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?