Was it ‘bingo time’ for the Raspberry Pi?

“It’s bingo time for Arsenal!” exclaimed Gary Neville during his punditry for the Arsenal-Milan Champions League clash last night. It certainly was – except they just couldn’t get the last number on their card filled. I know just the feeling – the uncomfortable, yet tantalising sensation of being so near to a goal, yet so far. And so it was with the ‘release’ (a term used in the loosest sense) of the Raspberry Pi. All of the hype, the preamble, the hyperbole of how this diminutive device will be the saviour of computer science, how it will reignite our passions for programming and quite possibly halt the destruction of western civilisation as we know it all came to a head on February 29th at the much anticipated hour of 6am GMT. The release announcement revealed that two electronics companies, RS and Farnell would handle the distribution of the initial run of 10,000 units, and that they would also be handling the manufacture of the devices from then on.

With the full weight of expectation of the computer science community pressing down on them, the online storefronts dutifully cracked under the strain. When most customers were able to gain access, it was too late, and only ‘expressions of interest’ for the devices were being taken. As has been blogged elsewhere, the failure of online commercial storefronts to handle heavy customer demand is a concern for retailers of products with massive expectations from a more-than-willing, paying public. The levels of expectation for this product were known well ahead of release. A more managed approach, giving customers a clear level of expectation would have been received much better than overloaded servers.

I will stick to my emulated ARM cpu within QEMU full system emulation running on Ubuntu for the foreseeable future (see here or here for excellent info on setting a system like this up). The saving of western civilization will just have to wait a while.

You have got to be in it to win it…

On Friday 27th January, I am heading down to The Deepings School with John Murray to speak to sixth formers about computer science as part of their post-18 options day. We will demo some cool robotics gadgets and a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), as well as talking about what students typically study in a School of Computer Science and where it might lead to in the future.

The current prospects for computer science related careers is improving. Statistics from ITJobsWatch report a steady increase in demand for computer science related jobs over the last three years. Salaries have remained broadly constant over the last two years however, which is no surprise given the current economic climate. Demand for graduates and post graduate qualified applicants are the top two qualification requirements for jobs, while skills in areas such as Java, C#, C++, OO methodologies and mathematics all rank at the top of the skills most needed.

It is a good time to get into computer science. A rapidly evolving platform landscape is seeing traditional workstations, mobile devices and tablets now joined by cloud-driven Chromebooks, open API’s in new and exciting areas for example – all providing new and interesting uses of technology to support our everyday lives. Studying computer science is a great way to get into this exciting world – a choice that I hope many students will be making in this coming application round.

The choice that Peugeot have made is a disappointing one. Demands from their retail sections and an economic tightening of belts has seen them cancel their hugely successful endurance racing programme with immediate effect. It is not only bad news for their drivers and support teams, but also for the fans of endurance racing – no more Pug-Audi head to head battles a Le Mans for a few years at least. What compounds this disappointment though is that the sport is at a turning point – hybrid petrol/electric and diesel/electric cars are in an advanced stage of development. We will surely see history at Le Mans this year from a car with hybrid technology. Endurance racing is no stranger to pushing boundaries though. The American Le Mans Series (ALMS) has sanctioned the use of ‘alternative’ fuels in their race series for a while, with major breakthroughs coming in the last year for cars running on renewable fuels. Peugeot will now be out of this hybrid development programme, and with racing being the ultimate test programme for new technologies, surely Audi and now Toyota will will see their commitment to hybrid development research  bear fruit.

Computer Science: Should we be looking forwards or backwards?

A high profile campaign to introduce a more rigorous computer science curriculum to UK schools has resulted in the UK Education minister, Michael Gove announcing that he will ‘scrap boring IT lessons‘ in schools. The core of the argument is that pupils emerging from the compulsory education sector do not have requisite skills in computer science to build software applications – rather, they are led through a curriculum which develops their skills in using productivity tools such as Microsoft’s Office suite.

Gove cites the achievements of Alan Turing as a legacy to which our school children should be aspiring. Turing was a remarkable figure indeed, a gifted mathematician, logician and computation expert. Yet his path to computer science hero status was similar to which many of our school children follow today. Classical school education followed by degree studies in mathematics at Cambridge and PhD achievement at Princeton. The foundation of all Turing’s work was in mathematics, yet this fact is strangely missing from many of the statements issued by Michael Gove and his advisors, who include Ian Livingstone, OBE, a veteran of the UK video games industry.

The underlying principles of all computer science disciplines, be they software design, programming, testing, programming language development or operating system design are mathematics. Without a strong mathematical support in areas such as logic, algebra, number systems, set theory and so on, then yes, school pupils may be able to undertake some programming activity (and I firmly believe they should!), but the defining principles which explains why their program works, or how to design their program to solve a particular problem will be lacking. Lets give our school children more programming in ICT lessons, but lets also give them the mathematical tools to be able to do it effectively.

Glancing in our metaphorical rear view mirror to cite Alan Turing is one way of looking at this problem. I believe though, that we should be focusing forward on the road ahead, giving our school pupils the mathematical skills they need to understand and support their software development activity and interests. Not all school leavers will want to become programmers or developers of software, but those that do should be given the right support to enable them to build their careers effectively.