Is computer Science Dead?

Mainstream media are still keen to swallow the line that “real soon now” computer specialists will be redundant because fourth generation languages are so clever that clever people are not needed any more.

This fatuous pap by Neil McBride from De Montfort University (Rated by the Guardian’s University Guide as the 83rd best University in all of England) gives them the sound bites they need.

“Now vastly complex applications for businesses, for science and for leisure can be developed using sophisticated high-level tools and components.” he prattles. “Computer science curricula are old, stale and increasing irrelevant.”

Towards the end of his article it all becomes clear. “Here at De Montfort I run an ICT degree, which does not assume that programming is an essential skill. The degree focuses on delivering IT services in organisations, on taking a holistic view of computing in organisations, and on holistic thinking.”

I have never grasped the point of that kind of course. So you cater to people who want an IT career, but don’t have the core skills of the discipline? Why on earth do these people want to work in IT? Is there not some occupation they could find where they might be capable of grasping the essential skills?

He loves the car/software analogy. “Like cars, a limited number of people are interested in their construction, more live by supporting and maintaining them; most of us accept them as a black box, whose workings are of no interest but which confer status, freedom and convenience.”
Sure, the car industry needs many, many black box buyers, a moderate number of mechanics, a few engineers and designers, and very few theoretical purists. All industries, including computing do.

How many fresh graduates do you think the automotive industry need who take “a holistic view of” cars, but think understanding how an engine works is not “an essential skill”? Not very many I’ll wager.

The death of computer science is not just a fairy tale, it is also an enduring fairy tale. I am in the process of moving house, and cracked opened an old books on its way to the bin. Understanding Computer Science Advanced Concepts by Ray Bradley, Hutchinson Education, 1987 was a high school text book. He refers to the then current computers (late 1980s) as the fourth generation of computers. I don’t think that terminology has endured.

Under a heading “The Future” he writes “The development of the fifth generation machines promises to be the most significant yet. This is because of a fundamental re-think in the basic design of the machine. For example it should be possible to communicate with the machine in a natural language such as English. […] It should be possible for users to define their problems to the machine and for the machine to then develop the programs to solve them.”

That is not exactly how I recall computing in the 1990s panning out.

The death of computer science was a fairy tale in 1987, and 20 years later it is still a fairy tale. More powerful computers are not replacing programmers any more than calculators are replacing accountants or power tools are replacing carpenters.

What is considered a hard problem in computing changes over time but each era still has its hard problems that need smart people with a deep understanding of the fundamentals to solve.

Neil McBride

I Admire Honesty in Corporate Communication – The AU PS3 price is "Obscene"

Australians are generally subjected to some degree of price gouging when a product has one official importer. Only the degree of gouging varies. I buy my laptops from Japan, because by the time an ultralight makes it to Australia at least six months later it has lower specs and a much higher price tag.

The PS3 will launch Australia at AU$999 for the 60GB model. That is a significant, but not remarkable premium on the US or Japanese price. For comparison it is about US$700 plus tax. US price is US$600. Japanese price is US$520. So Australians will pay about 17% more than Americans and about 35% more than the Japanese. (at today’s rates from

Sony Computer Entertainment Australia’s Managing Director Michael Ephraim naturally has to claim that the price of the PS3 is justified. To point out that he is also doing it tough, he points out that he pays an obscene premium for his BMW in Australia.

In an interview with Jason Hill, he says “If you look at any other products it’s the same. I drive a BMW and I pay a price that is completely obscene – 80 per cent higher compared to the US.”

When you look at it like that, a 35% premium on the PS3 is quite restrained I suppose. Well at least if you ignore the fact that in Australia cars over $57K are subject to luxury car tax of 25% in addition to normal GST. If his hypothetical BMW cost AU$200K, then about AU$50K would be tax. His 80% premium means it costs the equivalent of AU$111K in the US. The Australian price of AU$150K plus tax is then an “obscene” 35% premium over the US price.

I’m with Michael . I don’t know how BMW Australia can live with themselves.

It reminds me of a speaker I heard once suggesting more people take up polo. “Many people,” he said, “think polo is only a rich man’s sport, but it is no more expensive than many other hobbies like sailing or motor racing”. He did not actually compare the price of polo to playing video games but that was back in the days of the original PlayStation, so it might not have compared so favourably.

Digg's Kevin Rose Has an Account on User/Submitter?

If you missed it, User/Submitter is a paid service allowing people to buy diggs.

They are very upfront about their business model. Submitters (people who want stories promoted) pay $20 plus $1 per digg. Users (digg users who’s second job as a WoW gold farmer is getting tedious) get paid about 17c per digg. So buying 100 diggs costs $120, and in theory nearly $17 of that gets paid out to diggers, there is a $20 payout minimum, so the chances of many people diligently digging away and making 120 paid diggs before their account gets noticed and shut off seems unlikely. In either case, it is nice profit margin while they can get away with it.

Digg unsurprisingly don’t seem to be fans. Poking around, I can see accounts are being disabled. One of mine got disabled, but that might be a bad example because I was not very subtle. Commenting on stories that I dugg that I had dugg them for 17c is probably more blatant than most. Result:

Looking at other accounts with suspicious behaviour though I see a few of these:

Privacy is not particularly well guarded at User/Submitter. If you want to know if a digg user name is registered there, then try to register it. An interesting username to try is kevinrose.

Kevin Rose On User/Submitter

Of course, the experiment is somewhat flawed. You can only check once, and while a negative result is definitive, a positive result might just mean that somebody else performed the same experiment before you. Rumours of Digg’s demise might be popular, but I don’t think Kevin yet needs a side job paying 17c per click.

Suspicious behaviour though is not hard to find. Here are a list of Digg stories that received paid Diggs in the last few hours.

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of the same users digging many of them.

What a social site should do about abuse is a harder problem. Any competitive environment is bound to get people gaming or abusing the system. I am not sure that disabling accounts is the best solution though. If I was a 3rd world subsistence gold farmer sitting in an internet cafe clicking links for a few cents a time and my account got disabled I would just create a new one that needs to be detected and disabled. If my account silently got flagged as a source of worthless diggs, and just ignored in calculations, then I would merrily continue clicking away and over time nearly all bought diggs would be worthless because they would mostly be being paid out to account that have already been detected.

Publicly disabling accounts is good for maintaining the appearance of transparency, but longer term, allowing abusive users individual sandboxes to play in lets them waste time without affecting others. In a system where reregistering under another alias is painless, disabling accounts is not a very effective deterrent.

Dark side of the web

This widely carried Associated Press story, amused me.

It is mostly a standard “predators roam MySpace” story. I have no idea why The Agechose to illustrate it with a picture of a stewardess or some sort of tidily dressed woman on a plane. There does not seem to be any indication in the story that rogue stewardesses (or “female flight attendants” if you prefer) are a significant internet problem, but it would explain airlines insistence on turning off mobile devices I suppose.

Buried among the usual concerns and anecdotes that have probably been repeated about every means of communication ever invented is the gem that:

MySpace profiles have been used to threaten classmates and in at least one case, to mock a school principal.

(my emphasis)

It sounds like time we pulled the plug on this whole interweb thingo. Won’t somebody think of the principals? If distributing the Anarchist’s Cookbook was not bad enough, now somebody is mocking a school principal. The horror.

Dale Begg-Smith – 'Spam man' wins gold

Dale Begg-Smith, Canadian-Australian Winter Olympic gold medalist is getting strange media coverage. It seems that he does not particularly want to talk about the Internet business that funds his Lamborghini and his skiing lessons.

Here is a newspaper article linking him to and who may not have been operating at the more glamorous end of the internet economy.

Here is a more flattering newspaper article.

Here are some related links so you can make up your own mind blames CPM-Media for the FreeScratchAndWin adware

Official Description: FreeScratchAndWin is an IE spyware Browser Helper Object dressed up as a web ‘scratchcards’ game. (What exactly is available to be won, and whether anybody has ever won it, remains unclear.)

It also highjacks your home- and search-page settings to point to, and complains if you try to change them back.
Comment: Opens pop-up adverts every few minutes.
The software’s terms of use advises that the software can track users’ web usage.
Downloads and installs arbitrary unsigned code as part of an update feature.

And malware

Official Description: Accepting their “second opinion when you surf” actually gives you a toolbar named “Mysearch”. 2nd-thought will redirect your searches as long as it is installed on your computer.
Comment: Browswer hijacker that will reset your home page and often redirect your searches to porn sites. Sometimes it will prevent you from changing your home page. seems to be down.

It does not look like it ever had much content though. is for sale and has a generic for sale page on it now.

It has had content recently.

In 2004 the home page was a removal form for some sort of mass email list:

More recently (but undated from Google cache) it sold popunder advertising. beta

I have been playing with Newsvine tonight. It is pretty slick.

I have often thought that you could run a digg style site for more general news. We will see how it goes. It will obviously live or die on the standard of community it can attract.

Some parts of it work really well. I like the little Ajax feature of telling you if your chosen username is available as you type, rather than after you submit the form.

Some parts of it could be better. The biggest letdown for me is that the article comments are not threaded. Digg and Slashdot seem to attract fairly similar types of readers, but while the best of slashdot comments can be really insightful and better than the articles, digg comments are nearly always 2 line wastes of pixels. If you only let people comment on the main story, you do not get the same degree of interaction as if you let them reply to previous comments.

I am also not sure if it is trying to be a US only site, or a world site, but US News and World News seem odd looked at from outside the US. The region dropdown lists cities in a few countries, so maybe they are confused about which readers they are aiming at.

Online vs. Traditional Media Speed

I saw something interesting today. For the first time I can recall, I read a nerd news story on the website of a local newspaper before I read it on Slashdot.

In this case, the paper beat them by about 14 hours.

I don’t know if this is a coincidence, or if it is a sign that online news sources are forcing old media to become more responsive. Factors in Slashdot’s defence include timezone and the fact that it happened on Superbowl weekend. (Do nerds watch the Superbowl now the ad breaks are not full of dot-coms).