Actual physical objects made of stuff · Things that Are Gone · Things where Someone Else Is Doing All The Work

A film camera

I take a lot of photos and I share some of them online via the antique medium of Flickr. Not many people look at them, which I don’t mind, because I imagine my audience to be (a) family and (b) myself, later. Photos I take with people in them are usually visible only to my friends and family. I’m a person who takes photographs, not a photographer.

But I do take some joy in the practice of photography. That’s partly because I can: at my level, there is very little to it: somebody else has done all the hard work. There is massive, long-term, highly technically sophisticated labour behind every functional detail of image capture and reproduction, which all culminates, for routine takers-of-photos like me, in pressing a button or tapping the screen and deciding whether you like the resulting image or not. It’s a ritual that has delivered a spurious feeling of creativity to people for decades, prefiguring the internet age.

There are four categories of potential joy in a photo, and they go in this order:

  1. Looking at whatever it is you’re thinking of taking a photo of
  2. Solving technical problems, or just fiddling with the camera
  3. Enjoying the picture itself
  4. Finding the pic again later and reminiscing

Obviously, photos of your friends in the pub can skip categories 1 (except in a social sense) and 2. Very deliberate landscape photos might have a lot of categories 1, 2, and 3 but not a great deal of category 4. Please understand that I am vaguely blathering about this category thing because it seemed to make sense while I was typing this, not because I think it’s any kind of real system.

I started out taking photos on film, then moved to a digital camera in 2003. By then a digital camera already gave you more pleasure in the likely quality and serendipity of your pictures, good for categories 3 and 4 above. I did keep a film SLR — a Zenit EM, the cheapest second-hand SLR available when I bought it in 1991 — but it’s very clumsy to use, and the category-2 joy you would imagine getting from it never really materialised.

In search of that sort of joy, I recently bought a slightly fancier second-hand film camera from someone on eBay. I wanted something still mostly manual, but more like the kind of thing I never had access to when young. I decided to buy a Minolta, and I’m not ashamed to say that was mostly because I like the old Minolta logo, before they introduced the more familiar Saul Bass-designed all-caps logotype in 1981. The older logo is verging on Comic Sans in its friendliness, and gives the camera a sweet face:

Minolta XG-9

This manual-focus, manual-aperture, automatic exposure Minolta XG-9 dates from about 1980. It was the cheaper of Minolta’s two SLR ranges at the time; the body probably cost slightly more than a 48K ZX Spectrum home computer. It would have been a nice and very practical camera. It also embodies a mind-boggling amount of mechanical complexity compared with modern equipment. To the right is a schematic of the winder mechanism, one of dozens of such illustrations found in the service manual. Winder schematic for XG-9

It was sold to me with a lens at least a decade older than the camera, a splendid-looking chunk of metal with an impressive (and apparently rather 1960s) wide front glass element.

Anyway, I bought this for my category 2, the fiddling. But so far what I’ve appreciated most is the thing I gave as category 1: just looking at the real scene more closely. Without a screen to review photos on, you have to assume that your photo will fail and you will never get to see this again. If an image should appear again, days later when you get the film processed, it’s a fresh delight.

The downside is that the economics of successful photos still apply. That is, only one in ten shots is any good. With a smartphone or digital camera you can take a hundred photos and have ten you really like. With film you buy a 36-photo roll, get three or four decent photos, but have to visit the print shop twice and spend at least £15 buying and developing the film. (Though I was surprised to find that you can still get film processed at Snappy Snaps.)

And how are the photos? Well, it’s a bit like listening to vinyl records. It’s nice for things that benefit from a bit of roughness and vigour, like this kind of thing:

Westbourne Terrace

(That one wanted a lens hood to prevent the flares in the middle and right, but I didn’t have one at the time.)

Or for snaps of people:

41329457102_3b09963088_c

I like both of those a lot, but I’ve yet to get any really successful landscape or “still-life” pics from it and I suspect I never will, now that I’m used to a cleaner, higher resolution digital image.

Will I be using it much? Am I going to carry it around everywhere, but take far fewer and more selective photos than I otherwise might? Probably not, but it might not be up to me anyway. These are fairly solid cameras, but this one is nearly 40 years old and has a few electronic bits as well as sensitive mechanical parts. They do fail in various ways and I don’t entirely trust that it’s going to be still working the next time I want to use it. That primitive but sturdy Zenit will probably have the last laugh.

 

Music · Things that Are Gone

Bowie

Here’s a playlist of good David Bowie songs that I had never heard until after he died last week.

Spotify playlist
YouTube links:
Dead Against It (1993)
Up The Hill Backwards (1980)
Move On (1979)
Dancing With The Big Boys (1984) (with Iggy Pop)
I Would Be Your Slave (2002)
Girl Loves Me (2016)
You’ve Been Around [Dangers 12″] (1993) (Jack Dangers remix)
Nite Flights (1993) (Scott Walker cover)
No Control (1995)
Bring Me The Disco King (2003)
I’m Deranged (1995)
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (2002)

Most of these came out after the peak of his popularity, but they aren’t obscure at all — I was just never a fan.

The first Bowie songs I remember hearing on the radio were Modern Love and Let’s Dance, both released in 1983 when I was eleven. I thought those two were fine, though they weren’t the sort of thing I liked to think I was into at the time. (I had a big Motörhead war-pig patch on my little denim jacket. Lemmy’s death was also the end of an era.)

A few years later, a cousin introduced me to some of the Spiders from Mars period songs like Rebel Rebel and Suffragette City. I was a bit puzzled because I thought I knew Bowie as a smooth, modern 80s-sounding chap. But I didn’t get the appeal either: too much like everything else from the early 70s. Rebel Rebel even sounded like the Stones, which was definitely my dad’s music.

Back in the real timeline of the 80s, Bowie was releasing Never Let Me Down, an album seen everywhere (one of several awful record covers) but seldom played, then launching the drearily adult Tin Machine.

His next album, Black Tie White Noise, didn’t come out until 1993, when I was briefly in Berlin as a student and mostly listening to industrial music and obscure things I read about in Usenet groups. If I had been aware that David Bowie had an album out, I would certainly have ignored it. By the time of 1997’s Earthling, a jungle-influenced album released a whole two years after peak jungle with a dreadful Cool Britannia cover, it felt socially impossible to admit to liking a Bowie song ever again. And that was pretty much the end of that.

There’s been a David Bowie album, collaboration, tour, or retrospective for almost every year of my life, and I’ve never taken more than a passing interest in any of them.

I was taken by surprise, then, by how emotional I felt about his death.

***

What did eventually make me notice David Bowie as a figure was the connection with Iggy Pop. I think Iggy is brilliant, and I’d been a bit of a fan for a while before I eventually twigged what it was that his most interesting stuff had in common. That made me aware of the famously dramatic and productive spell for those two in Berlin the late 70s (the only albums of Bowie’s that I ever actually bought are from this period) and also an opening to a bit of a web of interesting collaborations and influences.

(Going back during the past week and filling in a lot of the songs of Bowie’s that I’ve missed during the last few decades, it’s been particularly fun to hear Iggy Pop numbers, er, pop up all over the place. China Girl — always an Iggy song to me — is well known, but there are at least three other albums that recycle songs previously recorded by him, including a straight cover of the flop lead single from Iggy’s most foolish album. A sustained friendship.)

***

So something of the emotion for me has to do with all that Berlin stuff. There are two aspects to that. One is the grubbily romantic idea of “pressure-cooker” West Berlin, seen from a distance as a place of hideouts, drugs, spying, longing, separation, and any other melodrama that “we” could project onto it. I’m sure this version of the city was overstated for lyrical purposes, but it probably did exist to a degree. The Berlin that fascinated and frightened me in 1993 was already a very different city, and both versions are hardly visible in today’s shiny metropolis.

The other aspect is the notion that moving to a different town in a different country could give you a new life and make your past disappear, even for someone already so celebrated — that it could really be so simple. What makes that idea available here is that Bowie didn’t just go, but then produced such different work after going that it really could appear as if his past had not gone with him.

This impression of self-effacement alongside all the self-promotion, the ability to erase the past, is a very attractive one for a pop star, and it fits also with the amount of collaborative work Bowie did. From some of the videos you can imagine that he was never happier than when playing keyboards or doing tour production for Iggy, singing backing vocals in a one-off with Pink Floyd, or playing second fiddle to Freddie Mercury or Mick Jagger.

Things that Are Gone

Perl 6

I see the official release of the Perl 6 language specification happened on Christmas day.

The first piece of commercial web development I did was in Perl 5. A lot of people can probably say the same thing. This one was a content-management system led by James Elson in 1999 at PSWeb Ltd, a small agency in Farringdon that renamed itself to Citria and expanded rapidly during 1999-2001 before deflating even more rapidly when the dotcom bust arrived.

My recollection was that this particular CMS only ever had one customer, the BBC, who used it only for their very small Digital Radio site. But I still have a copy of the code and on inspection it turns out to have some comments that must have been added during a later project, so perhaps it did get deployed elsewhere. It was a neat, unambitious system (that’s a good thing, James is a tasteful guy) that presented a dynamic inline-editing blocks-based admin interface on a backend URL while generating static pages at the front end.

I remember there was an open question, for a time, about whether the company should pursue a product strategy and make this first CMS, or something like it, the basis of its business, or else take up a project strategy and use whatever technology from whichever provider seemed most appropriate for each client. The latter approach won out. It’s interesting to speculate about the other option.

(I like to imagine that the release of Perl 6 is sparking tiresome reminiscences like this from ageing programmers across the world.)

Perl 6 looks like an interesting language. (It’s a different language from Perl 5, not compatible with it.) The great strength of Perl was of course its text-processing capacity, and for all the fun/cute/radically-unmaintainable syntax showcased on the Perl 6 site, it’s clear that that’s still a big focus. Perl 6 appears to be the first language to attempt to do the right thing with Unicode from the ground up: that is, to represent text as Unicode graphemes, rather than byte strings (like C/C++), awkward UTF-16 sequences (Java), or ISO-10646 codepoint sequences (Python 3). This could, in principle, mean your ad-hoc botched-together text processing script in Perl 6 has a better chance of working reliably across multilingual inputs than it would in any other language. Since plenty of ad-hoc botched-together text processing still goes on in companies around the world, that has the feel of a good thing.

Computers · Operating systems · Things That Are A Bit Like Other Things · Things that Are Gone

Windows Phone: a bit like BeOS

Today’s possibly stretching-a-point Technology Analogy

In a previous article I compared the situation of Windows 8 on the desktop to that of OS/2 in the late 80s.

Windows Phone 8 is in a different position. While Windows 8 gets its awkwardness from the need to provide compatibility with the dominant platform—which in this case means earlier versions of Windows—the dominant platforms competing with Windows Phone are iOS and Android. And it’s totally incompatible with both.

So, why choose Windows Phone? Not because it has greater capabilities, all in all, than its competition. It doesn’t have any very significant platform-exclusive applications. It isn’t any more open (in either a useful or fun kind of way). There are two reasons you might choose it: a preference for its interaction design, or integration with some networked services.

BeOS is an operating system dating from the mid-90s developed, according to Wikipedia, “on the principles of clarity and a clean, uncluttered design”. (Sounds familiar?) It was pretty to look at and nice to use. It had decent networking support and made good use of the hardware available to it.

But it was always going to have niche appeal. By the time of its release, Windows 95 was dominant and generally tolerated by mass-market users, while Unix-based operating systems like Linux, FreeBSD, and NeXTSTEP were working their way down from higher-end workstations with hacker appeal. BeOS was incompatible, no cheaper, no more open, and ultimately more limited by lack of useful applications. It remains a likeable curio.

 

Code · Things that Are Gone

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.)