20 December 2012

An absorbing, challenging vision of near-future struggles

nexus-75-dpiTechnology can cause carnage, and in the wake of the carnage, outrage.

Take the sickening example of the shooting dead of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. After that fearful carnage, it’s no surprise that there are insistent calls to restrict the availability of powerful automatic guns.

There are similar examples of carnage and outrage in the new science fiction novel “Nexus: mankind gets an upgrade”, by the noted futurist and writer Ramez Naam.

I met Ramez at the WorldFuture 2012 event in Toronto earlier this year, where he gave a presentation on “Can Innovation Save the Planet?” which I rated as one of the very best sessions in the midst of a very good conference. I’ve been familiar with the high calibre of his thinking for some time, so when I heard that his new book Nexus was available for download to my Kindle – conveniently just ahead of me taking a twelve-hour flight – I jumped at the chance to purchase a copy. It turned out to be a great impulse purchase decision. I finished the book just as the airplane wheels touched down.

The type of technology that is linked to carnage and outrage in Nexus can be guessed from the image on the front cover of the book – smart drugs. Of course, drugs, like guns, are already the source of huge public debate in terms of whether to restrict access. Events described in Nexus make it clear why certain drugs become even more controversial, a few short decades ahead, in this fictional but all-too-credible vision of the near future.

Back in the real world, public interest in smart drugs is already accelerating:

  • I hear more and more discussions when people talk about taking nootropics of one sort or another – to help them “pull an all-nighter”, or to be especially sharp and mentally focused for an important interview. These comments often get followed up by reflections on whether these drugs might convey an unfair advantage.
  • The 2011 film Limitless – which I reviewed in passing here – helped to raise greater public awareness of the potential of this technology.
  • Audience attendance (and the subsequent online debate) at the recent London Futurist event “Hacking our wetware, with Andrew Vladimirov”, convinced me that public appetite for information on smart drugs is about to greatly intensify.

And as discussion of the technology of smart drugs increases, so (quite rightly) does discussion of the potential downsides and drawbacks of that technology.

Nexus is likely to ratchet this interest even higher. The technology in the novel doesn’t just add a few points of IQ, in a transitory basis, to the people who happen to take it. It goes much further than that. It has the potential to radically upgrade humans – with as big a jump in evolution (in the course of a few decades) as the transition between apes and humans. And not everyone likes that potential, for reasons that the book gradually makes credible, through sympathetic portrayals of various kinds of carnage.

Nexus puts the ideas of transhumanism and posthumanism clearly on the map. And lots more too, which I shouldn’t say much about, to avoid giving away the plot and spoiling the enjoyment of new readers.

But I will say this:

  • My own background as a software engineer (a profession I share with Ramez Naam) made me especially attuned to the descriptions of the merging of computing science ideas with those of smart drugs; other software engineers are likely to enjoy these speculations too
  • My strong interest in the battle of ideas about progress made me especially interested in inner turmoil (and changes of mind) of various key characters, as they weighed up the upsides and downsides of making new technology more widely available
  • My sympathy for the necessity of an inner path to enlightenment, to happen in parallel with increasingly smart deployment of increasingly powerful technology, meant that I was intrigued by some of the scenes in the book involving meditative practices
  • My status as an aspiring author myself – I’m now about one third of the way through the book I’m writing – meant that I took inspiration from seeing how a good author can integrate important ideas about technology, philosophy, societal conflict, and mental enlightenment, in a cracking good read.

Ramez is to be congratulated on writing a book that should have wide appeal, and which will raise attention to some very important questions – ahead of the time when rapid improvements of technology might mean that we have missed our small window of opportunity to steer these developments in ways that augment, rather than diminish, our collective humanity.

Anyone who thinks of themselves as a futurist should do themselves a favour and read this book, in order to participate more fully in the discussions which it is bound to catalyse.

Footnote: There’s a lot of strong language in the book, and “scenes of an adult nature”. Be warned. Some of the action scenes struck me as implausible – but hey, that’s the same for James Bond and Jason Bourne, so that’s no showstopper. Which prompts the question – could Nexus be turned into a film? I hope so!

2 December 2012

Let It Be at the Prince of Wales Theatre – Beatles stream of consiciousness

Filed under: fun, healthcare, music, theatre — David Wood @ 11:03 am

“For our last number I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry”

These were the words used by John Lennon, on stage for the Royal Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales theatre in central London on 4th November 1963, to introduce the last number of the set played by the Beatles. The packed audience included the British royal family. Black and white archive film of the set exists:

That moment was part of a period of a few months when the phenomenon of “Beatlemania” burst into the public consciousness. As told by Beatles historian Bruce Spizer,

By September 1963, The Beatles were gaining coverage in the British press and were receiving tremendous radio and television exposure. But their big break through was a widely-watched and well-publicized television appearance on “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium”, which was televised throughout the U.K. during prime time Sunday evening and was the British equivalent of “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The Beatles headlined the Oct. 13, 1963, Palladium show, which was seen by more than 15 million people. The bedlam caused by the group both inside and outside the theater caught the attention of British news editors, who elevated The Beatles from a successful entertainment act to a national news phenomenon. The Daily Mirror described the hysteria as “Beatlemania!” The term stuck.

The Beatles’ triumphant Palladium appearance was quickly followed by the Oct. 31 airport reception witnessed by Sullivan and their playing before British high society at the Royal Command Performance, also known as the Royal Variety Show. Their presence on the Nov. 4, 1963, show drew more attention than the arrival of Royal Family. The Beatles, who were seventh on the bill of 19 acts, impressed the upscale crowd with “She Loves You”, “Till There Was You”, “From Me To You” and “Twist and Show”. Prior to ripping into a rousing rendition of their closing rocker, Lennon said, “For our last number I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” While [Beatles manager Brian] Epstein viewed John’s remarks as being a bit risque, he was relieved that the crowd seemed charmed by the Beatle’s cheeky humor. Before the show, John had joked to Brian that he was going to ask the Royals to rattle their “fookin’ jewelry.”

Nearly fifty years later, the show “Let It Be”, playing at the very same Prince of Wales theatre, re-created a great deal of the same music, musicianship, and mannerisms of the original act. Including the jewelry quip.

LetItBeI had the great pleasure of viewing the show last night – and it was, indeed, a great pleasure.

There’s no plot. It’s simply a group of four musicians who look and sound remarkably similar to the original Beatles, playing a series of sets of fabulous music, interspersed (allowing the band a chance to change clothing – and wigs) with archive news footage, mock advertisements conveying a wistful sense of the 1960s, and audio excerpts of retrospective interviews by the Beatles.

The show progresses through segments (each with their own clothing and hairstyles)

  • the 1963 Royal Variety Show era,
  • a set from the 1965 Shea Stadium concert – where the Beatles had played to an audience of more than 55,000
  • a Sergeant Pepper segment
  • a flower power segment featuring All You Need is Love, Magical Mystery Tour, and more
  • a quieter section, with the group members seated for evocative melodies such as Norwegian Wood and Blackbird
  • an Abbey Road segment, culminating in a powerful rendition of The End
  • a final encore – including (of course) Let It Be, as well as a fore-taste of forthcoming solitary careers: Give Peace A Chance.

I offer a few thoughts from my stream of consciousness during the performance:

  • On either side of the stage, large screens showed images to frame the main actions. The young women who were shouting and screaming with such hysteria must in many cases be grandmothers by now – I wonder if they know their images are still delighting London audiences, nearly fifty years after their rush of blood was captured on camera
  • The vibrant twanging of Get Back mentally transported me back in time to April 1969, when I remember being enthralled, as a very naive ten-year old, by that song playing on Top of The Pop: “Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman, But she was another man…”
  • The vocals to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life were, if anything, even more trippy than in the original
  • Actually the audience seemed bemused and unsure about A Day in the Life, with many of them showing blank faces as the cacophony grew – I guess this song is nothing like as well known nowadays. And the clincher: half the audience started applauding the end of this song too soon, before that final apocalyptic multi-piano E Major chord rang out, woops
  • Perhaps another sign of the differentially fading memories of the Beatles music – the audience were happy to rise to its feet to sway along to Twist and Shout in the opening section, but when a similar request was made to stand up during Sgt Pepper Reprise, everyone sat stuck in their seats
  • A nice touch of fidelity in the Abbey Road segment – the “Paul McCartney” character was barefoot on stage – as on the Abbey Road album cover photo
  • For sheer musicianship, the guitar crescendo at the end of While My Guitar Gently Weeps was outstanding; that has always been one of my favourite Beatles tracks – particularly in its remastered version on the Love album remix – but it seemed particularly dramatic on stage this evening.

With such a rich music portfolio to choose from, inevitably many favourites have to be excluded from the two-hour show. Personally I would have missed out one or two of the tracks chosen, in order to find room for glorious stomping classics such as Lady Madonna, Hello Goodbye, The Walrus, or Back In the USSR.  For example, I’ve probably heard Hey Jude enough times already in my life, but its iconic status presumably meant it needed to be included.

Is this the show with the best set of music ever? Seeing that the competition includes Mamma Mia (with its feast of Abba hits), Westside Story (with its feast of Bernstein), and Amadeus (with its feast of Mozart), the answer is perhaps not – but it was still a tremendous occasion, providing a welcome break from thoughts about futurism, existential risk, free markets, and mobile phone technology!

Footnote: But I could not forget about mobile phone technology altogether that evening. On the way home, my companion found that her London Travel Card was being systematically rejected by tube turnstiles – again. That’s despite having bought the ticket only a few hours earlier. It’s by no means the first occurrence for her. “Is it OK to carry my travel card here, right next to my mobile phone, in this small section of my handbag?” she asked. “That is exactly the problem”, I answered – and there seems to be plenty of knowledge of this problem online. And the Beatles music faded out of my mind, to be replaced by thoughts on the health implications of proximity of mobile phones to the human body.

28 February 2009


Filed under: communications, fun, retrospection — David Wood @ 1:16 pm

The invitation made good sense to me:

Apologies for the short notice but are you free tomorrow afternoon [Friday] after 3pm to meet with us to provide your feedback on MWC please? It should only take 30 mins or so.

It would be a chance to discuss with the Symbian Foundation marcomms team my reflections on our activities at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona the previous week: what had gone well, where there was room to improve, what we should try to do differently at future events, and so on. As a big fan of the practice of retrospection, I was happy to carve out 30 minutes in my diary for this purpose.

As I climbed up the stairs to the first floor of #1 Boundary Row – where the marcomms team sits – I briefly rehearsed my thoughts. I had many positive recollections of how everyone had prepared for and then supported the Symbian Foundation presence at Barcelona. (My main negative observation was that the music in the party was, at times, a bit too loud, and impeded networking conversations.)

But when I came into the room, Anatolie Papas asked me to review a press release. I could see there were lots of quotes on it. Then I noticed the title of the release:

DW 2.0 TURNS 5.0


The man who helped put the ‘smart’ in ‘smartphone’ celebrates his half century and becomes a friendly spaceman

and I realised I was being ambushed – but in a very pleasant way!

Then a cake materialised, magnificently decorated with what is becoming an increasingly familiar picture:

A knife and forks appeared, and we collectively set to dividing up the cake and eating it. It was particuarly yummy! (The marcomms team get the credit for the design of the cake, but the manufacture was apparently by Konditor and Cook.)

The endorsements on the “press release” left me (unusually) lost for words. I won’t repeat the endorsements here – that would be far too indulgent – but I do nominate Bruce Carney (from Symbian’s Foster City office) as the provider of the geekiest quote:

“Congratulations on your 0x32nd birthday and thank you for your tireless contribution to get Symbian to where it is today; ready for the most exciting decade in all of our lives; the ‘Internet without wires’”, said Bruce Carney, Symbian^h^h^h^h^h^h^h Nokia.

The upbeat creativity that shone through this “press release” gives me all the more reason to be confident that this team will continue to devise and deliver suberb market communications as the rest of the Symbian Foundation accelerates into top gear over the months ahead.

26 July 2008

Naming the passion killers

Filed under: developer experience, fun, open phones, Symbian Signed — David Wood @ 6:06 pm

Passion makes a big difference. Posters all over Symbian premises (and on our websites) boldly declare that we “are at our best when we… love working for Symbian, drive to succeed, believe in ourselves, and take pride in what we do…

That’s the Symbian description of the practical importance of passion. Along with people, collaboration, integrity, collaboration, and excellence, passion is one of Symbian’s six declared corporate values.

Like many other companies, Symbian each year carries out an internal employee satisfaction survey. The survey is conducted by an external agency, who provide us with information on how our results compare with broadly similar surveys held by other high-tech companies. In the most recent survey, aggregate Symbian employee views demonstrated strong Passion (80% positive rating). Of the six values, this one had the strongest support of all. The score also came in notably higher than the benchmark. In general, our employees enjoy working here, and put their hearts into their activities.

In some ways, “passion” is a longer word for “fun”. The good news is that, on the whole, Symbian employees enjoy and value their work. The bad news, however, is as I covered in my previous blog posting, “Symbian, just for fun“: many developers outside the company have a less positive feeling about working with Symbian OS software. They may persevere with writing Symbian OS software because their employer pays them to do so, and because of the somewhat attractive prospect of a share in a growing 200M+ unit market, but they often lack the kind of inner motivation and satisfaction that can put them into a super-productive state of “flow“.

The encouraging responses I’ve received to that posting (both via email and online) stengthen my view that it’s vitally important to identify understand the inhibitors to developer flow – the killers of Symbian passion. That’s a big topic, and I suspect I’ll be writing lots more on this topic in the months ahead. But let’s make a start.

Lack of clarity with Symbian Signed

The experience of my correspondent ilgaz is probably quite common:

I think the issue here is , we (even technical users) don’t really get what should be signed, what shouldn’t.

Ilgaz wanted to use a particular third party application (Y-Tasks by Dr Jukka), and thought that it would first need to be signed with a developer certificate. That proved to be an awkward process. However, it turns out that the application is ready to use (for many purposes) without any additional signing. So the attempt to get a developer certificate was unnecessary.

Some might say that Symbian Signed itself is intrinsically a passion killer. I disagree – as I’ve argued elsewhere. But what does kill passion here is the confusion about the rules for Symbian Signed. You can’t expect flow from confusion. I see six causes for this confusion:

  1. Different devices implement Symbian Signed in different ways. Some devices helpfully support a setting to allow the installation of self-signed apps, as well as Symbian Signed ones. Others do not;
  2. Different operators have different views about what kinds of applications they want to allow on their phones;
  3. The subject of permissions for the different capabilities of different pieces of software is intrinsically complex;
  4. The operation of Symbian Signed has changed over time. It’s great that it has improved, but some people still remember how it used to work, and that confuses them;
  5. “Once bitten, twice shy”: past bad experiences sometimes over-colour present views on the topic;
  6. A small number of people seem to be motivated to spread particularly bad vibes about Symbian Signed.
In this situation, we can’t expect to reverse all the accumulated mistrust and apprehension overnight. But the following steps should help:
  • Continue to seek to improve the clarity of communications;
  • Be alert to implementation issues (eg an overworked website – as experienced some months back) and seek to address them quickly;
  • Avoid a divergence of implementations of different application approval schemes by different network operators.
It’s my profound hope that the attractive statements of common aims of openness, made by the various parties supporting the Symbian Foundation, will translate into a unity of approaches towards application approval schemes.

Lack of reprogrammable devices

Another correspondent, puterman, points out:

Getting people to develop apps just for fun is one thing, but getting them to hack the actual OS is another thing. For that to be of interest, there have to be open devices available, so that the developers can actually see their code running.

I agree with the importance of quick feedback to changes made in your software. If you change the lower levels of the software, you’ll need to be able to re-program an actual device.

The Linux community shows the way here, with the Trolltech Greenphone and the FIC OpenMoko Neo1973 and FreeRunner devices. It’s true that there have been issues with these devices. For example, Trolltech eventually discontinued the Greenphone, and the FIC devices have proved quite hard to purchase. However, as the Symbian Foundation software becomes increasingly open source, we can reasonably expect the stage-by-stage appearance of phones that are increasingly end-user re-programmable.

Lack of well-documented API support for “interesting” features of a phone

Marcus Groeber makes a series of insightful points. For example,

One of the main things mobile developers would want to do is make use of the unique features of a mobile phone (connectivity, built in camera, physical interaction with the user). However, it is those area where documentation is still most patchy and API support is erratic (CCameraAdvancedSettings anyone?).

In my view, this aspect of mobilie development should be acknowledged to a much greater degree, and the documentation efforts focused accordingly: If there is a feature in a built-in app of the phone, chances are that a developer will want to try and improve on that. Can s/he?…

I believe that these moments of frustration – finding an API that looks useful in the SDK docs, then spending an evening writing an application that uses it, only to get KErrNotSupported in the end – is probably among the chief reasons for people abandoning their pet projects…

True, many “fun” programmers (me included) don’t want to wade through tons of documentation and whitepapers before writing their first proof-of-concept – but to me this makes it even more important that the existing documentation is streamlined, accurate and compact.

Improving our developer documentation remains one of the top-priority goals at Symbian. In parallel, we’re hoping that additional publications from Symbian Press (and others) will help to guide developers more quickly through the potential minefields of APIs for the more interesting functionality. The book “Quick Recipes on Symbian OS” (which I mentioned at the end of an earlier posting, “Mobile development in a hurry“) is intended to address this audience.

Of course, as Simon Judge points out, sometimes it’s not a matter of improving the documentation of existing APIs. Sometimes, what’s required is to improve the APIs themselves.

API awkwardness across the UI-OS boundary

The last passion-killer I’ll mention for now is another one raised by Marcus Groeber:

most of the “interesting” bits of developing for devices actually come from the licensee’s layers of API (in my case, mostly S60), and I believe it is here where there is most work to be done, as well as the interface between the two

The ad-hoc-ish nature of the S60 UI, which seems to require a lot of experimenting and guesswork for developing even very simple screen layouts that mimic closely what is already present in the phone in dozens of places. Even after years of development, I still consider the CAkn and CEik listbox classes a jungle.

As one of the original designers of the CEik listbox class hierarchy (circa 1995-6) perhaps I should keep my head low at this point! (Though I can claim little direct credit – or blame – for the subsequent evolution of these classes.)

However, the bigger point is the following: both Symbian and S60 have recognised for many years that the separation of the two software development teams into two distinct companies has imposed drawbacks on the overall design and implementation of the APIs of functionality that straddles the two domains. Keeping the UI and the OS separate had some positives, but a lot of negatives too. Assuming the acquisition by Nokia of Symbian receives regulatory approval, the resulting combined engineering teams should enable considerably improved co-design. The new APIs will, hopefully, inspire greater fascination and approval from those who use them!

23 July 2008

Symbian, just for fun

Filed under: CIX, developer experience, fun, OPL, Python — David Wood @ 9:21 pm

“There are two kinds of OSS developers: the guys who do things for fun, and the guys who do OSS because they are paid to do so. In order for an open source project to really flourish and take over the world, you need both.”

These comments were made a few days ago by Janne Jalkanen of Nokia, speaking in a personal capacity. I think Janne is competely right. My own view is that the only reliable way for the Symbian Foundation software to become the most widely used software platform on the planet, is if that software also becomes the most widely liked software platform on the planet.

The two kinds of OSS developers aren’t completely distinct. Ideally the ones who are paid by their company to work on the software should also have a strong inner desire to do that work – to go the extra mile out of the sheer enjoyment and fascination they get from that software.

I’ve seen that kind of deep enthusiasm for software many times in my life. I first ventured onto online community discussion groups in the early 1990s, using the login name “dw2” on the CIX (Compulink Information eXchange) bulletin boards. The Psion devices of that time – running a 16-bit precursor to Symbian OS – could be programmed using an interpreted language called OPL. Hobbyists made increasingly creative use of the possibilities of that language, creating some highly impressive games, serviceable business applications, alternative personal information management functionality, and lots more besides. I was drawn into providing support and encouragement to this burgeoning community. Plucking an example at random from September 1992 from my archives, here’s a reply I posted to someone who had been pushing the envelope of OPL functionality:

Access to C routines from Opl

I don’t suppose it’ll cause any harm to pre-announce something that Psion will shortly make available to Series3 Opl programmers. Namely a mechanism to access functionality written in a C library, from Opl. What will be possible is as follows:

  • Someone provides some C functionality in a so-called DYL library
  • Opl programs can hook into this functionality by means of the LibSend operating system service (CALL ($cf)).

Psion will make some suitable DYLs available, and it will be up to third parties to provide other general or specific DYLs. For example, in a hypothetical company writing software for the S3, out of a team of say six programmers, only one would need to understand C. All routine coding could be done in Opl, with only the performance-critical parts being done in C (together with a few parts that are technically out of the reach of pure Opl).

Even before you (BobG) raised this subject, Psion were working on a specific DYL to quicksort the index of a DBF file.

Regards, DavidW

That was 1992, when many enthusiasts were happy to while away their free time programming devices powered by EPOC16. Fast forward again to 2008. Janne goes on to say,

The problem with Symbian is that very, very few people touch it for fun. So I believe that while we can open source it, it is going to be very difficult to get people participate out of their own free will, unless we are prepared to make very serious refactorings to the entire system.

My first instinct is to disagree with Janne here. I’d love to list lots of people I know who do seem to enjoy developing Symbian software, “just for fun”. For example,

  • Python on S60 can be a real joy to use – and supports lots of extensions. (In many ways, Python is for Symbian OS in 2008 what OPL was for EPOC16 back in the 1990s.)
  • The forthcoming new Symbian graphics architecture (“ScreenPlay“) and IP networking architecture (“FreeWay“) are full of interesting software development opportunities
  • The PIPS libraries hide away many of the idiosyncracies of native Symbian C++ development, and can increase the pleasure of porting certain types of applications to Symbian devices.

However, as Mike Rowehl rightly reminds all would-be Symbian blogging enthusiasts – like me! – the first duty of a blogger is to listen, rather than to speak:

I’m not saying that Nokia doesn’t have market share, I’m saying they don’t have developer mindshare and they haven’t captured the attention of new entrants. How often do you hear about people “fooling around with developing for Symbian” just for fun in their free time? I’ve attended developer focused events in a number of different areas and I’ve heard that very infrequently. Compare that to the number of times you run across people fooling around with iPhone or Android SDKs (or even Maemo for that matter). I’m filtering out all the Silicon Valley events cause we’re weird over here. But even of events in others areas – developers area paying way more attention to the other platforms. You can argue that all you want but it won’t go away, I’m just telling you what I hear. Do with it what you want. If you want to deny it though, you’ve already lost really.

And I can’t deny that, as I search through the blogosphere and developer forums, I find the number of postings that are negative about the the developer experience of Symbian and S60 kits significantly exceeds those that express heart-felt enjoyment with the experience. As much as I can find reasons to discount individual postings, I can’t discount the overall weight of comments by such a diverse group of writers.

So all I can say is the following:

  • I see lots of API improvement projects inside the Symbian labs – such as the experimental forthcoming ZString class alternative to text descriptors, and the proposed RAll utility classes for simplified resource management – which should be warmly received by a wide audience
  • I believe Symbian’s developer tools and documentation have improved significantly over the last few years, and are continuing to make big leaps forward (but the impressions some developers hold towards these topics is unduly negatively coloured by their past bad experiences with older tools or documentation)
  • A more transparent approach to planning and experimentation inside Symbian’s development halls – as befits a switch to open source development – will generate more good ideas (and even some good will…)
  • Experimentation and quick starts on Symbian development projects will become easier.

(I also believe, by the way, that developers’ enthusiasm for their experience on other platforms will decline, unless these other platforms learn to cope with some hard disciplines like binary compatibility and SDK quality control, as their market success grows. For related comments, see “The emperor’s new handset“.)

I close by making a commitment: improved developer experience will be central to the goals of the Symbian Foundation. If the number of people who develop for Symbian “just for fun” doesn’t increase substantially, the Foundation will have failed in its objectives.

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