Bezos’ Law

The future of cloud computing is the availability of more computing power at a much lower cost; Moore’s law thus gives way to Bezos’ law:

Over the history of cloud, a unit of computing power price is reduced by 50% approximately every three years.

The cost of cloud computing should naturally track Moore’s law (as the cost of computing is related to the cost of hardware); however, the cost of utilities such as electricity clearly do not follow the same demand curve. Nevertheless, with Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, Google Compute Engine and Microsoft Azure increasingly competitive on pricing, cloud, as opposed to building or maintaining a data centre, would appear to be a much better economic delivery approach for many companies.

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Alan Turing: mathematician, computer pioneer and code breaker


Found Turing’s plaque today near King’s College, Cambridge (his alma mater).

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2013 ACM Software System Award: Coq

Today, the 2013 ACM Software System Award has been awarded to Bruno Barras, Yves Bertot, Pierre Castéran, Thierry Coquand, Jean-Christophe Filliâtre, Hugo Herbelin, Gerard P. Huet, Chetan Murthy and Christine Paulin-Mohring:

For the Coq Proof Assistant System that provides interactive software for the development of formal proofs, using a powerful logic known as the Calculus of Inductive Constructions.

The Coq Proof Assistant System (full award citation), which has been under continuous development for nearly 30 years, is a formal proof management system that supports a rich higher-order logic with powerful inductive definitions. The programming language incorporates a rich dependent type system, applicable to a range of needs from compilers to models of foundational mathematics. Because it can be used to state mathematical theorems and software specifications alike, Coq is a key enabling technology for certified software and has played an influential role in several disciplines including formal methods, programming languages, program verification and formal mathematics. The system is open source, is supported by a substantial and useful library, and has attracted a large and active user community. Since the project started, more than 40 people have contributed various theoretical, implementational and pedagogical works leading to the Coq system as it is now (see Who did What in Coq?).

Some of the significant results that have been accomplished using Coq are: proofs for the four colour theorem, the development of CompCert (a fully verified compiler for C), the development of RockSalt (software-based fault isolation, as used in Google’s Native Client), and most recent, the fully specified and verified hypervisor OS kernel CertiKOS.

(also see: the 2012 recipients, as well as the full chronological listing of awards)

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New A Levels in Computer Science from 2015

Today, the Department for Education published guidance for schools on GCE AS/A Level subject content, setting out the knowledge, understanding and skills common to all AS and A level specifications for teaching from 2015. This was in response to the consultation on A Level reform that concluded in December 2013, with a series of changes in the coming years, notably linear A Levels and standalone AS qualifications in certain subjects, including computer science.

Having been involved in this process over the past year, it is great to see these changes to the A Level computer science specification; in particular, the following aspirational aims and objectives:

AS and A Level specifications in computer science must encourage students to develop:

  • an understanding of, and the ability to apply, the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science, including abstraction, decomposition, logic, algorithms and data representation;
  • the ability to analyse problems in computational terms through practical experience of solving such problems, including writing programs to do so;
  • the capacity for thinking creatively, innovatively, analytically, logically and critically;
  • the capacity to see relationships between different aspects of computer science;
  • mathematical skills;
  • the ability to articulate the individual (moral), social (ethical), legal and cultural opportunities and risks of digital technology.

Note, it clearly expresses the importance of mathematics (“Computer science uses mathematics to express its computational laws and processes”): any accredited specification in computer science must contain a minimum of 10% mathematics. It will be interesting to see the offerings from the different awarding bodies as they appear in the autumn; check out the full computer science subject content specification.

Much of this new specification builds on the knowledge, understanding and skills
established at Key Stage 4 in the exciting new computing programme of study starting in England from September 2014 (purpose of study: “A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.”). It remains to be seen how this will stimulate reform in Wales after an underwhelming response from the Welsh Government to last September’s review of the ICT curriculum (blog post to follow shortly).

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Wales Blog Awards 2014

Wales Blog Awards

Computing: The Science of Nearly Everything has been shortlisted for Best Technology Blog in the 2014 Wales Blog Awards, organised by Media Wales and Warwick Emanuel PR. Over 300 entries were received for the competition from across the country this year (after a break in 2013), whittled down to a shortlist of 32 blogs. My blog was also shortlisted back in 2012, so thank you to everyone who has been reading and commenting on my blog for the past three years; if you want a taste of what I have been writing about here, have a look at its first birthday, as well as the best of 2012 and 2013.

All shortlisted blogs are also in the running for the People’s Choice Award, to let the public decide on their favourite blog; the judges will announce the winners of the eleven categories at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on Thursday 15 May.

You can cast your vote here; voting for the People’s Choice Award will close at 5pm on Wednesday 30 April.

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The undersea cables wiring the Earth

US telecoms research firm TeleGeography has published its annual Submarine Cable Map, giving an excellent overview of international connectivity. Over 99% of international communications are delivered by undersea cables; while satellites are used for broadcasting, and are useful for rural communities and very remote places, satellite capacity is limited and expensive.

As you can see below, there is significant connectivity between the major hubs of the world, for both resilience and performance: different paths are used to avoid undersea fault zones, to land in different countries and to avoid certain countries. We have wired the ends of the Earth, almost; what’s left are generally remote island communities. In Europe, the US and Asia, people don’t have to think about what happens if the Internet goes down and they can’t send an important email.


Undersea cables are actually more vulnerable than you might think; during the 2011 tsunami in Japan about half of their cables had outages, but the operators were able to reroute capacity to other routes. Last spring, there was damage in Mediterranean cables that linked East Africa to Europe, but it has been many years since there was a complete blackout.

Looking at previous versions of the map (see 2013 and 2012), you can see the developments: in the past year, numerous cables were built to the east coast of Africa, where it was previously all satellite; a new cable linking the US with Mexico and other Latin American countries should be ready this year; another connecting India and Malaysia; with one recently announced connecting the UK and Japan set for the first quarter of 2016.

From a UK backbone perspective, take a look at JANET (which celebrates its 30th birthday today!) and the JANET6 network infrastructure, as well as how it connects into GÉANT, the pan-European research and education network.

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Inquiry into STEM skills in Wales

The National Assembly for Wales’ Enterprise and Business Committee is undertaking a follow-up Inquiry into STEM skills, after the publication of a report on the STEM agenda in Wales in January 2011. The terms of reference for this consultation are as follows:

  • What impact has the Welsh Government’s strategy Science for Wales and Delivery Plan had on STEM skills in Wales?
  • What progress has been made in addressing the issues identified in the Enterprise and Learning Committee’s 2011 inquiry into the STEM agenda, including:
    • The adequacy of provision of STEM skills in schools, further education colleges, higher education and work-based learning (including apprenticeships);
    • Value for money from the additional funding to support and promote STEM skills and whether the current supply of STEM skills is meeting the needs of the Welsh labour market;
    • The supply of education professionals able to teach STEM subjects and the impact of Initial Teacher Training Grants and the Graduate Teacher Programme on recruiting STEM teachers and education professionals;
    • The effectiveness of education and business links between education institutions and STEM employers.
  • Whether any progress has been made on addressing negative perceptions and gender stereotypes of STEM and promoting good practice to encourage women to acquire STEM skills and to follow STEM related careers.
  • What progress has been made on learning STEM skills through Welsh medium education and training?

See the full consultation; the Committee welcomes responses from both individuals and organisations, with a deadline of Friday 25 April 2014.

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2013 ACM Turing Award: Lesley Lamport

Today, the 2013 ACM Turing Award has been awarded to Leslie Lamport, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research:

For fundamental contributions to the theory and practice of distributed and concurrent systems, notably the invention of concepts such as causality and logical clocks, safety and liveness, replicated state machines, and sequential consistency.

Lamport has not only advanced the reliability and consistency of computing systems that work as intended (for example, temporal logic of actions (TLA) and Byzantine fault tolerance), but also created LaTeX!

Read the full award citation.


(also see: the 2012 recipients, as well as the full chronological listing of awards)

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Embrace logic

Let him who is not come to logic be plagued with continuous and everlasting filth.

Metalogicon II (1159)
John of Salisbury (1120-1180)

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2014 IET South Wales Annual Lecture

On Thursday 20th March I will be giving the 2014 IET South Wales Annual Lecture at Swansea University:

Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales

Digital technology (and thus computation) is an indispensable and crucial component of our lives, society and environment. In a world increasingly dominated by technology, we now need to be more than just digitally literate. Across science and engineering, computing has moved on from assisting researchers in doing science, to transforming both how science is done and what science is done. In the context of (Welsh and UK) Government science, technology and innovation policy, computer scientists (of all flavours) have a significant role to play. Tom will ground this hypothesis by describing his research interests at the hardware/software interface, his broader work in education and science policy, and then finishing by presenting a vision for a “Digital Wales” underpinned by science and technology innovation.

This talk is free, with registration online.

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Eye of the Tiger

This old 24-pin dot matrix printer has been converted into a MIDI compatible sound generator using an ATmega8 and a Xilinx FPGA. Up to 21 notes can be played simultaneously (16 MIDI channels with individual volume and pitch). The original printing frequency was approximately 1kHz with a pulse width of 300μs — pins hit the paper at a maximum of 1000 times per second during printing. The MIDI electronics increases this from a few Hz up to 2kHz. When the pulse width is reduced the sound gets quieter because the pin hits the paper with less force; see the full technical details.

(also see what can be done by manipulating floppy disk drives, especially for Super Mario)

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Simon Jenkins on mathematics education

There has been much discussion online of yesterday’s CiF article by Simon Jenkins (For Britain’s pupils, maths is even more pointless than Latin). Click-bait aside, he has been here before; ignoring the derivation of the now-pervasive “x is the new Latin” meme, as well as overlooking the majority of the straw men and other logic fallacies, the main thrust of the article presents a false dichotomy. It appears to reiterate an antiquated Two Cultures-type of divide between mathematics and “creativity and social and emotional capacities” (which also frequently crops up in discussions on programming and computer science education). Furthermore, it implies the drive to reform mathematics education in the UK is ultimately misguided, with few jobs requiring advanced mathematical skills (STEM agenda? No thank you!), and we would be better served by focusing on numeracy as well as encouraging “key industries”:

If British schools are to be slaves to Gove’s economic dogma, they should be turning out accountants, lawyers, administrators and salespeople. That is where the money is. Britain needs literate and presentable young people, sensitive to culture and the world around them, skilled in health, entertainment, finance, the law and citizenship. The truth is that Gove, like most of Cameron’s ministers, is an old socialist planner at heart.

Now, this is not to say that there are no issues with mathematics education in the UK; ACME has been arguing for a mathematics curriculum fit for the 21st century, supported by Ofsted and reports highlighting the importance of mathematics in the other sciences. Conrad Wolfram has long maintained we have the wrong focus in how we teach mathematics — in a similar way for computer science, contexts and problems must come first. I have long maintained it is socially acceptable to be bad at mathematics — it is rare for people to publicly admit they are unable to read or write, but happily proclaim a lifelong inability to perform basic calculations.

Jenkins has thus thrown together a ragbag of prejudices (a love of the arts, a dislike of international education markers, a sympathy for progressive education) with personal anecdote and concocted an argument completely detached from reality. As epitomised by this quote:

I learned maths. I found it tough and enjoyable. Algebra, trigonometry, differential calculus, logarithms and primes held no mystery, but they were even more pointless than Latin and Greek. Only a handful of my contemporaries went on to use maths afterwards.

…which reminds me of this xkcd comic:

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Five Programming Top Tips (from a seven year old)


Earlier today I tweeted the above image of five handwritten top tips from a seven year old female who had been learning programming; these were extremely astute observations and were a delight to read.

After digging a bit deeper, I found the original blog post, describing in more detail the poignant observations of @fjsteele‘s daughter after spending an hour using Hopscotch, a visual programming language for the iPad. In the blog post, he explains that this was his daughter’s first programming lesson and he asked her to write down instructions on how to draw a square, and then use Hopscotch to make one; after that, they tried a triangle:

It was fun to see the `lightbulb’ come on as she tried different blocks, failed, tried something else. It was really fun to watch her discover debugging. She quickly learned not to do too much work before testing it out.

Not a bad summary from an hour of programming! What else would you add to this list?

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Is the Universe a simulation?

From an article by Edward Frenkel in today’s New York Times:

Many mathematicians, when pressed, admit to being Platonists. The great logician Kurt Gödel argued that mathematical concepts and ideas “form an objective reality of their own, which we cannot create or change, but only perceive and describe”. But if this is true, how do humans manage to access this hidden reality?

We don’t know. But one fanciful possibility is that we live in a computer simulation based on the laws of mathematics — not in what we commonly take to be the real world. According to this theory, some highly advanced computer programmer of the future has devised this simulation, and we are unknowingly part of it. Thus when we discover a mathematical truth, we are simply discovering aspects of the code that the programmer used.

This hypothesis is by no means new; in Are you living in a computer simulation, Nick Bostrum argues that one of the following propositions is true:

  1. the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
  2. any posthuman civilisation is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
  3. we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Also see: Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation.

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HTTPS Everywhere


HTTPS Everywhere is a Firefox, Chrome and Opera extension that encrypts your communications with many major websites, making your browsing more secure.

Encrypt the web: Install HTTPS Everywhere today.

(HTTPS Everywhere is a collaboration between The Tor Project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation; information about how to access the project’s Git repository and get involved in development is here)

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The authority of reason

To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.

The American Crisis, No. V (1778)
Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

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Interview for ITV Wales on effects of computer games

(N.B. due to the privacy settings for this Vimeo clip, you will have to view the video on their website)

Yesterday I was interviewed on Newsweek Wales, ITV Wales’ weekly news summary programme, on the perceived dangers of children playing computer games. This was in response to an ITV Wales News story from a few days before, in which a headteacher from a primary school near Caerphilly had felt he had identified a possible link between violent video games and aggressive behaviour; this story was further contextualised by a nine year old boy from Neath who had written to Prime Minister about his concerns over the availability of age-appropriate computer games.

This rather anecdotal declaration of a causal link between playing computer games (an activity enjoyed by the majority of the population) and increased aggression and violence is frustrating; furthermore, this type of story appears to pop every so often, but is not backed by the evidence base: see here and here, with summaries here and here. As I mentioned in the interview, the demographics of people who play computer games can be surprising, especially average age (over 30) and the gender split (55% male/45% female). While I take the point from the Neath pupil about the availability (and attraction) of age-appropriate computer games, it is interesting to list the top five best-selling computer games of all time (across all platforms):

Ranking Title Release Year Systems Copies Sold
1. Wii Sports 2006 Wii 82 million
2. Super Mario Bros. 1985 NES 40 million
3. Minecraft 2009 Various 36 million
4. Mario Kart Wii 2008 Wii 35 million
5. Tetris 2008 GameBoy/GameBoy Color 35 million

In summary: let’s stick to the evidence and not confuse societal or educational issues as technology problems. Minecraft is a great example of how powerful computer games can be: not only is it incredibly popular, it is also a great resource for education, developing digital literacies, communication skills and basic programming (aside: Ordnance Survey recently released a 22 billion block Minecraft map of the UK as an open data resource).

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