Moving away from Microsoft

Interesting story coming out of a Columbia Law School blog Freedom Now...

The United States Department of Justice announced today that it would be making a radical purchasing decision: stop dealing with the firm it considers an illegal monopoly. No more Microsoft Word at Main Justice.

So they will spend $13 million to acquire Word Perfect licenses from Corel

I thought it was worth looking for other stories relating to Corel, Microsoft and the Justice Department and turned up this from 2000 - which has Microsoft being investigated by the US Department of Justice over antitrust concerns surrounding its involvement with Canadian software company Corel which produces WordPerfect, one of the few competitors to Microsoft Word, the market leading word processing package...

Interesting.

As the blog suggests: "Did the DoJ consider OpenOffice at $0?"

Personally I write most of my stuff using web-based products: e-mail, blogging, etc.

I figure two things matter:

  • Stuff I write goes somewhere. So I might as well start where I expect to finish.
  • Stuff gets read - and people prefer to read stuff their way, not mine. Their software tools not mine. So I might as well start where I expect to finish.

In my younger days I used to run the 800m, Track and Field. We used to start where we expected to finish...

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Harder A-levels and boost for IB

A-level candidates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are to face more "stretching" questions, and the chance to be awarded a new A* grade.

Meanwhile state school pupils in England will soon be able to study the International Baccalaureate.

Naturally the Teaching Unions leapt in to offer the Prime Minister's latest proposals a ringing endorsement...

The changes, outlined by Prime Minister Tony Blair in a speech in Birmingham, would be alongside the introduction of vocational Specialised Diplomas.

Teachers' leaders accused him of elitism and sowing confusion.

[...]

The government is now agreeing with the QCA in saying all questions should be more open-ended, requiring more thoughtful, detailed answers - and with a new top A* grade above the existing A to E grades.

Courses under the new system would be start in 2008 with the first of the new A*s being awarded in 2010.

[...]

The government in England is also providing £2.5m so every local authority has at least one centre offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma.

Although it has traditionally been the preserve of the independent sector, 46 of the 76 schools now offering the IB are in the state sector, in 32 local authorities.

The government funding will mean about 100 more such centres, the education department said - mainly sixth form colleges.

The IB is regarded as being more broadly based than A-levels in three or four specific subjects.

It involves six main subjects being studied over two years, chosen from literature, a second language, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics and computer sciences and the arts.

[...]

The leader of the NASUWT teachers' union, Chris Keates, said it would now be a case of "Baccalaureate for the best, Diplomas for the rest".

She added: "It is becoming increasingly evident that Number 10 is bewitched by the independent sector and is seeking to mimic its most unattractive feature - elitism."

Link: BBC Education.

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Science is Hard

According to the House of Lords, pupils in England find science A-levels too difficult ...

Well, no great surprises there. Their Lordships even go on to observe that the evidence supports precisely this perspective.

Unfortunately they then suggest that "Science for All" would resolve the difficulties.

I have, in my own modest way, a few observations of my own:

  • Science is Hard
  • So are Brain Surgery, the Law of Tort and Ancient Greek
  • These subjects are, in truth, best tackled by smart pupils
  • These same pupils aren't best encouraged by an approach that says "anyone can do this"

The BBC offer a good precis of the report:

Physics especially suffered, the Lords science and technology committee said.

The problem was compounded by school league tables, "teaching to the test", poor labs, misplaced health and safety fears and a shortage of teachers.

[...]

One factor was simply fashion - with new options such as psychology, media studies and photography, which one witness to the committee said young people called "funky subjects".

For example, 50,000 students took psychology A-level in 2005, "significantly more than sat either Physics or Chemistry".

A more serious and fundamental problem was that traditional science subjects and maths were regarded as more difficult.

Not only that, there was evidence they actually were harder, the peers said.

The response from the Department for Education and Skills and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, that all A-levels were given equal weight, was "unconvincing".

"The Institute of Physics reported anecdotal evidence of schools 'actively discouraging students from taking subjects that could weaken their league table position' through lower A-level grades."

[...]

Lord Broers, the chairman of the Lord's committee which produced the report, said: "We call on the government to look again at a diploma or baccalaureate system, which would enable students to keep studying science and maths along with other subjects, reducing the tendency for them to drop science entirely for 'easier' subjects after their GCSEs.

[...]

The report also expressed concern that the new "light touch" Ofsted inspections would mean there would be no future evidence base on the quality of science teaching in schools.

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Blinded by the Light

1997 saw the battle cry of Education, Education, Education. Well, here we are nearly 10 years later and things haven't got much further than the "vision thing" that Bill Gates once advocated.

In 1963, a previous Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, called for a new Britain to be "forged in the white heat of this [technological] revolution".

Nearly half a century on, Tony Blair is to call for more of the same: more than ever, our economic future is through "the brilliant light of science".

The prime minister is a late convert to science.

[...]

Mr Blair has presided over a time where the numbers of young people studying physics and chemistry have dwindled by a fifth. And a quarter of schools have no qualified physics teachers.

This is a deficiency he acknowledges but says he's trying to put it right.

"We've got to invest in science far more as a country. The government is tripling investment in science - to recruit better science teachers - which is why we're offering all sorts of incentives for that to happen. We've got specialist science and technology colleges which we are creating."

However, investment is well short of the target set by the European Union's aim of being the "most competitive, dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world".

That's a statement from the EU's Lisbon Strategy which aims to match the US's research funding of about 3% of GDP by 2010.

Currently, Britain's is just over 1% with plans to increase to 2.5% by 2015.

Link: BBC Science/Nature.

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Scientists teleport two different objects - Oct 4, 2006

CNN.com reports that Scientists have managed a significant development in teleportation; this is one of those stories that may begin to look really, really important in retrospect.

Beaming people in "Star Trek" fashion is still in the realms of science fiction, but physicists in Denmark have teleported information from light to matter bringing quantum communication and computing closer to reality.

Until now scientists have teleported similar objects such as light or single atoms over short distances from one spot to another in a split second.

But Professor Eugene Polzik and his team at the Niels Bohr Institute at Copenhagen University in Denmark have made a breakthrough by using both light and matter.

"It is one step further because for the first time it involves teleportation between light and matter, two different objects. One is the carrier of information and the other one is the storage medium," Polzik explained in an interview on Wednesday.

The experiment involved for the first time a macroscopic atomic object containing thousands of billions of atoms. They also teleported the information a distance of half a meter but believe it can be extended further.

[...]

"It is really about teleporting information from one site to another site. Quantum information is different from classical information in the sense that it cannot be measured. It has much higher information capacity and it cannot be eavesdropped on. The transmission of quantum information can be made unconditionally secure," said Polzik whose research is reported in the journal Nature.

Quantum computing requires manipulation of information contained in the quantum states, which include physical properties such as energy, motion and magnetic field, of the atoms.

"Creating entanglement is a very important step, but there are two more steps at least to perform teleportation. We have succeeded in making all three steps -- that is entanglement, quantum measurement and quantum feedback," he added.

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Education Spending

The great imponderable in State education is where all the money actually goes...

There is a good breakdown of the headline figures from 2004 here which suggests that across the UK, funding for education is to rise to £77bn by 2007-08, up from £37bn in 1997 and £59bn in 2004.

If we rather generously assume that most people enjoy approximately 20 years of education (from, say, 3 to 23) - then we can calculate that approximately 25% of the population are in education of some sort (based on 20 years from 80 years life expectancy).

Which suggests that we distribute roughly £80 Billion across approximately 15 Million people each year. Approximately £5,000+ per head.

But as to where it all goes... well, apparently our own parliamentary Select Committee would like to know more as well.

MPs have questioned Chancellor Gordon Brown's Budget pledge to raise state school funding to the levels enjoyed by the independent school sector.

Mr Brown said he wanted funding per state school pupil to rise from £5,000 to £8,000, as in independent schools.

[...]

As well as criticising Mr Brown, the select committee's investigation into government funding for education criticised the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) for producing an annual report that failed to provide any comprehensive information on education spending.

[...]

The select committee's concerns echo those raised in July by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The institute [then] said that the lack of a date on Mr Brown's aspiration "left us little the wiser as to the outlook for spending per pupil". It estimated that it would cost £17bn to close the gap and that this would not be achieved before 2014.

[A DfeS spokesperson indicated that] by 2008, spending per pupil will have more than doubled from £2,650 to £5,750."

Link: BBC Education.

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Lies, Damn Lies and rather fewer Scientists

The "stagnating and falling" number of traditional science graduates has been masked by a growth in topics such as sports science, says the Royal Society.

The institution also said suggested increases in maths and biology degrees were "apparent rather than real".

It criticised the way figures were gathered, citing changes to how those doing combined subjects were counted.

[...]

The new figures suggest that the popularity of subjects such a sports science, forensic science and psychology is masking a drop in those taking first degrees in biology, said the Royal Society.

While there had been an increase in graduates taking subjects categorised by Hesa as the "biological sciences", in 2004/5 biology students accounted for just 17% of this group - down from 31% in 1994/5.

Psychology degrees represent 47% of this grouping, up from 33% ten years previously. Sports science graduates had also risen nine percentage points since 1994/5.

And the rise in computer science students accounted for a general increase in degrees being awarded in the sciences - up from 31% of all degrees in 1994/5 to 37% in 2004/5 - said the institution.

Discrepancies in figures on maths and biology degrees had also been uncovered, according to the report.

While Hesa's annual figures had suggested a rise in maths graduates of more than 35% in the 10 years from 1994/5, the re-analysis indicated this growth was just 7.4%. Likewise a cited increase in biology graduates of 12.8% was only 1.7% when counted differently.

Link: BBC NEWS | Education | Science degree numbers 'masked'.

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Tower of Babel: Machine shall speak unto Machine

If you think there is a lot of communication going on in the world at the moment, then you haven't understood the half-of-it...

The problem of compatibility between wireless devices is being addressed [by new developments in software].

Scientists are discussing what has been dubbed "Tower of Babel" technology - software that can converge different wireless gadgets into a single device.

The aim for Software Defined Radio (SDR) is to be able to translate and understand any kind of radio wave signal, such as 3G or wi-fi.

[...]

European space firm EADS-Astrium [is leading] research in this emerging field.

Francis Kinsella, a specialist engineer from the company, said: "If you were to go on a hill-walking trip, you might have a walkie-talkie to talk to friends who are not far away, a mobile in case of emergency, GPS, a Bluetooth connection and even a laptop or PDA with a wireless LAN connection.

"Every single one of these things is a radio, and they are all slightly different. But in the future, with Software Defined Radio, all you need is one thing that can do the job of all of these devices."

The idea behind SDR is that an aerial in the device picks up radio signals passing through the air waves. An analogue-to-digital converter transforms this signal into a digital format, which can be understood and manipulated by software onboard the device.

Currently, most devices rely on hardware, rather than software, to get at the information in radio signals.

Link: BBC Technology.

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The Tower of Babel: Nation shall speak Peace unto Nation

Appropriately enough, the BBC picks up on a New Scientist story about a "Tower of Babel" device that gives users the illusion of being bilingual.

My colleagues teaching Modern Languages are going to hate this but Douglas Adams would have loved it...

Users simply have to silently mouth a word in their own language for it to be translated and read out in another.

The researchers said the effect was like watching a television programme that had been dubbed.

The system, detailed in New Scientist, is not yet fully accurate, but experts said it showed the technology was "within reach".

The translation systems that are currently in use work by using voice recognition software. But this requires people to speak out loud and then wait for the translation to be read out, making conversations difficult.

But the new device, being created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, is different.

Electrodes are attached to the neck and face to detect the movements that occur as the person silently mouths words and phrases.

Using this data, a computer can work out the sounds being formed and then build these sounds up into words.

The system is then able to translate the words into another language which is read out by a synthetic voice.

The team currently has two prototypes: one that can translate Chinese into English and another that can translate English into Spanish or German.

The original story from New Scientist magazine, (issue 2575, 26 Oct 2006) offers some further insight into how the system works:

The team has developed a system that can recognise a potentially limitless lexicon. Their secret is to detect not just words but also the phonemes that form the building blocks of words. The system then uses these to reconstruct the word. To translate from English to another language, the user only has to train the system on the 45 phonemes used in spoken English.

The researchers use software that has been taught to recognise which phonemes are most likely to appear next to each other and in what order. When it encounters a string of phonemes it is unfamiliar with or has only partially heard, it uses this knowledge to come up with a range of sequences that make sense given the surrounding phonemes and words, assigns a probability to each one, and then picks the one with the highest probability.

It is worth noting that there is some related work being done here in England by Cambridge University's Machine Intelligence Laboratory.

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