker culture” drove out women from computer science

I have no difficulty for even a second in believing this:

There were many reasons for the unusual influx of women into computer science. Partly, it was just a result of the rise of the commercial computer industry in general. There was a tremendous need to hire anyone with aptitude, including women. Partly, it was the fact that programming work itself was not yet fully defined as a scientific or engineering field. In fact, many computer science programs were first housed within a variety of departments and colleges, including liberal arts colleges where women had already made cultural inroads. Not least of all — and you knew this was coming — women quickly noticed that some programming work could be done at home while the children were napping.

And then the women left. In droves.

From 1984 to 2006, the number of women majoring in computer science dropped from 37% to 20% — just as the percentages of women were increasing steadily in all other fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, with the possible exception of physics. The reasons women left computer science are as complex and numerous as why they had entered in the first place. But the most common explanation is that the rise of personal computers led computing culture to be associated with the stereotype of the eccentric, antisocial, male “hacker.” Women found computer science less receptive professionally than it had been at its inception.

You don’t have spend much time reading the collected works of Chairman Eric S Raymond to understand why “hacker culture” turns so many women off.

Though perhaps the one thing that the article misses is that women were employed in computing, and lots of other “new industries” of the 1960’s, because they were cheap. That drive into the suburbs, tapping the large reservoir of skilled, but lower-cost, labour, profoundly shaped American (and to a lesser extent, European) society and we are still living in a world that has been shaped by it, even if women have given up on geekdom.

The article goes on to say more women are now entering computing than for some time, quoting one of Google’s VPs, Marissa Mayer – but her posed photograph just reminds me of all the reasons to be deeply suspicious of Google – they are just a more socialised version of ESR and another sign of how the right have colonised the libertarian legacy of 1968.

See for yourself…


(As spotted via here)

New trend in comment spam?

Escherichia coli: Scanning electron micrograph...
Image via Wikipedia

The tactics employed by comment spammers continue to fascinate me, but I have noticed a new trend, which indicates either a new trend or adaption from the spammers – which reminds me of the way bacteria respond to antibiotics – or perhaps just indicates I am being over-sensitive.

Twice in the last 48 hours I have had comments from people who are clearly responding to the content of the blog post but who are also linking to an explicitly and solely commercial page: one was an XML editor and the other was a video on “how to be a hacker” (of the LulzSec variety as opposed to kernel patcher type).

Now, this blog is currently doing pretty well in Google on a number of the technical areas it discusses and traffic is slowly rising as a result. (Interestingly Google ranks the HTTPS pages much higher than their HTTP cousins, but that’s another issue and not one I am going to discuss here, because I really have no idea why that is.)

Therefore it may well be quite valuable to comment spam this site if you are looking for people interested in XSLT or the Kronecker delta or whatever. But you are also up against a pretty good spam filter in terms of Akismet, so the usual “your blog is great” crap is not going to make it.

So, like a bacterium faced with penicillin the spammers mutate and devote more energy to survival. Or, it is just that people who sell a product are genuinely interested in what I write here – though something tells me that it is more likely to be the first!