Wednesday, February 28, 2007

IT for the masses

Hear, hear! I came across this article on why "programmers can't program" these days. Strictly, it's about why interviewees can't program, mainly.

I, too, use simple tests - often as questions in a telephone interview .. but sometimes face-to-face. I figured they'd be viewed as archaic skills, and some of my colleagues have commented to that effect in the past. I believe, however, that programmers are more effective if they understand the machine they're programming. So: a sample of my simple questions:

  1. What is significant about the number 255?

  2. How does a computer store a floating-point number?

  3. Using a bitwise boolean operation, what is 6 & 3?

  4. How are parameters typically passed in to a function call?

  5. Describe the implementation of a linked list

  6. What is recursion?

  7. What is the stack; what is the heap; and how to they differ?

  8. What is packing or alignment in data structures?

  9. What is an atomic operation? Describe a typical use of one

I found that 8/10 candidates comprehensively fail to demonstrate an understanding at this level - and that none ever answered all correctly.

So why can this be? Schooling.

When I were a lad .. our school bought a Commodore PET. I imagine they felt the new technology might benefit in some educational way - but I reckon they didn't know what to do with it. So they gave it to the head of maths. I guess they figured it was a big calculator. We started a computer club and pretty soon we were learning about algebraic logic and iteration using BASIC computer programs. Before the year was out, we knew far more than the teacher and had progressed to writing routines in 6502 assembler. I seem to recall the 2nd cassette port at address 826 was a safe location for such code. By the time I left school, I knew by heart all the powers of 2 up to 65536 and could do simple hex arithmetic in my head.

These days, as far as I can tell (from questions asked at open days) "IT" is no more ambitious than learning how to format paragraphs in Word, or sum a column in Excel. This is appalling for two big reasons: Firstly, it is just button-pushing. There is no skill in knowing where the "centred" option is for paragraph justification; it does not foster creativity or organised thought. Secondly it is very application-specific. Now I know you've got to start somewhere, and arguably the most common software is a sensible place to start, but does it really have to be Microsoft? Let's face it, despite their many (many) faults, Microsoft have invested a lot of money in usability to ensure their products are intuitive and easy to use. So how can spending lesson after lesson poking at it be justified (not left or right or centred .. just reasonable .. OK)?

Basically, no-one teaches computer programming in school. It's a shame, because it can be a vehicle for all sorts of subject matter. It's also a shame because I find it very hard to get the "right" candidate.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hands free

Today brings higher penalties for using a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving. There is much discussion over whether this will have any affect on the problem. I have my doubts, personally. This is clearly an attempt to encourage drivers to adhere to a law which is unenforceable. Were it possible to enforce this law, it would have been done, and all these drivers would have been stopped and fined. I reckon the being stopped is more of a deterrent that the fine, personally. The increase only raises the bar in theory, as the culprits know they won't be caught.

I find myself wondering whether the use of mobile phones is really such a problem. Certainly it reduces the driver's ability to concentrate - but as has been discussed before, this true whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free. So: what could be worse than using a mobile phone when driving? I suggest (in no particular order):

  • Having a screaming argument with a passenger - particularly a passenger in the back

  • Applying make-up

  • Listening to an engaging radio show - especially very funny ones

  • Programming a Sat-Nav

  • Taking clothes off - e.g. a coat

  • Following too close behind the vehicle in front

  • Erratically and frequently switching lanes in slowed traffic in a desperate attempt to get ahead or other vehicles

  • Driving right behind the vehicle in front to prevent another vehicle merging into your lane

  • Being too tired

  • Blogging

Here, I lay down the gauntlet: top these!

OK .. that last one isn't a common problem, to my knowledge.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You're nicked

So: I'm not the only one who isn't convinced by our Tony's response to the ID card petition. Luckily, some have penned a more eloquent analysis of the flannel mailed to the "almost 28000" signatories.

I can see how having everyone's dabs on-file is the police's dream. I cant help thinking, however, that criminals can easily evade the law by wearing gloves. It is also fairly clear that if the main data gathering is through passport biometrics, and a main leaver of fingerprints at crime scenes is itinerant yoof - who don't have passports - fuelling their oft-reported DrugHabitTM then the whole thing is a waste of our time and money.

My solution? Put the power and responsibility for keeping law and order back in the hands of the people. Ensure that citizens can chastise bad behaviour without fear of lawsuit. No .. encourage citizens to chastise bad behaviour. Create opportunities for legal recreation without high price tags. Encourage a reversal of the ever-increasing population density in the South East of England. Bring back society.

I'll keep dreaming ...

Monday, February 19, 2007

ID cards - the official response

To paraphrase:

You want to scrap ID cards? No.
-- Tony

Anyone who is in any doubt that we live in a police state: read the second paragraph.

E-petition: Response from the Prime Minister

The e-petition to "scrap the proposed introduction of ID cards" has now closed. The petition stated that "The introduction of ID cards will not prevent terrorism or crime, as is claimed. It will be yet another indirect tax on all law-abiding citizens of the UK". This is a response from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

The petition calling for the Government to abandon plans for a National ID Scheme attracted almost 28,000 signatures - one of the largest responses since this e-petition service was set up. So I thought I would reply personally to those who signed up, to explain why the Government believes National ID cards, and the National Identity Register needed to make them effective, will help make Britain a safer place.

The petition disputes the idea that ID cards will help reduce crime or terrorism. While I certainly accept that ID cards will not prevent all terrorist outrages or crime, I believe they will make an important contribution to making our borders more secure, countering fraud, and tackling international crime and terrorism. More importantly, this is also what our security services - who have the task of protecting this country - believe.

So I would like to explain why I think it would be foolish to ignore the opportunity to use biometrics such as fingerprints to secure our identities. I would also like to discuss some of the claims about costs - particularly the way the cost of an ID card is often inflated by including in estimates the cost of a biometric passport which, it seems certain, all those who want to travel abroad will soon need.

In contrast to these exaggerated figures, the real benefits for our country and its citizens from ID cards and the National Identity Register, which will contain less information on individuals than the data collected by the average store card, should be delivered for a cost of around £3 a year over its ten-year life.

But first, it's important to set out why we need to do more to secure our identities and how I believe ID cards will help. We live in a world in which people, money and information are more mobile than ever before. Terrorists and international criminal gangs increasingly exploit this to move undetected across borders and to disappear within countries. Terrorists routinely use multiple identities - up to 50 at a time. Indeed this is an essential part of the way they operate and is specifically taught at Al-Qaeda training camps. One in four criminals also uses a false identity. ID cards which contain biometric recognition details and which are linked to a National Identity Register will make this much more difficult.

Secure identities will also help us counter the fast-growing problem of identity fraud. This already costs £1.7 billion annually. There is no doubt that building yourself a new and false identity is all too easy at the moment. Forging an ID card and matching biometric record will be much harder.

I also believe that the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice. They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register. Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.

The National Identity Register will also help improve protection for the vulnerable, enabling more effective and quicker checks on those seeking to work, for example, with children. It should make it much more difficult, as has happened tragically in the past, for people to slip through the net.

Proper identity management and ID cards also have an important role to play in preventing illegal immigration and illegal working. The effectiveness on the new biometric technology is, in fact, already being seen. In trials using this technology on visa applications at just nine overseas posts, our officials have already uncovered 1,400 people trying illegally to get back into the UK.

Nor is Britain alone in believing that biometrics offer a massive opportunity to secure our identities. Firms across the world are already using fingerprint or iris recognition for their staff. France, Italy and Spain are among other European countries already planning to add biometrics to their ID cards. Over 50 countries across the world are developing biometric passports, and all EU countries are proposing to include fingerprint biometrics on their passports. The introduction in 2006 of British e-passports incorporating facial image biometrics has meant that British passport holders can continue to visit the United States without a visa. What the National Identity Scheme does is take this opportunity to ensure we maximise the benefits to the UK.

These then are the ways I believe ID cards can help cut crime and terrorism. I recognise that these arguments will not convince those who oppose a National Identity Scheme on civil liberty grounds. They will, I hope, be reassured by the strict safeguards now in place on the data held on the register and the right for each individual to check it. But I hope it might make those who believe ID cards will be ineffective reconsider their opposition.

If national ID cards do help us counter crime and terrorism, it is, of course, the law-abiding majority who will benefit and whose own liberties will be protected. This helps explain why, according to the recent authoritative Social Attitudes survey, the majority of people favour compulsory ID cards.

I am also convinced that there will also be other positive benefits. A national ID card system, for example, will prevent the need, as now, to take a whole range of documents to establish our identity. Over time, they will also help improve access to services.

The petition also talks about cost. It is true that individuals will have to pay a fee to meet the cost of their ID card in the same way, for example, as they now do for their passports. But I simply don't recognise most claims of the cost of ID cards. In many cases, these estimates deliberately exaggerate the cost of ID cards by adding in the cost of biometric passports. This is both unfair and inaccurate.

As I have said, it is clear that if we want to travel abroad, we will soon have no choice but to have a biometric passport. We estimate that the cost of biometric passports will account for 70% of the cost of the combined passports/id cards. The additional cost of the ID cards is expected to be less than £30 or £3 a year for their 10-year lifespan. Our aim is to ensure we also make the most of the benefits these biometric advances bring within our borders and in our everyday lives.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Blair

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Leave them kids alone ...

Oh, for goodness sake! Now they're banning play. My only grain of hope is that this is an isolated incident, reported to highlight the ridicule of the situation.

The worry is: how on earth did this school allow a head teacher who doesn't understand why children play? The whole point about play - and I know that assigning purpose to play kind of defeats the argument - is that it allows those playing to explore situations and understanding without consequence. A kind of "dry run" for life.

Of course, there have to be rules - and violence must be reprimanded - but let the kids play in their own way, purleease.

An interesting day

Friday was an interesting day .. as in that proverbial Chinese curse.

I should have guessed how the day was going to pan out - not in detail, of course, but generally - when I had to re-attach my speedo cable before setting off for work. This isn't the first time I've had to re-attach the bugger, but it screws in up under the fairing and I can't reach it well enough to do it up tightly enough for it to stay done up. Grrrr.

I almost got to work safely. Almost. But not quite. I got to the car park .. into the car park: right up to the door where I swing right to park the bike. That's when I found the black ice. As I rolled along, I leant the bike over and turned the bars to make the turn - but the bike just hit the deck and I slid about 10 feet along the tarmac with the damn thing on top of me. Luckily, it's not too heavy and despite the slippery surface, I managed to get it upright again. Aside from a badly bruised knee and a really stiff neck I escaped injury. Luckily. The bike wasn't too badly damaged, either. The indicator got ripped out of its socket - cracking the fairing in the process. The indicator stalk attaches to the fairing with a rubber grommet, so it popped right back into place - but the fairing is still cracked. I also found once I got the bike home that the forks had twisted a little. I managed to straighten them out, too; but getting home wasn't as straightforward as you'd like, either ...

About half-past four in the afternoon it started to snow. Quite large, wet flakes which looked ominous. I'd been brooding all day about the morning's entertainment so I got concerned pretty quickly. I decided to cut and run, so left just before five.

I took the main road option for safety, so made over half the journey OK. I had trouble seeing properly with the visor huffing up inside and the snow sticking to the outside. From there on, the road get smaller and smaller: so I went slower and slower until at last I was doing about 15 miles per hour. I made the road along the flat, and then met up with a queue of cars trying to get up the hill past a church into a village I go through. The snow was, by now, about 2" deep and icy underneath.

I noticed the car in front spinning his wheels every time he tried to go forward. At first I was OK, but soon my back wheel was spinning, too. We all slipped and slithered slowly up the hill - taking about 20 minutes to make the hundred yards to the village pub. By this time, there was about 2½" of snow. The next two hundred yards was flatish - but the road has a terrible camber.

The hill climb out of the village is twisty, however and I had to give up the vain attempt part way up. I couldn't even make it across the road - as cars coming down the hill couldn't stop. Luckily a friendly neighbour came to my rescue. The bike got manhandled up their drive and stayed there until Sunday morning. I then had the small matter of a three mile trudge through 3" of snow and ice. Two hours and fifteen miles after leaving work, I arrived home to be greeted by relieved faces and the opportunity to strip off, finally. I was sweltering with all the warm bike clothing!

Here's to boring journeys. And staying shiny-side up.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Speechless ...

.. what he said.

Will this government ever check their facts before jumping in with both feet in their mouth?

[I do love a good mixed metaphor.]

Thursday, February 01, 2007

How Tao Art Thou?

Now, I'm not usually one for this kind of caper, but I came across this quizlet again today and I couldn't resist. In particular, I can think of someone who should take this test ...

You are 55% Taoist!

You are a Novice Monk / Nun in the Temple of Tao. You have selected the Taoist path, but need to get serious about your education in its philosophy and applications. You have already shown quite a few Taoist tendencies and have great potential!

How Tao Art Thou?