Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

August, 2007

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Hackers @ Microsoft

    • 4 Comments

    What is a hacker? Could a real hacker possibly work at a company like Microsoft? Does Bill Gates know? 

    In my early days of computing a hacker was "someone who is curious and wants to learn how systems work." I borrowed that definition from a new blog called hackers at mirosoft.  The blog just opened yesterday and there is already a debate in the comments about the term "hackers."

    Hacking and cracking [into computer systems] were not always so closely related in people's minds. And in fact hacking was not always thought of as something only outlaws did. It was a more serious and respectful term for people who really dug into things. For people who were self taught and continuously learning though study, practice and hard work. Security was part of it but far from the totality of it. Hackers put together clever code, innovative tools, and looked at things in new and creative ways. To me the term has always included "top researchers in their industry, dedicated people working on the bleeding edge of what's going to be common place in the next 5 or 10 years of computing. " Now of course it has a whole different meaning to a lot of people.

    The hackers at Microsoft bloggers are "white hat" bloggers. That is to say they look for security flaws so as to help close them up. They are trying to make software more secure rather than to exploit holes. It looks like its going to be an interesting blog.

    I do think that students need to learn about security from the beginning of their education (self-education or formal education) so a site like this would appear to be useful there. It should also be useful for learning about some of out of the box thinking that goes on in the field.

    So check it out!

    BTW Bill Gates is pretty much as "hacker" as it gets. The man made his first money in computers by finding bugs in a timesharing operating system after all. So you could say that Microsoft is a company founded by hackers.

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  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Are You Reading This Blog From The Source?

    • 12 Comments

    Here is an interesting ethical question. Perhaps it is one worth discussing in class. I would welcome comments and discussion here as well. [Come on Alfred - get to the point. ed.]

    Well at least one and probably more web sites are reproducing content, including my blog, from blogs.msdn.com on their own sites. They are using the RSS feed to automatically update their sites with content written by other people.  If you are not reading this blog at http://blogs.msdn.com/alfredth then you are reading one of those copies. (Please come over and look at my site and think about subscribing directly if the other posts there look interesting. End of shameless plug begging for subscribers.)

    So what is the big deal? After all these people are not editing my copy and they are not taking credit for my work. And it is not like I am losing advertising dollars or that they are making big money from me either. Some of these sites have advertising and some don't. The one I am most aware of does not have advertising though it does have a button to donate via PayPal. And of course the main goal of this blog, promoting information of use to computer science teachers and others, is still being met. One could argue that having my content on other sites helps that goal.

    On the other hand authors lose out on some less tangible things when this wholesale copying takes place. I don't see traffic reports and hit counts from those other sites. That makes it harder for me to know how much interest there is in what I am writing. That is useful when I try to justify my time and effort - be it to my manager, my wife or just to myself. Also some links may go to those other sites rather than to this site. That effects how my content is found in search engines.  Some of these sites link back to the original source (which is good) but some of them do not and that is not so good for search engine traffic. I think that a lot of bloggers get a lot of their traffic via search engines. I know that I do.

    Probably the worst thing though is that there is potential for people to leave comments on these other sites that I may never see. People will think they are replying to me (or the author of another copied blog) and be dissatisfied when that person never replies. And of course the author of the post misses out on a potential conversation.

    This is not something I lose sleep over of course. But it is something to think about. Is it stealing? Is it helping? Are these people providing a service? (Note that anyone can subscribe to the main RSS feed at http://blogs.msdn.com without these other sites.) Just what is going on and is it ethical?

    Feel free to discuss. Actually please discuss and let me know what you think.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Will Cell Phones Save Education

    • 2 Comments

    There are a couple of different opinions of cell phones in schools. Some see them as basically evil tools of cheating and distraction. Many schools ban then outright. Some allow them but only with serious restrictions. (You can read some of that here.) And then there is the opposite view - cell phones have valid and important educational uses.

    Bill Gates has said a number of times that cell phones could be the low cost, low power way to get computing power into the hands of people, especially students, in the Third World. Recently I watched an interview with Professor Elliot Soloway from the University of Michigan who is actually doing some work with educational uses of cell phones.

    In the interview Prof. Soloway talks with enthusiasm about the idea but doesn't provide a lot of specifics. His company web site, he founded GoKnow Learning, though does have more information. It does seem that they are further along then I would have thought.

    Still, color me skeptical. Largely I worry about two things: Curriculum development and teacher training. GoKnow does provide some of both BTW. They have a consulting and training operation and I am sure they do a good job. On the other hand education as a field has a poor history of providing enough training for teachers or development of curriculum that leverages new technology.

    The idea behind educational technology is all too often to throw the technology into the hands of students (maybe let teachers use it) and some sort of education miracle will happen. This seems to be the idea behind the One Laptop Per Child project by the way.

    Everyone has stories of students who get a computer and do amazing things with them. I've repeated several of them myself. They can be inspiring. But the fact is that for every amazing student who hacks the iPhone so that he can change cell providers there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of kids who will never do anything like that without a lot of help from a teacher. The potential may be there but teachers are often the ones who bring it out.

    Sure you might get Larry Page, co-founder of Google, in your class, as Prof. Soloway did, and people could argue that they got to where they are today without depending too much on their teachers. But are you going to bet that happening with the majority of students? I don't think so. Let me spell something out on its own.

    Most students need good, well-trained, well-equipped teachers to help them learn. Only a few students are going to be wonderfully self-educated.

    There I said it. Handing a student an Internet capable device and a network connection may in theory give him access to the knowledge of the whole world but it is not going to turn him into the next Bill Gates, Larry Page or Steven Spielberg. (I had to through some "art" in there and some people seem to think that a digital camera and access to posting video on YouTube will create great movies.) Most people, the overwhelming majority, need teachers as well as books, curriculum and other resources.

    And by the way, we need a lot more and a lot better educational software to take advantage of any of this high technology stuff - smart phone or computer. Is there a lot more potential in computers and cell phones and who knows what other technology is coming? Absolutely! But it is no silver bullet yet.

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