Journalist’s First-Person Plural

Mark Easton for the BBC:

Do we have a completely mistaken view of what our landscape is like? … The lesson might be that we need to celebrate the truth about our green and pleasant land. Or perhaps it simply tells us we really should get out more.

This is a great example of what I think of as the Journalist’s First-Person Plural, that is, using “we” to mean “I, and the friend I spoke to while writing this”.

The article opens,

What proportion of Britain do you reckon is built on? By that I mean covered by buildings, roads, car parks, railways, paths and so on – what people might call “concreted over”. Go on – have a guess.

My wild guess was about one percent. So the actual figure of 2.27% for England, or 1.48% for the UK as a whole, seems rather worse than I’d hoped. I don’t really understand why we are supposed to find these figures surprisingly low, but then, I’m also only a sample of one.

(The area of the UK is a bit less than 250,000 km², so 2.5 × 105 km² or 2.5 × 1011 m². If 1% of it were built on and half of that was residential, that would be about 1.2 × 109 m² for 6 × 107 inhabitants, which is about 20 square metres each. My family of four lives in a flat of about 120 square metres which is one of six stacked on a single plot of land, so my instinct is to find that pretty believable. I didn’t do those sums until afterwards, though.)

Still, the rhetorical trick clearly worked on me—it’s got me reading the article and downloading the paper it describes, and I’m really keen to find out what else is in it. So perhaps it’s all for the good.

Video format failures

Michael Mulvey writes to object to Microsoft’s Windows Phone Summit video, which asks for the Silverlight plugin in order to play in his browser.

Normally I’d roll my eyes with him at Microsoft, but as it happens, the video plays fine for me even though I’m not running Windows and don’t have Silverlight. They appear to be using an HTML video element with mp4 video. Did they change it after he posted?

Meanwhile—just for snark’s sake, this is what I get when I try to view any of Apple’s WWDC videos:

I wonder what sound technical reason lies behind this.

Windows Phone 8 and Nokia

Microsoft formally announced Windows Phone 8 yesterday.

There were some interesting technical details in the announcement: it permits running native code, will apparently support individual app distribution centres for corporate users, and has a less boring home screen.

They also confirmed, as expected, that there will be no upgrades from Windows Phone 7.

I’m not sure this will be such a big deal for existing users. I think it’s easy to overstate how much users generally care about updates, and at least this way there is certainty—in contrast to Nokia’s update mechanism for Symbian which involved announcing the update first, then rolling it out to devices over a period of months or in some cases not at all.

It can’t help the sales potential of current devices though.

What are Nokia trying to sell?

Looking at Nokia’s UK site now, it shows 24 phones (that’s down from 105 phones and a laptop, just before the February 2011 reshuffle).

Of those 24, four run the Windows Phone 7 whose non-upgradeable successor was just announced.

A further four, I think, run variants of Symbian. The most up-to-date (Belle) was recently effectively canned. But hey, only one phone ships with that anyway—the rest come with even more out-of-date variants.

The remaining 16, if I’m counting correctly, run the S40 Java-mobile feature phone platform and are presumably sold at pretty thin margins.

Nokia are I suppose hoping to have WP8 phones out by Christmas. That’ll be nearly two years after their “burning platforms” strategic reset, and they’ll be pretty much back where they started: abandoning three legacy platforms, pinning their hopes on a new one starting from zero market share. How much cash have they got left?

SoundSoftware 2012 Workshop

Yesterday the SoundSoftware project, which I help to run, hosted the SoundSoftware 2012 Workshop at Queen Mary. This was a one-day workshop about working practices for researchers developing software and experiences they have had in software work, with an eye to subjects of interest to audio and music researchers.

You can read about the workshop at the earlier link; I’d just like to mention two talks that I found particularly interesting. These were the talk from Paul Walmsley followed by that of David Gavaghan.

Paul is a long-serving senior developer in the Sibelius team at Avid (a group I’m interested in already because of my former life working on the notation editor aspects of Rosegarden: Sibelius was always the gold standard for interactive notation editing). He’s an articulate advocate of unit testing and of what might be described as a decomposition of research work in such a way as to be able to treat every “research output” (for example, presenting a paper) as an experiment demanding reproducibility and traceable provenance.

Usefully, he was able to present ideas like these as simplifying concerns, rather than as arduous reporting requirements. At one point he remarked that he could have shaved six months off his PhD if he had known about unit testing at the time—a remark that proved a popular soundbite when we quoted it through the SoundSoftware tweeter.

(I have an “if only I’d been doing this earlier” feeling about this as well: Rosegarden now contains hundreds of thousands of lines of essentially untested code, much of which is very fragile. Paul noted that much of the Sibelius code also predates this style of working, but that they have been making progress in building up test cases from the low-level works upward.)

David Gavaghan took this theme and expanded on it, with the presentation of his biomedical project Chaste (for “cancer, heart, and soft tissue environment”). This remarkable project, from well outside the usual field we usually hear about in the Centre for Digital Music, was built from scratch in a test-driven development process—which David refers to as “testfirst”. It started with a very short intensive project for a number of students, which so exercised the people involved that they voluntarily continued work on it up to its present form: half a million lines of code with almost 100% test coverage that has proven to avoid many of the pitfalls found in other biomedical simulation software.

Repairable laptops

The new MacBook Pro has prompted some argument about how repairable a laptop should be. Its screen can’t be detached from the protective glass, the RAM is soldered in, and the solid-state drive uses some sort of obscure (proprietary?) connector.

The mainstream article prompting this is here from Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit. I use and enjoy iFixit, and I’m broadly sympathetic to this point of view.

Dissenting views from Christina Warren, John Gruber, Nick Chaves.

There are some things in all of these that I find a bit odd.

Kyle Wiens:

The success of the non-upgradeable Air empowered Apple to release the even-less-serviceable iPad two years later: The battery was glued into the case.

I don’t think Apple were waiting to see whether people would mind not being able to upgrade the Air before releasing the iPad. This idea of testing consumer response like that doesn’t ring true to me. I think Apple knew at the outset that upgradeability and repairability were among the things people cared least about.

Christina Warren:

If you buy a car today, you can’t self-service it the same way you could in 1992… the fact that computers are now powerful enough to be built more as appliances is great news

True enough about cars, but laptops have always been harder to service than most common appliances. I’ve repaired our dishwasher, washing machine, bits of stereo equipment, and various pieces of household lighting and electricals over the years—and I don’t know anything about dishwashers or washing machines. Laptops are becoming less like most appliances, not more.

What laptops are becoming more like is TVs. Is that good? Is it also good that TVs are less repairable than they used to be?

John Gruber:

That’s the world’s tiniest violin, playing a sad song for the third-party repair and upgrade industry.

I don’t think I knew there was a third-party repair and upgrade industry. At least, not a big one. I guess it’s iFixit.

Nick Chaves:

My 2008 MacBook Pro did get a not-totally-necessary battery replacement after a year, but my 2010 has run strong for two years. I’d expect nothing less from the Airs or new MacBook Pro. So short-lived might be a relative characterization if anything

I’d expect any decent laptop to last two years, but he does also say

I don’t take enough laptops through to the end of their life to be a representative sample

I do generally take laptops through to the end of their life, or at least I seldom get rid of them. Since my youngest laptop is now over two years old, I thought I’d make a little tally of how they’ve got on and how much I’ve repaired or upgraded.

Some of these are mine, some my wife’s. In chronological order of manufacture:

Sony Vaio R600MX (2002)

Still working, but not used any more

Upgraded RAM from 256 to 384MB. Upgraded hard disc (can’t remember the figures). Replaced the battery. I loved this laptop and used it for about five years.

IBM Thinkpad T40p (2003)

Still working and still in use

This is my main machine for writing papers on at work. (It has the best screen for writing.) I bought it fairly recently, upgraded the hard drive to an SSD, installed more memory, and replaced the keyboard and wrist rest. I love the fact that these machines were built with glyphs inscribed on the bottom telling you which screws to undo to get at particular components.

There, I’ve totally revealed my bias now.

Fujitsu Amilo-A (2005)


My least-favourite laptop and the only one I’ve ever sold. I never fixed or upgraded anything on this one.

Dell Latitude D420 (2007)

Still working and still in occasional use

These were great little machines, except for the 1.8″ hard drive which was appallingly slow.

I switched the hard drive to an SSD in 2009, but it failed and I couldn’t find another supplier to replace it affordably so I put the original drive back in. I also upgraded the RAM, replaced the keyboard assembly after some keys failed, bought an extended battery, and replaced both standard and extended batteries. The replacement batteries were all unbranded.

Sony Vaio SZ-1 (2007)

Still working and still in use

My wife’s current main work computer. Upgraded the RAM and fixed a sticky trackpad button, otherwise it’s still working much as new.

Apple 15″ MacBook Pro (2007)

Still working and still in use

The silver MacBook Pro keyboard is surely the best there’s ever been on an Apple laptop. The battery on this one failed: its original battery was replaced in a recall, but the replacement failed more recently. It won’t hold more than a few minutes charge. The machine is still going fine, but we always plug it in rather than springing for a new battery.

Had to replace the power supply after the connector frayed, but that didn’t involve opening the computer.

IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad T60 (2007)

Still working and still in use

My current main work computer. This is another one I bought recently. Upgraded the hard drive to an SSD, exchanged the keyboard for a better one found on eBay. I’m typing this on it.

Sony Vaio Z (2010)

Still working and still in use

I have never had cause to open this one.

Of course, I opened it anyway. Just to see. I might replace something some time, just because I can.