Saturday, 15 December 2007

Good follow-up for readers of No Tomorrow

A Few Things Ill Considered: How to Talk to a Global Warming Sceptic

This is a pretty good site to start from when entering the debate: there is no censorship of contrary views.

I've included it as one of the resources on the google group for my book, No Tomorrow.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Cargo Cult Science

In keeping with the theme of cargo cults mentioned as a problem with computers in education, let's look again at another field where the outward appearance of science is sufficient: climate change doubt.

One Ernst-Georg Beck has attracted some attention through publishing a paper claiming that CO2 variation was much greater in the immediate pre-industrial era than today.

One bunch of comments not only spruiks this doubtful paper, but also repeats a claim that Mount St Helens spewed out more CO2 than all industrial sources since the start of the industrial age.

Let's give you a hint. Increasing atmospheric CO2 by 1 ppm represents about 7 gigatons of CO2.

In one of his graphs, Beck has atmospheric CO2 dropping by 100ppm over a single year, and increasing in other places almost as fast. 100ppm represents about 700Gtons of CO2 – if you are talking about the entire atmosphere. Since he claims his results are accurate to at worst 3%, he is proposing that there was some sort of CO2 sink that can absorb CO2 at that rate, but which has somehow magically switched off in the last century. And some sort of pre-industrial CO2 source that was equally magical.

A more rational interpretation of his data is that early measures had gross experimental errors. For example, we are exhaling CO2; if you are measuring in parts per million, it is extremely easy to contaminate the data.

As for volcanic output of CO2, I prefer to believe sources who are working in the field, e.g., How much CO2 did Mount St Helens' eruption in 1980 release into our atmosphere? Can you give me some idea of how much CO2 volcanoes add to the atmosphere generally?, Scott Rowland, University of Hawaii and Steve Mattox, University of North Dakota and A Compilation of Sulfur Dioxide and Carbon Dioxide Emission-Rate Data from Mount St. Helens during 1980-88, U.S. Geological Survey Global Change Research Program. The maximum daily output from Mt St Helens was about 23ktons. Contrast this with 10-billion tons of CO2 produced by power stations worldwide annually (about 27-million tons a day) and you have to conclude that someone is talking nonsense.

(I suspect there is some mixing in the various reports of metric and old fashioned tons but the difference is insignificant on the scales we are talking about here.)

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Proof of Climate Change

If you want an example of the reality of rapid human-induced climate change, you only need to look at the change in tone of reporting after Labor won the Australian federal election. In barely a week after the win, reporting on Kyoto changed in the Australian (mostly Murdoch's News Limited -- strictly limited) press from "we can do more by staying outside an imperfect system" to "Australia joining the club makes it so much stronger".

It was always a mystery to me in any case why refusing to join the club somehow gave us a stronger voice. All the weaknesses of Kyoto were extremely well known – indeed some were engineered in deliberately to make it an easy starting point. How, therefore, being outside would make those weaknesses clearer escaped me.

No doubt all of this made sense in the cloud-cuckoo land of a losing election campaign.

Now, we can turn to hard reality: gearing up for post-Kyoto.

The fact is that the Kyoto targets were more symbolic than real. Yet being in the system has focused effort on renewables and other approaches to emission reduction. Germany, with about half the rate of solar radiation we have with only about a twentieth of the land area, generates more than ten times the solar power per capita that we do. Why? Because Germany has stratagems like an aggressive policy for rewarding feed-in (when you generate solar power, and sell the excess to the grid).

The next piece of hard reality is short-term targets.

Labor has committed to committing to short term targets only after receiving a report from Professor Ross Garneau in 2008. That’s a start, but you have to worry about the commitment Labor has made to tax cuts without considering potential costs of emissions reduction targets. Here are a few examples of potential costs. Hot dry rock geothermal power is a promising technology that looks nearly ready to go, but significant commercial risks remain before the first plant can be operational. If hot rocks become part of the plan, is the government willing and able to stump up capital, if the private sector balks at the risk? What if the oil price continues to rise, making fast trains a desirable alternative for inter-city travel? Does the government have funds stashed somewhere to get new infrastructure costing tens of billions of dollars built?

Then there’s the clean coal story – an even more unproven technology than hot rocks. The fact that parts of the technology have been tested in different ways and on smaller scales doesn’t mean it will work. Again, there are significant risks that could prevent private capital from touching the technology. Either the government will have to support it with substantial capital – or face up to more likely scenario of the costs of a substantial decline in coal usage, both domestically and internationally.

On top of these straightforward risks is the question of how steep a carbon tax needs to be imposed to make cleaner technologies competitive. The carbon tax needs to be high enough to make the new technologies viable, but not so high as to cause major economic damage. It also needs to be calibrated to similar measures overseas.

On the subject of economic damage, the risks are somewhat overstated because a reconfiguration of an economy seldom results in pure cost. No doubt when the first Model-T hit the showrooms, the horse industry predicted doom and gloom. And, indeed, farriers and horse manure shovellers were put out of work in large numbers... and no doubt still populate the dole queues in large numbers. A significant factor in a post-Kyoto economy will be improved efficiencies, which should have a knock-on effect. In the process of reducing energy needs, an organization may find and eliminate other inefficiencies. Why? Once a culture of R&D has been established, the scientists and engineers engaged to reduce energy consumption will need to justify their jobs by discovering other useful innovations. (And of course it will be harder to fire them under a Labor government when the job is done, but I digress…)

The indirect cost of recalibrating the economy is rebuilding capacity for R&D in areas long neglected under the previous government: alternative energy, business process efficiency, science, engineering and mathematics.

Australia is well below the OECD average for R&D expenditure measured as a fraction of GDP (1.64 in Australia, versus an average of 2.26 – 2005 figures). Providing an incentive to spend more on R&D, in the long run, will advantage our economy not disadvantage it as apologists for doing nothing claim. Being stuck in a fossil fuel economy when the rest of the world starts imposing carbon taxes certainly will not be a good place to be.

With some of the recent announcements of findings that indicate that climate change science up to now has been understating the risks, we need to be on side, and taking part constructively, not carping from the sidelines.

To misquote LBJ: we can surely do more by being inside the tent pissing out than by being outside the tent pissing in.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Cargo Cult Education

Australia has just elected a new Labor government; the new leader, Kevin Rudd, in most respects appears to be a distinct improvement on his predecessor, Liberal (= conservative in Australia) prime minister John Howard.

One area where I am not convinced is Rudd's obsession with putting technology in the classroom.

Somewhere in the various newspaper articles about the Rudd transition, I saw the phrase "evidence-based".

I am curious what sort of evidence is behind the drive to put a computer on every high school desk. A computer is only a tool, not some kind of magic. I have seen plenty of evidence that dumping computers into a situation without a definite plan for their use is a waste. Consider for example the article in the New York Times (4 May 2007), "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops". This article reports on wide experience with excessive computers in the classroom getting in the way of learning – as well as bad experiences with the high cost of maintaining the computers.

All of this is quite predictable. Any organization in which technology is introduced with no strategy, and no plans for long-term costs like maintenance and support, is bound to run into trouble.

On a recent trip to Denmark, I put these views to academics, and they agreed with me. Since computers have become common in schools there, mathematics scores have declined, and the perceptions that computers are boys' toys has dramatically reduced the fraction of female students studying computer science. This specific evidence is anecdotal, but the fact that it is repeated in multiple parts of the world lends it some credibility.

What kind of evidence, in any case, is there to support putting computers in classrooms? I've been publishing in computer science education for 20 years, and have yet to find a convincing study showing that computers transform learning positively – outside of very specific contexts, with carefully planned use.

The notion that putting technology into classrooms will somehow magically transform learning is nothing more than cargo cultism.

The one variable which most consistently affects educational performance is the teacher. If the Rudd government is serious about transforming education, it should be looking at scarcity pay in areas like maths and science – a far better investment.

Postscript: A report (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS) showing that England has top or near-top scores on two fronts is interesting reading. On the one front, computer gaming, 37% of English school kids play computer games for 3 or more hours a day (22% of these reportedly play games for 5 hours or more). The other? The biggest drop in reading skills between 2001 and 2006 in any developed country included in the report...

This bit is worth quoting:
There is a negative association between the amount of time spent reading stories and articles on the internet and reading achievement in most countries. The data ... suggests that 9–10 year-olds were considerably more likely to use computers for playing games than for reading on the internet and that spending three or more hours doing either was associated with lower reading attainment.

So there you have it: not only is spending time on the net not good for reading skills, but kids in any case prefer to play games. Will this be any different in Australia? Time will tell. But we have a proud tradition to uphold: waiting for the rest of the world to try something, then copying the mistakes ...

Monday, 26 November 2007

Odense, Denmark

Trust the Danes to come up with an innovative solution to global warming and obesity: slap a 180% tax on cars, so everyone has to ride bikes instead of driving everywhere.

I'm in Odense, the third-largest city in Denmark, birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, and a nice compact city to explore on foot (if you can avoid being run down by bicycles). November is not the best time to be here – grey skies, the constant threat of rain and coolish temperatures. But it's not as cold as I'd expected. Odense is on an island close to the Gulf Stream, which warms it considerably compared with similar latitudes in North America.

Why would you want to visit here in winter? For one thing, you don't exactly have to fight off hoards of tourists. For another, you can also observe first-hand another Danish innovative solution to an Australian problem: skin cancer. They don't have a sun here. At least, I don't think so. I didn't see one. And since it only gets light around 8am, and starts to get dark just when the day is getting into its stride at about 4pm, I'm not totally convinced there's actually a sun up there beyond the clouds.

Danish innovation aside, what's to do in Odense? Eat, for a start. Having invented a cure for obesity, the Danes put it to the test by having some of the best food on the planet on offer. Forget stodgy creations with a plonk of sugary slime on top labelled as a "Danish" in the Anglo-Saxon world. Danes have mastered the art of pastries. Then there's cheese – not only the local varieties, but also a huge range from the rest of the world. There are two markets, each run twice a week, where you can buy such delicacies, as well as local and imported produce. Not only that, there's another benefit to the Danes' disdain of the car: shopping is not dominated by malls. You can wander the city streets with a wide variety of shops in various shapes and sizes. Speciality shoe shops, cheese shops, an impressive selection of wine shops (covering the range from everything European, through South African, Australian and South American) … and did I mention? … you need to keep watching for bicycles.

The Danes have a funny attitude to personal safety: helmets are not compulsory for riding bikes. The theory goes, biking is healthier than not exercising. If some people may be put off riding by wearing a helmet, they will be less healthy. This is more of an impact on society than the odd person getting brain damaged. But they are proud of their cycle-friendly streets: there's even a counter near the centre of Odense, showing how many bikes pass that point.

I shrug off this piece of local knowledge and walk. The city centre has several cobbled streets; recreations of the old style, not ancient. Buildings have a charming variance – other than row houses, there is very little repetition. Bright colours distinguish units in row houses, breaking the little monotony there is. Every now and then, there's a giant arch in a building, leading to a courtyard, square or even a fresh group of roads. There are little surprises around each corner.

For the keen tourist there are sights not to be missed: Hans Christian Anderson's house (sorry the picture's a bit grainy: the low light defeated my camera), the museum dedicated to the famous story teller, monumental churches, concerts, the fairytale old buildings … but for me the most fun aspect of Odense is being able to stroll around in a place so exotic compared with any I've lived in, yet one which makes strangers feel totally at home.

Some practicalities … the written language looks reasonably easy if you know another Germanic language but if you are only visiting for a few days and have thoughts of working up a conversational vocabulary, forget it. Like English, Danish has a maddening tendency to break its phonetics rules at random: syllables disappear in the transition for written to spoken, with no obvious rules. Most Danes speak passable to excellent English; the worst I encounter is having to use gestures to work out how to pay in a supermarket. Go to a bookstore and you will find out why: many of the titles are in English. Denmark is a small country, and there's a limit to how much original literature and translated literature is available. So Danes make do with English.

Denmark, along with the UK, did not adopt the euro. An Australian dollar buys you about 4.5 krone. Divide prices by 5 and you won't be far off. Most things are more expensive than in Australia by virtue of high taxes (not just on cars – 25% VAT for example).

If your budget is tight, get a hotel which includes breakfast, and eat out for lunch when menus are cheaper. Ubiquitous Maccas aside, I didn't encounter any bad food in Odense – so be prepared to try the less flash looking restaurants. For example: Mama's Pizzeria, totally unpretentious looking, has really great pasta. I had panzerotti filled with porcini mushrooms and pine nuts. Incredible. I'll have to make it at home.

Getting there … There's an airport in Odense, but train connections from Copenhagen are easy, with a round-trip ticket starting from 458 krone (with an option of another 20 krone each way if you want to reserve a seat). The fastest train takes under an hour and a half.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Time to stop denying denial?

According to this article on the BBC web site, an open invitation to submit evidence of bias against climate change doubters' research revealed almost nothing.

The opposite case is also interesting to contemplate – that there's a natural bias in favour of contrarians, even if they have nothing to offer.

If climate scientists are successful in making the case that the problem is really, really serious, the obvious next step is not more funding for climate science, it's more funding for alternative energy. By making the case as strongly as possible, rather than making it easier for them to earn grants, they are making the case that funding should shift to an area in which they have no competence.

On the other hand, who does benefit from stringing the debate out? The deniers, especially those whose work isn't very good. A fair number of papers and even books have been published because of the mindset of being "fair", allowing a contrary position space, and so on – which shouldn't have been published on their merits ... Soon's work on solar effects using bogus data, Lomborg's ("I taught a class in statistics for social scientists so I'm a statistician") books misusing references on a grand scale, for example).

And of course there is a fair element of being in denial on the possibility that the science is right, hence the backing by normally careful editors of the Economist and Wall Street Journal of contrarian positions with little or no substance.

Bias? I would say it is on the side of denial, not on the side of the mainstream.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Novel: No Tomorrow

I've just completed a novel titled No Tomorrow featuring an out of work computer scientist who is trying to make the ultimate truth about climate change documentary.

The novel was inspired by the poor job Martin Durkin did of The Great Global Warming Swindle which was meant to debunk conventional climate change science, but was easily picked apart by scientists. What if the case was weak as the “sceptics” claim but no one was presenting their side clearly? Doing that properly would be a good documentary.

The trouble is, this is a fast-moving area. The politics is moving rapidly. Al Gore and the IPPC were awarded a Nobel. Climate change has moved to centre-stage in the Australian federal election called for 24 November 2007.

So rather than make the documentary, I wrote a novel about someone trying to make one. I had to do a fair fraction of the research that would have had to go into the documentary, but saved on all the travel time (and cost).

I had to make up people and their lives, but that was fun. I have no way of knowing if the real scientists on both sides of the debate would have behaved as I had them in the book. But that's fiction for you. At least I did make a good attempt at understanding the science which is more than moth fiction authors (aka journalists) bother with.

The novel is set in places I've lived in or visited: Brisbane, Boston, New York, Sydney, Sunshine Coast (near Brisbane), Berkeley, San Francisco and Stanford. It includes a nice slice of human interest so the science will not be too boring for the uninitiated. I also include a few slugs of real hard-core computer science since usually this stuff is watered down or just plain wrong.

Check out the novel's google groups site for more.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Third-Party Apps on iPhone

It's nice that Apple has conceded the need to allow other developers to build apps for iPhone.

It's also nice that they have conceded that they have delivered a platform full of security holes -- and that they plan on fixing this.

The most obvious security hole is a gaping opening: everything runs as root (system administrator). That had to he a quick and dirty fix -- exactly the sort of thing that leads to long-term trouble. You would have thought that Apple would have learnt the hard lesson of the past: make a system as secure as it's ever likely to need to be from the start, not as secure as you think you can get away with now.

The really huge thing though that this development opens up not only for the iPhone but the iPod Touch (and one presumes future iPods which should be build on the same platform) is turning it into an alternative computing platform. This opens up really interesting possibilities, like a decent voice over IP implementation. Aside from what this may do to whatever deal Apple made with Cisco to avoid confusion over the Linksys iPhone, this would be a very attractive addition for iPhone users roaming in parts of the world where cell phone service is very expensive. The option to control whether you connect through WiFi or the cell network for data traffic would be useful here as well.

If Apple fixes the security problems (which I hope is not too hard an ask, given that the list of existing applications is small, and most are based on apps that run in a more protected environment on other platforms), this is a really big development. Many, many more people should be interested in an iPhone if it can run apps of interest. This puts it much more into the camp of smart phones running a real operating system, like a variant of Linux or Windows.

Friday, 12 October 2007

South African Technology Career Options

Recently, I saw a story that one Llew Jones had been appointed head of the State IT Agency (SITA) in South Africa.

Llew Jones, as far as I know, is an engineer, with a background in the armaments industry, so why is he being appointed as head of a government agency in an area in which he has no background?

Then again, he was acting director of Meraka, an agency supposedly the leading ICT reseach body in the country for a while – and he was not particularly qualified for that either*.

Some may be rather puzzled at this point, as there is a broad perception in South Africa that Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is the main driver of senior appointments to the government payroll – and white South Africans mainly get appointed to fill gaps in competence. So why him?

No big mystery. The ANC, absent serious opposition, has fallen into the comfort zone of favouring team players over competence – and this is not a strictly racial issue. Some of these "team players" are members of the old order. Troublemakers from the old days are not favoured. The government continues to favour the Afrikaans universities and the CSIR over the English universities as sources of advice, and Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni notoriously said Afrikaners were much more reliable appointments than blacks. What he meant, of course, is that the old hands at the broederbond game know how to keep their heads down and work the system.

Expect this to continue until there are enough voters who don't have memories of the old system. In Zimbabwe, that took 20 years (unfortunately, Mugabe didn't want to let go – otherwise they would probably have had an MDC government by now; even if not totally competent it would certainly have been less of a disaster).

South Africa is about halfway through the post-liberation transition. The realization that the main liberation party doesn't hold all the answers may go a bit faster than in Zimbabwe because South Africa is a more diverse society with a longer tradition of a critical civil society, but the ANC can certainly expect to win at least the next election with a massive majority. That being the so, it's hard to put the case that there is something systemically wrong with the whole approach. Look what happened to the deputy health minister.

In my view the best thing South Africans with strong technical skills who want to contribute to the long-term development of the country can do now is to get some experience in government to learn the lie of the land then go to the private sector to develop their skills. To stick too long in the government sector risks burning yourself out with frustration. It's not as if all good in society flows from government activity. Business has some contribution, and SA does have some particularly good NGOs – despite my broad perception that "NGO" stands for "never gets organized".

So what am I doing outside South Africa?

I was a computer science academic at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for around 20 years, up to mid-2002, and felt that I needed some international experience – not only because it was useful, but because there is a prejudice in small countries that foreign is better.

There is a long history at Wits of favouring "foreign experience" over locals. The first head of computer science had a Stanford PhD but hadn't published much and had no PhD completions. His Stanford PhD plus industrial experience was sufficient to make him a full professor and head of department. He eventually left because he realized he wasn't cut out to be an academic. We later acquired a Hungarian of lazy disposition with a PhD I think in mathematics. He lasted until we had an activist class who complained of his abject lack of preparation for any of his courses. Then we acquired a new head from Russia, whose background was not in computer science. Each time he was exposed as knowing nothing about an area in which he claimed expertise, he moved on to another. At various times, he was an authority on AI, graphics, parallel computing and smart cards. He had one PhD completion to his name when he started, and a fair number of publications but none in computer science. To my recollection, he only published one paper when he was with us. Eventually, he was forced to leave after he got involved with a startup while on sabbatical, and didn't want to do any lecturing on his return. Somewhere along the line, we also managed to acquire a Bulgarian and someone from the UK, neither of whom amounted to much acadamically. The last instalment of this type was an American who had significant industry experience in Germany and was appointed a full professor straight out of his PhD. Of this bunch, he was by far the most successful, and published some papers – but he was on a time-limited contract and didn't stay.

So: international experience, a PhD, limited publications, zero or possibly one PhD completion: this combination was viewed highly favourably at Wits. Three people were appointed as full professors with these credentials. So when Wits advertised for professor and head of computer science in February 2007, I applied. All I heard since was one email telling me I would be informed of progress (28 March 2007). This is kind of puzzling since I was previously appointable as an associate professor (this happened last time I applied for a vacant chair) and I now have not only the prized international experience but also a PhD completion and relevant experience. It seems I am still missing something important – or could it be that once you have gone up the slippery pole of promotion at Wits, you are judged to a much higher standard?

Whatever. But I do feel that having put 20 years into producing a large number of successful graduates, I have done my part. If the experience I have gained in the process is not valued in South Africa, others will value it. I wish those still in the system luck. They are going to need it.

* See another article in this blog on whether Meraka was a success. For the record, I applied to Meraka for a position, and was only made an offer (which I turned down) after Jones left; I spoke to him on a trip to South Africa, and he was not keen on having me on board, claiming my area of research was not a "national priority". That seems excessively picky when you don't have nearly enough skilled people on board to meet your goals.

Monday, 20 August 2007

The iPhone battery lawsuit

Another day, another Apple battery lawsuit.

The whole thing is at for those interested in the detail.

The substance of the allegations against Apple is:

  • an iPhone battery only lasts 300 charges, and this implies a battery must be replaced in less than 2 years
  • only Apple can replace the battery because it is soldered in, and this imposes not only an unacceptable cost but unfair "enrichment" on Apple's part
  • sending in the battery results in total data loss

First, the battery replacement policy is not great – most cell phone users who need a new battery would at worst expect to wait in a shop while it was replaced. Second, the cost is high.

However, the substance of the allegations doesn't stand up to detailed scrutiny. The "loss of data" is not as serious as it is made to sound. As Apple makes clear, you should back up your data before sending the phone in – not exactly the same thing as total, irrecoverable data loss, as the law suit would have you think.

Also, the number of charges is stated by Apple as follows:

    A properly maintained iPhone battery is designed to retain up to 80% of its original capacity at 400 full charge and discharge cycles.

Nowhere does Apple equate a "charge and discharge" cycle to about one day's use as the lawsuit attempts to claim. Let's for example take a day's use as:

  • 1 hour of music
  • 2 hours of video
  • 2 hours Internet
  • 1 hour of talking
  • 18 hours standby

Given Apple's claims of 8 hours' talk time, 6 of Internet, 7 of video playback, 24 hours of audio playbackand up to 250 hours of standby time, these numbers represent about 85% of a full charge on a good battery. You might do something like this if you were travelling (watch a moving on a plane, catch up on your email, listen to some music, do some long business calls).

What if you have a day at the office, and only use the phone for a few phone calls, and to listen to some music on public transport to and from home? The usage could look something like this:

  • 1 hour of music
  • no video
  • no Internet
  • half an hour of talking
  • 22.5 hours standby

On Apple's numbers this would use less than 20% of a full charge. So with this sort of usage, you could go almost a week between charges.

On these numbers, the phone would still be reasonably usable in a wide range of scenarios if Apple's 80% of capacity after 400 cycles is correct. With moderate usage – mostly phoning with occasional music in daily use; videos only while travelling – a full charge cycle every 4 days seems likely. This would mean the battery would still be reasonably useful after 1600 days – over 4 years.

My own low-end Nokia phone which is a couple of months shy of 4 years old has a battery which is holding about 50% of its original charge.

So unless Apple is lying about the battery specs – which is not claimed in the lawsuit – I can't see that the claim that the battery's life is inadequate by industry standards holds up.

Of course it is possible that Apple did not have all the information I found on their web site the day the phone was launched. However, I do recall discussion of the battery issue pretty early on and, as others have pointed out, the plaintiffs always had the option to return the phone if they didn't like it.

So, in summary – I don't like the battery policy but don't see the basis for the lawsuit. It looks to me like a fishing expedition.

Monday, 6 August 2007

The Physics Mafia

In 2002, the South African government re-calibrated funding per student in universities. Instead of all science students attracting the same government subsidy, science students were divided into 3 categories: subjects that were expensive to teach (Physics, Chemistry, life sciences), subjects with less intensive lab requirements (Mathematics) and subjects that are really cheap to teach (Computer Science).

Computer Science extra cheap to teach – cheaper than pure maths? Did you hear that right?

A moment's reflection will show that this is idiotic. Computer science at its most theoretical is pure maths. At its most applied, it is a kind of engineering (which is in the higher category, along with mathematical sciences – not the highest category, with physics etc.).

Despite numerous protests, this idiocy has persisted.

What's going on: is the SA government run by idiots?

It seems not (entirely): this information comes from the universities which are run by idiots; the government has only been stupid in believing them.

What these rankings represent is not what these subjects should cost to teach, but what they have historically cost.

Physics has been expensive for some time because it attracts low student numbers, has a relatively high fraction of senior academics (hence with more expensive salaries) and most physics departments have a generous complement of lab staff. Computer Science, on the other hand, is a relatively new discipline, without many senior academics and without lab staff.

The lack of lab staff is the most serious differentiator, and feeds back to the other major difference in numbers of senior academics. For a typical Physics first year class, the lecturer just shows up for lectures. Lab staff take care of pracs, and tutors take care of tutorials. Since the fundamentals are largely settled (most Physics developed in the last 200 years is considered advanced, and is not seen in big classes), the same lab exercises can be recycled every year, and lab equipment can last decades. Lab staff do not need specialist skills in demand in industry, and can be trained up off the street. This means that running large classes (e.g., Physics for engineers) is not particularly onerous. Up the scale, Physics is not particularly popular as a major, so level 2 and above classes are small, and lecturing small classes of keen students is a whole lot less effort than handling big classes of students of wide variations in ability and motivation. And of course running labs is a whole lot easier even in this scenario with trained lab staff. The result? Physics academics have a fair amount of free time to write papers and build their CVs.

In Computer Science, the situation is reversed. The subject (despite the odd downturn in demand) has been more popular than Physics for decades, resulting in much larger classes at level 2 and above. On the other hand, most Computer Science departments in South Africa have no lab staff. Their technical staff capacity is usually sufficient to maintain the servers, networks and lab computers, but not to set up and manage exercises. This puts a major additional burden on academics – at all levels from introductory to advanced classes. A moment's reflection would reveal that failing to employ support staff is a false economy: if someone with a PhD and 20 years' experience is doing work that a technician could do, you are in effect paying a technician the salary of a person with a PhD and 20 years' experience. From the point of view of academics, building a research track record is significantly more difficult than in Physics. There is very little time to spare while running courses. Only by attracting research students do you stand much chance of producing significant output. But it's much easier to attract research students if you already have interesting outputs.

So why is this happening? Physics has a cosy position in South Africa. Even in the best funded higher education systems, Physics departments have been closed because they are not attracting students (in the UK, 20 Physics departments have closed over the last decade). Yet in South Africa, universities persist in the 19th century view that Physics is the only real science (captured in Rutherford's claim that "All science is either physics or stamp collecting"). The reason? Physics academics have been very good at putting their case that they are brilliant researchers. No doubt some of them are. But I wonder how well they would do if their lab staff were removed from their undergrad classes. Perhaps we could try the experiment with just one big first year class.

So should Computer Science be cheaper than Physics, even taking all this into account? It's hard to see why. You can teach a perfectly good undergrad Physics curriculum with 20-year-old equipment and lab staff without higher degrees. Computer Science by contrast does not have settled fundamentals, and computers go obsolete fast: few industry users keep a computer longer than 3 years. Worse, the skills needed to set up and maintain computer labs are in heavy demand in industry: look for job ads with keywords like "network administrator" or "server administrator". Add in the job descriptions for the sort of lab staff taken for granted in Physics, and you have a real problem: you need skilled programmers – also a hot commodity in industry.

Should we care?

Aside from the fact that the South African government has made ICT a central component of its economic development plan, there is the general question of how best to spend limited resources. Physics could be run at an acceptable level if a lot less pleasant for academics on a significantly lower budget. Making Physics academics spend more time in undergrad labs would be an imposition on their time but there is an oversupply of Physics academics worldwide, so they would not have much option to protest. On the other hand, freeing up Computer Science academics to do more research could have a very significant effect because there is another variable not yet discussed: Computer Science research is on the whole a lot cheaper than Physics research, because many of the big breakthrough areas in Physics require extremely exotic, expensive equipment. On the other hand, one of the great success stories in Computer Science has been collapsing cost of computing, opening up an increasing range of low-cost research opportunities.

In summary: by pretending the Computer Science is very cheap to teach while Physics is expensive, South African universities are shooting themselves in the foot. It would be much cheaper to set South Africa up as a world-class centre of Computer Science research, than a world-class centre of Physics research. What's more, they could attract major government funding – instead of the current fiasco, where the government is sinking major resources into the CSIR's Meraka institute without much to show for it ... funding which should have gone to the universities.

What about the other "expensive" subjects? Physics and Chemistry are lumped together as Physical Sciences which is in itself a major inaccuracy: Chemistry (along with life sciences) has major expenses of lab consumables, justifying a higher price tag. Whether this makes high-consumable lab subjects inherently more expensive than Computer Science, where lab infrastructure is in effect a consumable remains questionable – but they at least do have a case for being more expensive than Physics or pure maths. On the other hand, these subjects also have an army of lab staff. I remember a biologist at the University of the Witwatersrand some years ago complaining how consequent on funding cuts, they no longer had a person to call on to wash their cars after a field trip. So tough. I wish I had their problems.

Why this apparent trade between Computer Science and Physics? Wouldn't everyone score if Computer Science was moved up the scale? Governments have a notorious inability to scale up university funding to changed circumstances. If a relatively popular subject attracted a higher notch in the funding formula and the overall funding didn't increase, the extra funding for that subject would have to come from other areas of the university. The obvious target would be a subject that has low student numbers and is expensive to teach ... like Physics. (To be fair, I suspect other lab subjects would also have to be cut a bit because Physics wouldn't be big enough on its own.)

By allowing physicists to get away with this unbalanced funding model, they are doing not only Computer Scientists a disservice, but also society as a whole; the differences in research costs feed directly to differences in the ability to make an industrial and societal impact. In Physics, doing something at the level of inventing the transistor requires a massively funded research lab with Nobel laureate-level scientists. The Computer Science equivalent of inventing the world-wide-web requires a commodity PC with a free operating system.

The solution? Universities should be brave and back their Computer Science departments to deliver. If a few other departments would have to pull in their belts as a consequence, they would survive. It's not as if they have anywhere else to go.

Here are a few other related articles in this series:

Thursday, 5 July 2007

iPhone = iFlop?

Within days of the iPhone's launch, some clown published an article claiming "Apple's iPhone missed a 1 million unit sales target and rivals are rejoicing". I haven't seen this "target" anywhere else and judging from the fact that most AT&T stores and a high fraction of Apple's retail outlets are reporting stock shortages, it is extremely unlikely that Apple missed an internal target.

Then there are the articles that iPhone will not be adopted by business, mainly because it does not fit the "standard" of Microsoft Exchange.

Wake up, people.

Microsoft is not a standards organization, it's a monopoly.

Any organization which ties its infrastructure to a monopoly when there are open standards available (which are technically superior in most respects) has to be run by morons.

Until they lost their dominance, it used to be said that "No one was ever fired for buying IBM". This wasn't always because they had the best technology (they didn't) but because they had a strong commitment to looking after their customers. If you are a huge customer, you may get that from Microsoft. Good luck otherwise.

Another "biggie" is the absence of a "real" (what they mean here is "toy") keyboard. I can't see myself that typing on a tiny keyboard with real keys is going to be a whole lot faster than Apple's touch screen if it works as advertised. As some have pointed out, learning to type reasonably fast on these small keyboards takes time; already some have claimed to be reasonably quick on the touch keyboard. This looks to me like jumping to a conclusion before the facts are in.

I can just imagine these analysts poised over their keyboards for the first reports of functionality to dribble out, so they could finish their headline "iPhone will not be adopted by business because ...".

In any case, why is this such a big deal? What we have is a simplified portable computer with cell phone functionality, WiFi, calendar, web access (with a few features left out), photo viewing and music. The last two clearly indicate a focus on personal use. The market for personal cell phones is huge, as is the market for music players. Putting these two together alone would be pretty big – as several have tried before. The only real question is whether Apple has a compelling enough product to sell. The initial sales are promising – but the real test will be in how sustainable they are.

So, hype and counter-hype aside – it's still early days, and any prediction of how hot iPhone will be long-term is premature. My feeling is that it will be pretty big but there are too many unknowns to be sure: that's what you get with a breakthrough product.

That leads me to the other common thread: is it a breakthrough product?

Just as with the iPod, there are plenty of other options out there that on paper have the same feature list – even add some missing details. (Like toy slide-out keyboards.) Just as with the iPod, the real difference will be how it all hangs together. Apple can fix some of the obvious annoyances (I was really surprised that there is no copy and paste); the competition can't make a solution cobbled together out of mismatched parts suddenly become cleanly integrated. The difference reminds me of a question I ask about cars: how is it that European car makers can build cars that are made all of a piece, whereas US cars are made all of pieces?

A real big difference I haven't seen much positive comment on is the way pricing splits the handset from the phone plan. This is supposedly a negative. At first sight, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense that (aside from non-obvious workarounds) you have to sign up for 2 years of Cingular, yet the handset is sold separately. My guess is that this arrangement is an artifact of Apple's 2-year US exclusivity deal with AT&T, and they would rather maintain this separation for when the deal runs out. To me, this is a positive: it puts real pressure on Cingular to up their act, to keep future iPhone buyers. If they become the major source of complaint, Apple will have no reason to stick with them after 2 years: if iPhone is a huge success, other networks will have little cause to resist adding in the extras Apple needs from them.

So, in summary, talk of iPhone as being a flop is typical FUD from ignorant business columnists. There's no way the initial roll-out can be anything but a huge success. As to the longer term, we don't have the data. My bet is that it will do well, and exceed Apple's 10-million target in the first year easily.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Green values

I've just set up a Google group to discuss green values.

Conservative politicians keep going on about "values" which they don't in practical terms seem to care about. They aren't the only ones with values.

Check it out. Feel free to discuss here or there.

Google Groups

Green Values Brisbane

Visit this group

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Computer Science in South Africa

In 2002, the South African government announced two things: a change in the university funding model which cut funding per computer science student by 40%, putting it below pure maths, let alone comparable subjects like physics or electrical engineering.

Around the same time, the government announced that it wanted to found an “ICT university”.

Clearly, the government thought the universities were doing a lousy job: it cut the funding in an area so important, the president thought there should be a dedicated university in the area.

Let’s look at publications and citations for the top 4 universities in the country, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement international ranking (available through Top Universities), from best down: Cape Town, Witwatersrand (Wits), Kwazulu Natal (merged from Natal and Durban-Westville) and Pretoria.

The following are all searches on the combined indexes, Science Citation Index Expanded, 1900-present; Social Sciences Citation Index, 1956-present; Arts & Humanities Citation Index, 1975-present (all searches done on 30 May 2007).

As you can see, all of the results show some level of research activity with some citations – but nothing brilliant (click on the pictures for larger versions).

Cape Town: 59 publications, 139 citations, 2.36 citations per item.

Wits: 46 publications, 58 citations, 1.26 citations per item.

Natal (includes Kwazulu Natal): 86 publications, 238 citations, 2.77 citations per item.

Pretoria: 84 publications, 151 citations, 1.80 citations per item.

The Natal results are skewed by the fact that there was a period when computer science was combined with geology, so these results aren’t an accurate basis for comparison and I will not consider these further. The others though present a consistent picture. The higher ranked universities have a higher publication count per academic (Pretoria has a much higher head count that Wits and Cape Town), but the general numbers are in approximately the same ballpark. The Wits figures should be considered in the light of the university having badly fumbled the ball on the management of the subject. The School of Computer Science there in recent years has collapsed from 12 academics to only 5, and recruiting is a shambles.

In any case, the government clearly didn’t think all this was so great. The ICT university idea however was replaced by creating a research institute, the Meraka Institute. Meraka has a few new people but is mostly comprised of the CSIR’s ICT division, Mikomtek, which has been rolled into Meraka.

Why, you may wonder, did the CSIR get this funding boost, rather than placing Meraka in a university? Clearly, if the universities are no good, the CSIR, and in particular, Mikomtek, must be a whole lot better. So let’s look at their numbers.

Mikomtek: 6 publications, 2 citations, 0.33 citations per item.

Meraka: 2 publications, 0 citations, 0.00 citations per item.

Now here is an interesting challenge for the reader: explain why the combination of Mikomtek and Meraka is so much better than any university in South Africa, to the extent that the CSIR has been made the sole custodian of this new bucket of money. Of course Meraka is in its infancy and could do better in future. It has after all only been going since May 2005. However, in 2 years, I would have thought that a well-funded institute would have recruited high fliers who would have published more than 2 papers that have made it into the top research indexes.

Perhaps the CSIR’s outputs are in other areas than publications. They generate a large number of press releases, for sure – and those are not listed in things like the science citation index. But that obviously counts for a lot in winning political support.

What about impacts on the economy which can’t be measured by publications?

The universities named here (and of course there are others) have produced thousands of computer science graduates between them. An organization which is not degree-granting like the CSIR has to do a lot to match that scale of contribution. One would expect many publications (oops) and other measurable impacts, such as commercial spin-outs.

For the latter point, let’s consider the case of commercializing the Internet.

In the 1990s, when the technology wasn’t commonplace, many small startups sprang up, touting the concept to business. The CSIR jumped in rather late and despite its massive government subsidy, it wasn’t able to compete. The top service provider in South Africa today, The Internet Solution, was one of those small startups, and was started by Wits computer science graduates.

Commercializing the internet is but one example; I believe it is up to the CSIR to make a case, rather than for me to tear them down, because the case for better funding for the universities is so clear. Universities produce graduates; the CSIR consumes resources. They need to demonstrate that they do so to useful effect.

Disclaimer: I applied for a position at Meraka in June 2006, and am still waiting for a definite response. I applied for a Wits position too, and am awaiting the promised feedback (no word for almost 3 months), so you can see that I am trying to curry favour.

For the record, here is my publication record by the same measure:

19 publications, only 1 citation – fair, not great. Not quite 3 times the entire output of Mikomtek plus Meraka combined. (My actual output is significantly higher than this – but to compare like with like, I am using the same measure throughout.) Then again, if I google on my name, I only get 28,500 hits; Meraka gets 160,000 [counted 14 June 2007] – those press releases really work. I should try that.

Thursday, 15 March 2007


Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain

- Friedrich von Schiller

With that piece of advice from the great German writer, who am I to try?

I must be pretty stupid to ignore Schiller, which means I outclass the regular idiot. So I will contend with them.

The particular stupidity I have in mind is the extreme reluctance of society – especially major opinion-formers like the press and political leaders – to accept scientific consensus when it flies in the face of tradition. Especially when that tradition has mega-bucks behind it.

Let's contemplate a few examples.

1. Free or Open-source software

In South Africa, c 2000, I was involved in writing a report for the governement on why free software represented a big opportunity to South Africa. Not only would there be massive savings in government costs in software licensing, but a small fraction of that saving could be diverted towards developing local software development talent.

While there are divided views on this subject, there is a growing consensus in acadamia and industry that at least some areas of software development are best done on a free license basis. For example, Sun has opened their Solaris operating system, Apple's Darwin core of Mac OS X has been open for years, and IBM has embraced Linux.

So the report I was working on wasn't particularly prescient: it was informing government of a trend they could tap into.

The consequence?

Very little happened immediately but about 2 years later, the government recalibrated funding per discipline for undergraduate degrees, and dropped computer science to a category below pure mathematics, an overnight drop of 40%. Why? No one has been able to give me a satisfactory answer, except that the government based its figures on data from universities, which have traditionally underfunded computer science, as a cash cow for less popular subjects like physics. Another explanation: some of the crap universities were teaching basic computer literacy as "computer science", and this is very cheap to teach. Put 1,000 students in front of a lecturer who has the class memorise the menus on Excel.

Do I need explain more how idiotic this is?

Maybe just a bit.

Computer science, if taught properly, needs two things which are expensive: a good ratio of equipment to students, and a good student:staff ratio. Without the first, programming is hard to teach at all unless a lot of the students can afford their own equipment. The second is important to have quality time to get in the deeper concepts.

Add in the imperative to teach "currently useful" stuff, and the fact that someone who can look after a large computer network has skills in high demand in industry, and you have a high recurrent cost. You need to turn over your labs at least once every 3 years, and you need relatively highly paid technical staff to maintain them.

If you compare this against teaching physics, the same student:staff ratio argument applies. The equipment one does not apply to the same extent: undergrad physics can on the whole be taught with relatively inexpensive equipment which does not go out of date fast. And you can train up a physics lab technician with skills not much in demand in industry.

Finally, a really big difference between computer science and physics is that much of the most advanced CS research is very inexpensive. Commodity PCs can be used in many cases, even borrowing from the undergrad labs if necessary. Whereas a subject like physics becomes really expensive once you start wandering off pure theory.

This last point brings me back to my starting point.

A free software movement in South Africa would require very little funding to get going compared with almost any industry associated with advanced physics research. The skills developed could affect many areas of society, in delivering more efficient services, briding the digital divide, and providing a base for exports.

2. More

That's enough for this time. Further topics: tobacco control; climate change.

Watch this space.