Good and bad of the Olympics, so far

Good

The family and I went out to watch the Olympic women’s cycling road race yesterday.

Olympic women's road race, outboundOlympic women's road race

We watched them zip past on the way out of town, and then I stuck around to wave them back again in the hammering rain.

I really enjoyed it—you don’t get to see a great deal, but cheering people on in the rain gives you an uplifting sense of communal goodwill. Good crowd too, for two seconds of action on such a wet day.

Not so good

Linking to a photo on the Guardian website from Mike Blake of Reuters:

These soldiers, who were presumably in the Olympic park on security duty, have been called in to fill some of the premium seats left empty in an artistic gymnastics session. Other under-attended events at the weekend included swimming and diving sessions.

Gymnastics! Diving! You can be certain these events were over-subscribed with the general public.

As far as I can tell, the picture above is from the GA004 session on Sunday morning. That’s a session that we tried to get tickets for in the initial round of applications over a year ago. But, just as with all the other things we applied for in that round, we failed.

Still, looking on the bright side—those guys up there definitely deserve the seats more than the people they were actually allocated to.

Updating into oblivion

I updated my Nokia 700 today. It’s an unlocked, unbranded phone running Symbian Belle, that was advertised as having OS updates in February and April this year—but those updates never arrived. I eventually lost patience, and made the updates using underhand and possibly illegal tools. iPhone 4 (with bumper), Galaxy Nexus, Nokia 700

In an earlier post I said that I wasn’t too bothered about OS updates. For the most part that’s true. I don’t mind that my Android tablet (the original Galaxy Tab) hasn’t had an update since Android 2.3. I appreciate that Samsung gave some sign of having actually looked into whether an update would run well on it and decided that it wouldn’t. That puts me in a better position than friends with the iPhone 3 who had their devices rendered into sludge by an iOS update too far.

But Nokia—they really worked hard at winding me up. The February update didn’t just piddle about with the core OS, it also added some applications that I was genuinely interested in trying and that couldn’t be installed any other way. The April update didn’t mess about either, it actually increased the phone’s CPU clock speed. (How? Why was it lower to begin with?)

And for UK unlocked devices, they had two product codes: evidently the good and the bad. The good got the updates, and I had the bad. The bad didn’t get the updates.

So having waited until late July, I lost patience and re-flashed the thing.

I’m a bit cross about it because of, well, being put to such lengths and made to feel like I actually cared, about something so trivial.

On the other hand… a Nokia 700 with the latest Belle FP1 is a really nice phone. It’s hard to stay cross for long.

Neat, thin form factor, excellent screen, expandable storage and replaceable battery, physical buttons all well placed. Yes, it’s immaculately built… in Hungary, where Nokia laid off most of their workers at the end of last year.

With Belle FP1 and the faster clock speed, it’s smooth, straightforward and enjoyable to use. Sure there are some extra things I could still do with (integrated notifications of new email for example) but it’s for the first time a phone I could actually recommend to friends who liked the size and construction… running on an operating system cut adrift in February last year and effectively canned with Nokia’s last round of layoffs.

There aren’t as many good apps as on other platforms, but it does have a number of smooth Qt-based ones, including a few very slick and useful apps from Nokia, and it’s an attractive device for a Qt developer like me to think of developing for… if only there was an ecosystem around it and if only future devices were compatible… and if Nokia hadn’t abandoned Qt in their platform strategy twice, once with the switch to WP7 and again when refocusing on S40 a month ago.

Yep, the 700 is a wonderful example of what might have been.

I’m tempted to buy another as a spare, just because I like it so much and its future is so plainly bleak. I wonder how many of the services on it would stop working if Nokia went under?

Late Adopter

Although I’m pretty aware of new technology and products, and I do try to maintain that awareness, I’m not at all an early adopter.

I’ve found I have a pattern. Most of the time I learn about new things but actively resist engaging with them. I grumble about them for various minor offences, and then perhaps forget about them. Five years or so later, if they still exist, I finally get into them and discover that they were after all pretty good.

There are examples from lots of different spheres. New technology is the most obvious.

I was invited to Twitter by @clagnut around the end of 2006. I thought “why on earth would I want to use that?” and ignored it. I ignored it even when my wife invited me again early in 2008. Then finally, in May 2012—now that the interest in Twitter as a new thing has totally gone—I signed up and started using it. It’s pleasant to use. It’s undemanding. I quite like it.

I was fascinated by the iPhone when it first appeared. I could see that it was a neat device, but really, who would want to carry such a big thing with such terrible battery life? The last phone I had with such awful battery life was a Mitsubishi MT-20, which I lost in a hayloft during a good party in 1997. I couldn’t locate it the next day because the battery was dead.

So until the start of 2012 I held out with a Nokia 6303 (small, tactile, can stretch to a fortnight on one charge) before a change of mobile network forced a change of phone. Now I have a Nokia 700, which is a pretty good touchscreen phone (the most beautiful hardware with the most ordinary operating system) that at least fits in any pocket.

It works in other fields as well. In films, I’ve lost count of the number of good things I’ve actively avoided seeing at the cinema because they were too trendy, and have only learned the merits of later.

The principle even seems to have worked with books, and old ones. I’ve recently finished the two Berlin books of Christopher Isherwood, from the 1930s: a novel, “Mr Norris Changes Trains”, and a collection of sketches, “Goodbye to Berlin”. They’re really, wonderfully good. But I never bothered to read them when I lived as a student in Berlin in 1992, because other people were talking about them as settings for their own Berlin idea, and that was just too obvious.

It probably works out both ways. My ego won’t let me participate, and I miss out on things that I only later realise were worthwhile. But I also miss out on things that aren’t so great, or that I really didn’t need. Even if I do discover the wonders of the iPad later, I won’t ever regret that I didn’t buy the iPad 1 or 2. And I’ll never feel bad for having steered clear of Avatar or Jurassic Park at the pictures.

Hyvästi, Sibelius

This week saw the sad news that the UK office responsible for development of the music score-writing software Sibelius is to be closed down.

Maintenance of the software will be moved elsewhere, at least according to its owners Avid, the former video-editing software company that expanded madly throughout the professional audio and video world during the 2000s and now seems to be running out of money and ideas. I’m not sure I believe that much maintenance will happen.

Sibelius is a funny one for me.

I feel fond of it, because I remember its origins in the tail-end of the British homebrew software revolution of the 80s. It was developed by British students three or four years older than me for the Archimedes computer, a machine used almost exclusively in schools. Though I had left school for university before Sibelius arrived, I was still in touch with music teachers and I remember their delight with it. It was one of the most exceptional software products ever made.

More recently, for me as a developer, the SoundSoftware workshop we organised at work had a presentation from Paul Walmsley of Sibelius which hit very close to home—I wrote about it here—as he contrasted the things he knew now about software engineering with what he knew as a PhD student and earlier work on Sibelius. It’s clear that the current Sibelius team are very effective software engineers, and I would be extremely interested to see Sibelius on a CV if I were hiring developers now.

There are other, minor reasons to think of it warmly. I always liked its squidgy music font with the wide note heads. I liked the way it played a tiny clip from the appropriately-numbered Sibelius symphony on startup. I liked the way Charles Lucy when he accosted us as Linux trade shows used to refer to the Finn brothers as if they were old English eccentrics in his mould that he bumped into every other week. I liked the way seemingly every academic in computer music used to cite “you know, those Sibelius folks in Cambridge” as a possible model for their students’ future livelihood.

On the other hand, Sibelius hasn’t been especially good for me and mine.

When I was working on the notation editor in Rosegarden, one thing that motivated me was that so few people could afford to buy Sibelius. (The full version has always cost around £600; there are cut-down editions now, but there was nothing then unless you were registered as a student, which I haven’t been since 1994.) When Richard and I started a small company to sell products based on Rosegarden, even as I was trying (ultimately unsuccessfully) to turn Rosegarden’s notation editor into a full score editor that magically retained human performance timing, I was unable to compare my work properly against Sibelius because our shoestring company simply couldn’t afford to buy a copy. While it may be good that a potential competitor can’t afford your product, it’s probably not good that individuals with aspirations in general can’t.

Meanwhile, even as Sibelius was too expensive for personal use without piracy, it was cheap and available and competent enough to be totally disruptive in traditional music typesetting livelihoods. My cousin-in-law Michael, typesetter to the ABRSM and Boosey & Hawkes (as Barnes Music Engraving Ltd) whom I interviewed in 2004 as a professional typesetter, was seeing business disappear to bedroom typesetters with Sibelius; he left the business entirely a few years later.

Finally, after it had cut the legs off all its competition, the most frustrating thing about Sibelius is that it ended up being sold to a video production company who never seemed quite sure what to do with it, took half-measures in the new world of trivially-priced but widely-distributed mobile apps, and saw initially absurd upstarts like NoteFlight take a lot of the ground-level enthusiasm from it.

I would probably have done the same, in their position. But just as I find it hard to read poetry or prose that I could imagine having written, and hard to listen to singing that sounds like my own reedy and tentative voice, so I find it difficult to forgive companies making the same mistakes as I would have made.

(I’m afraid the formal-goodbye-in-Finnish in the title is entirely courtesy of Google—I’m sure there’s some grammar missing there, even though it is only two words. If you speak Finnish, let me know what I should have written.)