Quiver pen holder

Here’s how I used to carry my pen:

Before

Here’s how I do it now:

After

So much better. I really love this thing.

Things tags: Emoji, frogs and GTD contexts

I’ve been using Things as my GTD app of choice for quite a long time now. In addition to experimenting with a physical progress meter, I’ve also been fiddling around with the tags.

Using Emoji in Things tags

Things tags

And here are all of my tags and their shortcuts.

Mark Twain suggested that we “eat a live frog in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.” During my daily review I try to pick out the one thing I really don’t want to do but really should do first.

Of the priority tags, the only one I use a lot is the high priority tag (the little red circle) to help me spot the urgent/important stuff.

Although I spent far too long making this look pretty, it was really just whittling while I was thinking about contexts. Rather than tagging things according to the project (which Things handles anyway) or type of activity (which isn’t very helpful), I’m finding it useful to be able to pick out actions according to the situation and tools I have to hand. What can I do while I’m on the train? If I’m in the mood to make some phone calls, what do I need to do? What can I do that will only take 5 minutes? That sort of thing.

Tagging be people and agendas is useful too. In preparing for regular meetings, or time with certain people, it’s great to be able to quickly pull out relevant things that I need to cover.

There are some ‘Waiting for…’ tags too, useful when something has been delegated but still needs to be kept an eye on. Having different flavours means I can check the ‘chase’ ones daily and the others less frequently (usually weekly, at the moment).

You’ll also notice that absolutely everything has a keyboard shortcut. When I’m using a computer, and I mean really using a computer, I don’t like to switch between using keyboard and trackpad and I always want to be able to everything I can with keyboard shortcuts. For example: tagging actions without having to skip a beat.

Things meter

I’ve been using the Things app for a while for tracking projects and next actions with the goal of Getting Things Done. I wanted something to help me pay attention to the things I need to get done, and decided that a physical representation of daily progress would be an interesting thing to try.

The hardware build was really easy. More of a bodging together of components than anything. I dremelled out the back of the voltmeter to create a bit more room, fitted it to a small enclosure box, and squeezed the dev board into the remaining space, with the ground pin and an analog output connected to the voltmeter.

 Untitled   Untitled

The code is pretty straightforward. The Teensy runs a small program that listens for lines of text via the USB serial port and simply sets the output of the voltmeter to whatever percentage value arrives. At this stage I’ve got a simple multi-purpose percentage meter controlled trivially over USB.

Next is a Ruby script that listens for changes to the Things app, works out how many of the tasks in the ‘Today’ screen have been marked as completed today, and sends that percentage to the USB serial port. It’s like a physical progress bar for things I want to get done today. A done dial for life.

I’m going to try it for a while and see how it works. There are probably lots of other things that a progress meter would help with too.

Untitled

Components:

Lightspeed i-Helicopter and Turbo Drone mini quadrocopter – hands on reviews

The lovely folks at Paramountzone sent me a couple of shiny new toys to review.

First, the Lightspeed i-Helicopter with on-board camera.

Lightspeed iHelicopter

As always with these Lightspeed choppers, you get a good selection of extra bits in the box, including two rotor blades and two tail rotors. With this one, you also get an 2 GB micro SD card which needs to be slotted into the camera so it can store the photos and videos, and a USB micro SD card reader for transferring the files to a computer.

Lightspeed iHelicopter

This is a slightly larger version of the original Lightspeed i-Helicopter. Making room for the underslung camera by raising the height of the skids.

Lightspeed iHelicopters

Obviously, the eye catching new feature here is the camera. The picture quality, at 680×480 (with 25 frames per second for video) is far from HD, but it’s not terrible either.

How does it fly? It’s what you’d expect from a 3 channel coaxial helicopter. Up, down, forward, back, turn left, turn right. Lots of fun as a first helicopter, though frustrating if you’ve used 4 channel RC choppers (which add the freedom to also strafe or ‘crab’ left + right). It’s definitely sturdy enough, and by dropping the power before a crash landing (to protect the blades) it’ll take a lot of punishment indoors. I’ve crashed it, a lot, with no ill effects. It’s not really designed for outdoor flight, thought I’m very tempted to try it (on a very still day) if only to get some impressive footage of flying outside.

The box boasts that the Copter Controller app is “compatible with iPhone iPod iPad” but warns you to “check website for Android compatibility”. Pleasingly, when you do, it works on a wide range of devices.

Lightspeed iHelicopter

Downs:

  • quite long charging time (~45-50 minutes charging for ~6-7 minutes flight time)
  • the same USB cable has to be used to charge the chopper and the transmitter separately. If both are flat you’ll be waiting for a while before you can fly
  • lack of tactile feedback on the remote (i.e. your phone/tablet) means you’re looking down at the app a lot, especially to control the throttle. The controls for taking photos and video is a bit small and fiddly on small screen too.
  • doesn’t live stream video to the app (though for this money you might not expect that)

Ups:

  • cute little lightweight camera lets you capture in-flight photos and video
  • nice selection of spares (and a screwdriver) in the box
  • comes with a 2 GB micro SD card and (impressively) a USB micro SD card reader
  • Copter Controller app is pretty good and the motion control is fun once you get the hang of it
  • good app support for both iOS and Android

Second, I also got a chance to play with the new Turbo Drone super quadrocopter.

Turbo Drone quadrocopter

Have I ever mentioned that I love quadrocopters? Opening this box was super exciting.

Turbo Drone quadrocopter

It comes preassembled, obviously. Small and light but sturdy. It fits neatly in the palm of my hand.

Turbo Drone quadrocopter

It comes with spares for all four blades, not one but two batteries, and a USB charger which can charge either one battery at a time or both batteries at once.

Two batteries charging

Compared to the older, bigger Turbo Drone I reviewed last year, this one is a lot smaller. Having flown both, I think that for this sort of toy, bigger isn’t always better.

Turbo Drone quadrocopters

This new smaller model is a lot more fun to fly indoors. It needs less room to manoeuvre, it feels less scary to crash it into furniture and it feels really nimble and powerful.

The large arrow on the case, the colour of the blades (red = front, black = read) and the colour of the LEDs (blue = front, red = rear for some reason) all help know which way it’s facing.

Turbo Drone quadrocopter

The remote has an adjustable sensitivity setting. 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%, useful when gaining confidence and moving and turning more and more quickly. The 100% setting (which makes the remote controller screen change colour from blue to orange so you see it at a glance) is not really a further 20% of sensitivity, but rather moves the device into full on insanity mode and unlocks the ability to flip the drone.

Downs:

  • while I love the futuristic-angered-hornet noise, my wife is not a massive fan of the sound
  • not yet convinced about the 100% sensitivity mode. Maybe I just need more practice to understand what’s going on, but the hardware assisted flips, while fun, don’t feel entirely under my control

Ups:

  • so fast! Really powerful for such a small beast
  • not bad charging times (~30 minutes charging for ~9 minutes flight time)
  • two batteries and ability to charge them at the same time or charge one while flying the other means more flying, less waiting around
  • really sturdy little frame doesn’t mind being dropped (which is handy, as I crash it a lot). Silicone base makes for a softer landing and reduces the scary rattling when making a controlled crash-landing
  • 2.4Ghz radio controller allows for control over a long distance and multiple devices in the same place
  • apparently copes well outdoors if the wind isn’t too bad. I can believe it (it’s rather powerful), though haven’t tried it yet

Both are good, but of the two, this is definitely the one I’d recommend. Easily the most fun remote controlled toy I’ve tried (and my collation is getting pretty good) and the one I’ll be most excited to master. Of all the RC helicopters Paramountzone are selling at the moment, this and the 4 channel V911 helicopter are probably the best value and most exciting.

There’s something in the wood shed

While installing a new stove, we wanted somewhere to store and dry logs. Handily, our garden shed was half rotten. Chopping it up and leaving the good half (with re-designed sides to let the air circulate) was a fun afternoon. Almost as satisfying as stacking the shed ready for winter.

During After
Before Logs! After

Changing rooms

Earlier this year, we bought six 5’7″ x 10″ x 1″ planks from Romsey Reclamation. After seasoning them for two months stacked up in the garage, plus a further month in the house, they were ready to sand and wax.

Oak. Bought as raw green planks, seasoned at home and now ready for sanding After sanding

A bit of work, but a whole lot cheaper (and more fun) than buying finished oak shelves.

The shelves form part of a some work we’ve been doing in our living room including a log burning stove.

Before Work Began Day 2 - Building the Chimney
Day 4 - Test Fire Plastered and Painted
Shelves Up All Finished - Cosy and Comfy ready for Winter

All cosy and ready for winter.

Jargone

I made a thing.

Jargone is a bookmarklet for highlighting jargon words on any web page.

The list comes from the Government Digital Service GOV.UK style guide, specifically the plain English and words to avoid sections of the guide, which has this to say about avoiding jargon

We lose trust from our users if we write government ‘buzzwords’ and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. We need to be specific, use plain English and be very clear about what we are doing.

While the guide is very helpful, and includes alternative suggestions for many of the words to avoid, I wanted to be able to spot jargon more easily on the web.

The bookmarklet is very simple. It just adds a bit of CSS styling and javascript to the page and then checks all the words on the page against a list of known jargon words and phrases. Once you run it on a page, offending words are highlighted and, borrowing heavily from the design of Gmail’s handy spellcheck feature, any entries which also have notes associated (suggestions for alternatives, for example) also let you click on them to see the suggestion. It doesn’t (yet) let you replace with a suggestion, mainly because it doesn’t even pretend to be clever enough to get it right. In fact, the implementation is so simple that it’s quite likely to think there’s jargon on a page even if there’s not. For ‘impact’ it gives the advice “Don’t use it as a verb” even when you’ve used it as a verb. It could probably be made a bit cleverer, but as a quick automatic highlighting of things to watch out for, it’s hopefully already quite useful.

Although I based the list on the GDS style guide, I’ve already accepted several contributions from elsewhere. Thanks to everyone who has already contributed.

You can find out more about Jargone or just install it here if you want to try it in your own browser. Enjoy.

Boring 2012

I spent today at Boring 2012. Now in its third year, in the words of conference organiser James Ward, Boring is “a day dedicated to the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked.” During the introduction he also told us that this was to be “the most boring one yet” and “I can only apologise”.

Raffle

Here’s what happened.

  1. James Ward himself was first up, talking about self service checkouts and unexpected item in the bagging area. Did you know that the first self service tills were introduced by Marks & Spencer in 2002? James presented a guide to self service checkouts that was useful as it was amusing, followed by a small collection of till receipts (or, ‘purchase certificates’ as he encouraged us to think of them) for things he didn’t buy.
  2. Peter Fletcher presented a clever invention, an ode to letterboxes including “inner portcullises of sharp bristles that repel anything but the most rigid of paper items.” A beautiful look at letterboxes from a poetic ex-postman.
  3. Ben Target performed an untitled performance art piece on rollerblades, to the accompaniment of a reading of ‘tables of weights’, which was evocative of Johann Johannsson’s IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, but with more rollerblading. Rachel was in tears of laughter. James calmly moved us on with “well, it’s not every day that you see that.”Leila and her IBM tills
  4. Leila Johnston presented her collection of IBM tills, of which she has collected over 40 photographs and wants you to share your own. Notable moments included the “white IBM ePOS 300; my Moby Dick” and revelations about Leila’s heavily IBM influenced childhood growing up in Greenock.
  5. Ed Ross shared “how I like my toast” including a comparison of various toasters and a proposed standard rating system from “warmed bread” up to “German rye bread” which is apparently very heat resistant.
  6. Rose George informed us that the least boring object in our houses is our toilet, and the rather sobering fact that 2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to a toilet.
  7. Neily Denny shared memories, maps and photographs of five breakfasts, which ranged from delicious to disgusting.
  8. Helen Arney demonstrates the PSR-175Helen Arney started the afternoon by telling us about the features and specifications of the Yamaha PSR-175 portable keyboard (discontinued) in a provocative and entertaining live demonstration.
  9. Roo Reynolds (that’s me!) shared some of my collections in roughly chronological order, which you can actually read all about here.
  10. Greg Stekelman talked about being short and one of his favourite websites, celebheights.com, including some hilarious and carefully selected quotes which I wish I’d written down.
  11. Charlotte Young had prepared a short study of the contemporary celebrity culinary expert on television including surprisingly detailed dissections of both Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal.
  12. Andrew Male talked about yellow lines and their relation to the Festival of Britain and post-war zoning regulations.
  13. James Brown enthused about one of his favourite TV programmes; Antiques Road Trip.
  14. Rhodri Marsden shared a confession about, and several examples of, the soothing and soporific world of ASMR (Auto Sensory Meridian Response) videos; a whole subculture about which I’d previously been blissfully unaware.
  15. Elise Bramich informed us about tube carriage numbering. Did you know that London Underground trains going North or West have even numbers, while those headed South and East are odd, with the exception of the Bakerloo line and anywhere with loops? She also talked about Vampire Numbers.
  16. Emily Webber shared some of her carefully curated set of over 1000 photographs of London shop fronts, which she has been collecting for a while.
  17. Alice Bell talked about the Science Museum (where she used to work) and why museums are boring, except that she was so enthusiastic and eloquent about them that I don’t think she convinced us, or even herself, of this theory. “The technologies of the past which we chose chose not to have show us other possible futures we might have had.”Kathy Clugston recites the 31 sea areas of the shipping forecast
  18. Kathy Clugston revealed the arcane world of The Shipping Forecast, a subject about which she knows a great deal having read the forecasts on Radio 4 for some time. As well as being a great example of ASMR, Kathy impressed us all by reciting all 31 sea areas in order. More facts I can’t allow to pass un-noted: The shipping forecast is broadcast four times per day (5:20, 12:01, 17:54 and 00:48), For each area, you get the following four pieces of information: 1. wind direction / 2. wind strength / 3. precipitation / 4. visibility. Veering = clockwise, Backing = anticlockwise. Imminent = 6 hours hence, Soon = 6-12 hours, Later = 12-14 hours. “You can’t get excited when there’s a hurricane!”.
  19. James W. Smith finished off the day by talking about the benefits of walking to work which is “the only sort of exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise, and therefore the only sort that I’m willing to do”. In the evenings, “I don’t drink much any more because of the cat…” James has calculated that a 3.3 mile walk = 7152 steps = 1 hour = 19ml of saliva, or 376.42 steps per ml. James ended with a rather thoughtful and touching encouragement to try walking to work.

Enormous thanks to James Ward for inviting me but most of all for putting on a brilliant – and not at all boring – day.

Ad blocking

Having worked in both TV and advertising, I’m intrigued by how easy it is these days for people to block ads online and what it might mean for the near future of online advertising.

Press the red button now

I recently learned an interesting fact about the popular Adblock plugin for Chrome; it doesn’t just block banner ads as I assumed, it also blocks pre- and mid-roll video advertising on sites like 4oD, ITV Player and YouTube. Similar plugins, including Adblock Plus, work in the same way. While this is possibly old news to you, I had not used any ad blocking browser plugins for a while and it came as quite a shock to me just how easy (and how pleasant) they have become to install and use.

Ad blocking was previously only done by those with the patience to install and maintain fiddly add-on software, but it’s no longer the preserve of the tech elite; the latest breed of browser plugins is more than easy enough for even the most casual web user to set up.

Such users are currently a (growing) minority. Adblock describes itself as “the most popular extension for Chrome” and there might, very roughly, be around 10-15% of browsers running some sort of ad blocking software these days. It’s about to get even easier, too. The AdTrap project on Kickstarter is a hardware ad blocker that blocks all adverts for all the wifi connected devices in your home. “Zero software to install, zero configuration”.

What will happen when ad blocking goes properly mainstream? We’ve already seen a gradual arms race with ads becoming increasingly clever about avoiding being blocked, with some content creators preventing their content being seen by people who block ads, sometimes even blocking entire browsers just to be on the safe side. Will this ultimately doomed attempt at control continue to escalate?

I hope not, and there are some glimmers of hope. A few companies have instead tried to gently encourage their users to support their advertising model, or offer alternative models. Reddit offers a page, showing Adblock Plus users how to how to create an exception for Reddit, and thanking their users for not blocking their ads. OK Cupid straight out asked their ad blocking users to donate money directly: “you donate $5 to us once, & we remove all ads from the site forever’.

I think that useful tools need to be sufficiently fine-grained to allow people to chose to opt in to (or out of) specific adverts and specific sites. Since most people will probably never change the default settings then getting the balance right is obviously important. It may have been controversial with some of its users, but Adblock Plus’s move to allow “acceptable” ads was an interesting step towards supporting less intrusive advertising, giving users more control, and finding sensible defaults. “Some users are even asking for a way to enable Adblock Plus on some websites only.” Both Adblock and Adblock Plus now allow users to turn on ads for a specific site, or to blacklist only certain ads.

Ad block plugins for Chrome

It’s understandable for site owners to become a bit anxious about this stuff. Ars Technica says it’s “devastating to the sites you love” while James Cridland equates it to theft, and says “I do find it difficult to understand why running AdBlock or the like is not frowned upon by otherwise honest people.”

Personally, I’m not convinced that ad blocking is theft, or that it’s in any way immoral. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. Site owners can put ads around their content to make money, just as – whatever you think of the choices they make – users can decide whether to see the ads or block them.

My grandfather used to mute the TV whenever adverts came on. Was that morally wrong? What if everyone did the same thing? Whether you’re a content producer or an advertiser you should think about what your users want, and how much easier today’s technology is making it for them to avoid your advertising. Simply describing them as immoral might not be the best way to change their behaviour.

Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter – hands on review

The nice people at Paramountzone sent me a Turbo Drone four channel remote controlled quadrocopter to review.

Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter

It’s 36cm across (including the rotors, which are 13.5cm each), making it just about small enough to fly indoors.

The 500mAh 3.7v li-po rechargeable battery makes it conveniently easy to get spares; I had the exact same battery laying around in another remote controlled chopper.

Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter

It takes 45 minutes to charge using the supplied charger, and gives about 10 minutes of flying time.

Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter

The red bit at the top of the remote control makes it look as though it’s going to be an infra-red job, but it’s actually 2.4 Ghz with (apparently) a 100m range. That’s pretty impressive,

It claims to be suitable for both indoor and outdoor flight (in ‘fairly calm conditions’) which, while I have yet to try it outdoors, I can definitely believe. Since my back garden is a terrifying tangle of trees I’ll probably be taking it to the local park to try out longer distance flight.

The remote has an excellent feature in which the level of responsiveness can be adjusted between four modes:

  • 20% – good for getting started, but soon feels a bit sluggish
  • 40% – responds a bit more quickly and feels more nimble
  • 60% – twitchy fun. Probably about as high as you’ll go most of the time indoors
  • 100% – insanity mode in which the remote beeps constantly, perhaps to remind you that any move of the right stick is going to make it instantly flip 360°

The Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter is a seriously nice little toy, and you should seriously consider it as a Christmas present to yourself. It’s stable and responsive (with the adjustable sensitivity on the remote allowing you to choose exactly how brave you want to be) and I’m finding it more fun to fly than similarly sized co-ax helicopters. It’s also available from Amazon.

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