Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Saving The Surprise

So, I’m going to review the Olympic Opening Ceremony.  We were lucky enough to get tickets to the technical rehearsal last night, and so we got to see the show from the opening through to the point where the athletes will walk in on Friday night.

The big theme of the night was #savethesurprise – we were all asked to not give away the surprises of the evening, so that it would still be a spectacular for everyone watching on Friday night.  This isn’t a case of The Olympic Brand ™ being protected, this is simply a case of not wanting to spoil the surprise of what is actually a specatular show.

So, how can I review the show without giving away the surprise.  I’ll give it a go…

So, we’ve all seen the publicity photos of the village green with people playing cricket.  That bit isn’t secret.  But then, loads of people come on and start ****** the ***** so that it changes into an ********** ***** with a big ***** which ***** out ***** with fireworks and turns into an ******* **** which has loads of ********* coming from it.

Oh, that’s not working brilliantly, is it?  Maybe I’ll take a different approach.

Basically, it’s a bit show with lots of spectacle, an awful lot of people and – most importantly – a sense of humour.  The thing is, the UK isn’t a country like China with a point to prove on the world stage with what they put together in Beijing four years ago.  Everyone knows where the UK is, and what’s in London so we can take a more abstract approach.  Of course, there are the “Wow!” moments in the ceremony, and I just hope that the TV coverage manages to capture them.  But I’m sure that’s been part of the planning.

The Olympic Park itself reminds me of EuroDisney.  I mean that in a kind way.  It’s all clean and now, and full of open spaces with huge numbers of litter bits and picnic benches and people milling around.  Given the stadium was full, it didn’t feel stupidly busy.  Queues for food and drink were long, but prices weren’t as stupidly expensive as I expected.  Expensive yes – but the prices didn’t feel exploitative.

The only gate open last night was that from Westfield into the park.  The queues looked huge, and when we joined the queue there was a feeling of dread that we’d be standing around for hours.  I can honestly say it was half an hour from joining the queue to being in the park.  The queuing system was efficient and no major worries.  It helped that the stewards were friendly and chatty; standing in a queue always feels worse when the officials are grumpy and disinterested.  The security lanes themselves were manned by the army who managed to be both friendly, welcoming and efficient.  I can honestly say it was the most efficient operation of airport style security I have ever seen .   I guess it’s helped by the fact that even the most pushy visitor is unlikely to argue with a soldier in uniform who looks much tougher than you, but full credit to the soldiers for doing a great job.

Once in the park, the only thing I would gripe about would be the lack of signage.  Toilets on the way out were quite hard to find, and finding the Greenway Gate to leave was a bit of a guessing game. But still time to iron that out before Friday.

So, the ceremony itself was almost all of the production from the start through to the point where the athletes would parade into the stadium.  Some things were kept secret with blacked out videos screens displaying a message saying “Video will be shown here on Friday”.  A couple of times the video flicked to the actual footage before blacking out, so we got a few tantalising glimpses of what’s to come.  The announcements were in place for some of the people involved in the ceremony who weren’t there, and the music gave a few clues to what was missing at various points.  It’s going to be amazing on Friday when all the missing pieces are slotted back into place.

So, how does the ceremony stack up against Beijing?  Beijing was amazing.  A huge spectacle of 14,000 people.  London isn’t far off in terms of numbers, and is way ahead in terms of sense of humour.  Some of the musical choices are not the obvious and there’s no shortage of poking a bit of fun at the establishment.  This is a show put together with tongue in cheek and a smile on the face.   Technically, it’s astounding.  There are more lights than I’ve ever seen in one place, and the press reports weren’t lying about the enormous sound system.

Logistically, the stadium shows the effects of modern venue design.  The exodus at the end was painless and efficient - except for the trouble of finding the right gate to get out.  The toilets plentiful and convenient (no pun intended).

So, Friday is the big day.  The day when the asterisks above will make sense and you’ll see the part I was talking about (which is my favourite).  Of course there’ll be people who sneer in the oh-so-British way that it’s not as good as Beijing, but taken objectively, it’s a huge show with some real standout moments which will make everyone in the stadium draw breath, and probably most watching on TV, too.

There are fireworks, there are lasers, there are dancers and there are set pieces on a huge scale.  It’s gonna be a good one!

Friday, 6 July 2012

In the SPA

I've spent the past few days at the SPA2012 conference at the BCS in London.  It's the first time I've been, and so I wasn't really sure what to expect.  It was certainly an interesting few days, and I learned a few things and disagreed with a few things - but it was all the more interesting for it.

I'm not a developer.  I used to be, but I left full-time development behind quite a few years ago.  I still remember the rudiments, and still read code from time to time, but it's been a couple of years since I wrote code for fun, and even longer since I wrote it professionally.  When I was a full-time developer, C++ was the language of choice.  OO was the buzzword and Java was a newcomer.  Most of what was being written was being written in C++ and legacy code was in C.  I then moved onto Symbian, an unashamed C++ shop.  So C++ is where I spent the majority of my coding days.

These days, the code at work is Java and Python.  There's a bit of C++ lurking in corners, but it's mostly Java.  I have written some Java, and I can read it, but I have never written it in a serious sense.

Almost everyone else at the conference was a developer.  Even though a lot of the sessions dealt with management issues, there was still a feel of code being key and hacking being the pastime of choice.  So - it's time for an admission.  I don't really like code.  Don't get me wrong, I love solving problems and I love ingenious algorithms, but code doesn't excite me.  The theory of programming languages is interesting, and even compilers are pretty interesting.  But I've never found the code used the implement those things particularly interesting.  When I read a good book, I'm thrilled by the images conjured up by the words - the words themselves are doing their job well when you don't notice them.  When I listen to a piece of music, I'm listening to the beauty of the composition rather than being thrilled by which keys are being played on the piano or which strings bowed on the violin.  And software is the same for me - the beauty is in the design and the algorithms, rather than in the keywords and the variable names.

And so, I felt a bit like an intruder at the party.  I felt like the outsider who wasn't bringing up an iDE and hacking away in every break between sessions.  Maybe that was my natural inclination to feel the outsider, though.

So, I picked my sessions according to what would interest me.  And two sessions stuck out for me as being the most interesting.

Firstly, there was a case study from Oxfam talking about their project to move their server to "the cloud".  It's trendy to move to "the cloud" and it was interesting to hear a well-presented case study from someone who'd actually tried the move.  The move was a success, but a few important lessons were presented learned along the way.  The move was made for economic reasons, rather than for technological reasons.  In a conference where technology was king, and at times it was easy to feel that the geekery was overtaking money-making as the driver for business, it was refeshing to hear someone talk about the economics and how a technological solution actually gave economic benefits.  It was also interesting to hear about the immaturity of the market for cloud-based services.   It's easy to tell a company how many servers you want, or what OS you want to run - but it's harder to find companies who'll provide fully supported services with flexible capacity.

The other session was one I went to on a whim.  There was a session called "A Good Read" - the idea being that three people would present something - most likely code - and talk about why they thought it was a good read.  Two out of the three presentations were fantastic.  The other was Tom Gilb promoting his own book as "A Good Read" which I felt was a little disingenuous.  The middle third of the session wasn't comfortable listening.  Anyway, less of the negative.  The first presentation was a brilliant recreation of this xkcd cartoon in Mathematica.  It was brilliant for several reasons.  Firstly, it was a joy to see Mathematica being used for something other than symbolic integration.  Secondly, many of the computer scientists in the room had never used Mathematica and it was genuinely interesting.  Thirdly, as a mathematician, it was thrilling to see the brilliance of Mathematica again after so many years away.  It's not quick, it's not efficient - but it's pretty much unrivalled for doing wonderful programmatic maths.  It wouldn't be so easy to write a recursive function which outputs a vector graphic of a self-referential cartoon in many other languages.

I had gone to the session expecting to see Java, or Python.  Or Perl.  Definitely Perl.  But the second great presentation was a C codebase.  A TCL interpreter from years ago, written in C.  The structs and associated functions starting to hint at classes and it was easy to see how C++ sprang from this kind of C code as a natural progression.  A historical marvel!

So - would I go to SPA2012 again?  Well obviously not, as it'll be called SPA2013 next year.  But yes - I think I would.  But maybe I'd choose my sessions a little more carefully.  But as long as there's some Mathematica, I'm happy!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

I'm not so good with heights

I'm writing this sitting in Starbucks. I've turned into one of those people.  You know - the ones who write things in Starbucks.  On a laptop.

There was only a short queue this morning, away from the serving bit, along the counter.  There were three of us standing in the queue, and then one woman - who was American but that's not revelant - who stood in the middle of the floor vaguely near the till.  When someone in the queue pointed out that there was a queue she said "Yes, I know, and I'm in it".  She thus placed a moral obligation on those of us in the queue to remember her virtual place in the queue and cede our turn to be served when it came to the right moment.  Indidivually it's quite a hard task to remember her place in the queue, but we only needed to collectively achieve that effect - so individually we didn't need to remember her place in the queue, but simply remember whether she was in front of us or behind us.  Though not even that.  Those of us in front of her didn't need to remember anything at all, but the person "behind" her in the queue would just need to remember that she was just in front of them.  Those behind that person don't need to remember anything else.  So instead of us all having to remember her position in the queue, we've reduced it to one person remembering a simple fact.

Anyway, I'm sitting in Starbucks.  We've established that.  In fact, I'm sitting quite near to the window.  It's 8.30am and there are people walking by with their heads down - exactly as I did earlier to the Union protestor on Fleet St who tried to shove a leaflet in my hand to tell me why bus drivers deserve £500 for working during the Olmypics but don't get me started - and just trying to get to their desks with the minimum of human interaction on the way.  I tend to be pretty good with faces - I am quick to spot people I recognise even if I've not seen them for a long time.  I see hundreds of faces pass me on my way to work each day, and occassionally recognise a few.  But how I recognise people mostly is through their walk.  I can't describe or copy the walk of people I know, but even at a long distance - presuming I have my glasses on - I can recognise someone by the way they hold themselves and the way they move as they walk.  I can't be the only person to do that, surely?

I may be good with gaits, but I'm terrible with heights.  I could tell you what colour hair my friends have, even what colour eyes they have in some cases, but I couldn't tell you how tall they are.  More than once in recent weeks I've suddenly noticed that someone I know pretty well is taller than me.  I have an idea in my mind how tall people are but, without giving details which may insult those involved, I tend to base that on how I think of them, rather than how tall they actually are.

Talking of heights, we went on the Emirates Airline last Saturday. Highly recommended. Oh, and don't bother queuing for a ticket - just use your PAYG Oyster card on the barriers...