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Losing Our Edge?

It’s well known that computer science education in the U.S. is in decline. From secondary schools up to graduate degree programs, the U.S. has witnessed a steady drop in enrollment in computer science courses. Many factors are responsible—in particular, the dot-com bust, outsourcing fears, and declines in federal spending on fundamental CS research. A vicious cycle is in the works, whereby fears about job prospects will drive possible CS candidates into other fields, only to provide fuel for the outsourcing fire as the pool of native IT workers shrinks.

India, renowned for its ability to produce high-quality tech workers, has emerged the winner in this scenario. China is not far behind. The latest evidence: the ACM-sponsored International Collegiate Programming Contest, held this year in Shanghai, China. The home team, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, cleaned up this year, leaving the sole U.S. entry, the University of Illinois, in 17th place. This lies in stark contrast to the heyday of the ’80s and ’90s, when U.S. teams dominated these competitions.

Has the U.S. really lost its edge? Or could this be just a symptom of a nation whose technical economy is in flux? Perhaps the question we really need to ask is whether a strong base of highly skilled programmers really matters in today’s economy, where the latest generation of development tools (supposedly) shields developers from low-level code, freeing them to concentrate more on “business logic.” The International Collegiate Business Logic Contest—coming soon to a university near you?


The Real Cost of Linux

It seems that just as much press is devoted to discussions of Linux’s popularity, or lack thereof, as to the technology itself. Well, we see no point in bucking that trend so… a study by a Canadian firm shows that Linux is unpopular with small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. In a survey of 1,422 IT managers, only 27 percent claimed to run Linux in their shops. An even greater number said they have no interest in considering it. A curious aside: the survey also revealed security to be a priority—odd, considering Linux has a reputation for being more secure than Windows (or at least not as frequently attacked).

Isn’t Linux’s attractive price point supposed to make it attractive to small and medium-sized businesses, which typically don’t have large IT budgets? Look at the developing world, where Linux has made impressive inroads into governments and industries unable, or unwilling, to pay the licensing fees for Windows. What we forget, though, is that there is a big difference between choosing Linux for new systems and switching to Linux from other operating systems. The latter incurs high migration costs from the need to retrain staff—even if the binaries are cheaper (or free). We sense a wave of evangelical Linux training initiatives coming.


Say No to Crackberries

We are integrating new communications technologies into our lives at an ever-quickening pace. Cellphone? Check. IM? Check. Blackberry? Check. We take for granted that immediate, constant access to information is a good thing. It makes us more productive, right?

Not so fast (quite literally), say U.K. researchers who studied the effects of these technologies on IQ. The results were startling: in the pool of 1,100 participants, the onslaught of messages reduced IQ by an average of 10 points. This drop in IQ is more than double that of those under the influence of marijuana. The problem, it seems, is the constant context-switching required to handle incoming e-mails whilst tackling other work. This tires the brain and dulls mental acuity. And it spreads through offices like secondhand smoke. The often nonsensical and incomplete messages sent by these distracted workers mystifies their recipients (and further distracts them with email). That is to say, the quantity of information ultimately affects its quality. Reminds us of that stoner roommate back in college—“It’s the quality that matters, man, not the quantity…”

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Originally published in Queue vol. 3, no. 5
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