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”.
Here’s what happened.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Neily Denny shared memories, maps and photographs of five breakfasts, which ranged from delicious to disgusting.
- Helen 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.
- Roo Reynolds (that’s me!) shared some of my collections in roughly chronological order, which you can actually read all about here.
- 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.
- 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.
- Andrew Male talked about yellow lines and their relation to the Festival of Britain and post-war zoning regulations.
- James Brown enthused about one of his favourite TV programmes; Antiques Road Trip.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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!”.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
A new paper out today from Deloitte called ‘TV+: perspectives on television in words and numbers‘ which covers some subjects close to my heart. I was particularly pleased to be invited by the Guardian to appear in some brief podcasts discussing it (along with Tess Alps from ThinkBox, George Entwistle from the BBC, Richard Welsh from Bigballs Films, Sally Quick from UKTV, James Bates & Paul Lee from Deloitte, all chaired by the brilliant Aleks Krotoski).
The PDF itself is secured, making it hard for me to copy and paste some choice quotes for you. Oh well. Here are some rough notes anyway.
TV as “the super medium around which all others revolve”.
The primacy of TV is defended in terms of hours of consumption, but I think there may be more to it than that. Would would it take for the internet to become the primary medium? Hours of consumption? Reach? Share of total advertising spend? We know that the share of advertising revenue spent on TV, press and internet are now about equal (26-27% / £4B each) with internet spend just slightly below the other two. TV has been stable, press has been falling and internet has been rising. What happens next year, if internet overtakes TV spend? There’s an argument that we could be very close to the moment when the Internet becomes the primary medium for advertising. That doesn’t necessarily make it the primary medium for culture, but I’d argue we’re moving towards that too. [According to Ofcom, the percentage of 8-11 year olds who would rather give up TV than internet is 15%, and rising. Even more striking, "children aged 12-15 are now as likely to miss the internet (24%) and mobiles (26%) as they are to miss TV (24%)". Interesting times ahead.]
1.) TV+ proliferating portable screens
Increased opportunity to watch TV thanks to increase in access to mobile devices, apparently. Hmm. My view is that just because someone can watch TV on a small screen doesn’t mean they will always want to. I’d expect mobiles devices to be largely used for clip-snacking rather than people watching 30 minutes of TV on the move (though no doubt there will be some more of that too).
Colour e-ink capable of fast refresh rates. (Imagine something like a Kindle, but in colour and capable of video.) This will indeed be amazing. I’m still not sure we’re going to be watching whole episodes of X Factor in the park though. Personally, I think the power of mobiles will not be in watching TV, but as a second screen allowing you do browse, chat, buy etc simultaneously and individually, without cluttering up the big shared living room screen. Million Pound Drop had an online game (by Monterosa for Channel 4) allowing you to play at home. With good on air calls to action they had 12.4% of the TV audience simultaneously playing on their second screen. For advertising, things like the Honda Jazz app and the Heineken ‘Star Player‘ game are just the start.
2.) TV+ social networks
“Social networks and television complement each other” Couldn’t agree more. Both for TV makers and advertisers, the opportunities here are massive.
Popular programmes are what drive social chatter. – I can certainly confirm that producers and commissioners are very interested to know “did we trend on Twitter last night?” But some interesting ones are thinking about how to make sure their programmes work well online too. Seven Days was deeply flawed in many ways, but a format that tried (and arguably succeeded) to ensure people would talk about it and share it online. The BBC, too, puts a lot of effort into helping people know where the online conversations are happening online (whether it’s linking to the buzz about each programme from its official web page (like this), or putting a hashtag on screen at the start of certain programmes).
35x more time spent watching TV than using using social networks. (more people are watching TV, and for longer, than using social networks). This is probably the fact with which TV execs in Edinburgh will be reassuring themselves in Edinburgh this week. I’m not sure this helps us understand the underlying patterns though, for two reasons. First, because TV viewing figures measure “presence rather than attention” (to quote the brilliant Matt Locke), and time spent watching TV is very different from time spent conversing, sharing, creating, etc. And second, because the average time spent online is not a particularly useful measurement. I’ve been re-reading Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody recently. He writes “the most active [in social systems such as Wikipedia and Flickr] tend to be much more active that the median participant, so active in fact that any measure of ‘average’ participation becomes meaningless. There is a steep decline from a few wildly active participants to a large group of barely active participants, and though the average is easy to calculate, it doesn’t tell you much about any given participant.”.
Conclusion: “Television and social networks could each exist independently of each other” … but “the two media are strongest when working in parallel”. Yes.
3.) TV+ technology
PVRs: people think they’re watching fewer adverts but actually, they’re watching more. (As with ‘TV is not going away’, this is actually something people have known for a while.) It’s a good fact though.
47% of 16-24 year old PVR owners always, frequently or occasionally stop fast forwarding through ads if they see an advert or trailer that interests them. – Interesting to think of opportunities to develop advertising that works well on PVRs. A three minute spot, with 18 seconds of film played out at 1/10th normal speed, would be really annoying unless you were fast forwarding it. Let’s not make one of those.
I dispute that claim that YouTube is now “focused on professionally produced content, with television programmes featuring prominently”. I’d suggest that the vast majority of YouTube’s content is still people “broadcasting themselves”, despite the (very sensible) moves to showcase professional content too.
4.) TV+ advertising
TV advertising remains strong.
“This is why the most successful campaigns tend to run across multiple media – each complementing the other, each reaching the target audience in a different context, but all conveying the core message.” – Spot on. At work, we call this an integrated campaign.
5.) TV+ shopping
TV is about as important as recommendation by a friend, while ‘I came across it on FB/twitter’ are very low. Interesting, but I think there could be a bias in that survey against recommendations made online, especially as social networking becomes mainstream and not something people think about as a specific activity (just how they stay in touch with some friends).
All in all, a really interesting piece. Well worth a read.
Some people on the ground, including some friends, initially seemed to think the Stormtroopers on the ground were a stunt for a new VW poster. At least until they noticed what was really going on. (Talking to some creative friends, there’s a consensus that the line on the poster could have been a lot clearer. Confusion, where it happens, seems to me to be mainly from people who glimpsed the poster in person.)
“Develop your skills as a Jedi to help further the rebellion.”
Even more interesting than the poster takeover is the VW Dark Side web site. An impressive and slick site which rewards people for campaigning. Users start as a ‘Youngling’, campaigners can progress to be ‘Baby Ewok’ and work their way towards Jedi hood, earning points for spreading the campaign message. There’s a FAQ in Yoda speak and lots more nice touches to discover too.
And even more interesting than that is the way Greenpeace have subverted VW’s now famous brand association with Star Wars and come up with an integrated campaign. It feels big, significant, and well orchestrated. I’m sure they get a lot of services donated, but the production values are sky high; it feels expensive.
Greenpeace are co-optings the David vs Goliath / Jedi vs Empire story (overlooked by VW in their own use of the cute Darth Vader), casting VW as the evil empire and calling for people to join a rebellion. I think it’s enormously clever and I wonder how long before VW responds.
After the traditional Final Countdown singalong and introductions from Russell, we were all very much in the mood for an interesting day.
- MJ Hibbett performed Hey Hey 16K, Theme From Dinosaur Planet and Do The Indie Kid, all with audience participation.
- Sarah Angliss (musician, engineer and writer) played the theramin and a motorised disembodied ventriloquist doll head called Hugo ["Hugo was rescued from the attic of a dead magician."]
- Nine Owls in a Baguette performed on a massive modular snyth and a large Programmable Musical Pig.
- Meanwhile, Timmy Print Face (a Microprinter) was running all day, printing tweets about interesting including a rather lovely ASCII representation of Twitpics. (I was delighted to learn that it uses my Ruby microprinter library. Hurrah for sharing code).
- Something else happening all day, and nicely timed to finish just as the event was wrapping up, was Sandy Noble’s Polargraph printer, busily printing Russell’s face. [Watch this great video from Nick]
- And there’s more. The National Museum of Computing bought along some things from their BBC Domesday collection, plus an ASR-33 Teletype and Elite running on on a BBC Micro. What more could a geek possibly want?
After the Hack Circus, there followed a short period of making and doing, including Words and Pictures who helped us make a comic, and Oli Shaw and Lynda Lorraine who set up a plasticine creature creation workshop / stall [here are the results while Matthew Solle + friends allowed people tro try out their collection of circuit bent toys and other musical instruments.
To get us in the mood for lunch, Chris Heathcote led us in an amazing hands on session of molecular gastronomy. First, to see if we were 'supertasters' we all tried sodium benzoate (which I couldn't really taste), phenylthiocarbamide (which tasted bitter and unpleasant. I think that means I tend towards liking sweet flavours. Which is true). Next we sampled dried tomato powder, pop rocks and monosodium glutamate before making tomato caviar (spherised tomato passata) and lastly trying miracle fruit (active ingredient: miraculin!) which confuses the taste buds normally receptive to sweet flavours to also be excited by sour ones. Lemons taste amazingly sweet, but the flavours in grapefruit and lime are what it's really all about. If you've never tried it you really must. [More info and links for further reading via Chris here]
After lunch, Alby Reid (possibly the best science teacher in the world) used 1000 Mousetraps and 2000 ping pong balls to demonstrate nuclear fission. Serious fun.
[Alternatively, a much more lovely mouse-eye-view video from Paul Downey here.]
A massive, massive thank you to Russell and everyone involved in making it such a brilliant day.
Tom Uglow, (Creative Director, Google and YouTube, Europe) talked about “What if the Web is a Fad?”. He’s pretty sure the internet isn’t going away, but thinks the web as we know it could be on shaky ground. He also pointed out that people don’t want to interact with cultural institutions online. They want to interact with the content.
Clare Reddington (Director, iShed and Pervasive Media Studio) asked “What if We Forget about Screens and Make Real Things?” asking what if all objects had their stories attached to it? She also showed, and sat next to, Tweeture.
Leila Johnston (author, blogger & comedy writer) asked “What if We Have Fun?”, and said ‘If you’re looking for inspiration, everything is fun; toys are all around you, even if they don’t seem like toys’. [update: more notes and links from Leila]
Tom Armitage (Creative Technologist, BERG @infovore) challenged: “Sod big data and mashups: why not hack on making art?” and referenced about several of the works of Tom Philips, plus Caleb Larsen’s ‘A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter‘ (an installation that continually tries to sell itself to the highest bidder)
Tom Dunbar (Producer, Hut V) asked “What if the audience had access to metadata embedded in visual media?”” and imagined
Nick Harkaway (author and blogger for FutureBook @harkaway) asked “What if you need IP?” – and made the point that privacy protection often goes hand-in-hand with IP protection. [Update: Nick shared his own notes here.]
Chris Thorpe (ArtFinder @jaggeree) asked “What if you could see through the walls of every museum and something could tell you if you’d like it?” and imagined the ‘angel’ character in Disclosure walking around galleries; wants people to look at the art, not screens. ‘technology should get out of the way’.
The movie ‘Up’, as sampled and remixed by the Australian DJ, Pogo.
It’s brilliant! It’s in my head. It has spawned this brilliant lipsync tribute too. Upular was commissioned by Disney Pixar (and so appears in Disney’s YouTube channel as well as Pogo’s own. Interestingly, of the two, the Disney one currently has fewer views). More recently, he has also worked on an officially sanctioned film for Toy Story Film called Toyz Noize.
Before that, Pogo was entirely sampling various films on the basis of Fair Use. He’s known for having sampled Alice in Wonderland (Alice), Hook (Bangarang), Terminator (Skynet Symphonic), Harry Potter (Alohomora) and more. He’s suffered several take-downs on YouTube as a result, and has written and spoken about copyright and fair use; to quote him, “remix culture is all about interpretation, not theft”. This guy’s body of work embodies why Fair Use is important.
I’ve been working with Leila Johnston on a new thing. It’s a fortnightly podcast called Shift Run Stop and as she explains it’s “an ambient soundscape sort of production, an undulation of chatter and noise, ideas, games and food”. Editing it is a lot of fun, as are the weekly recording sessions.
- Tom Loosemore on the race to sail faster than 50 knots.
- Jessica Greenwood on why the least interesting things about sport is the score (football, with all its attendant drama, is a $500B industry).
- Robert Brook spoke on being a gentleman (by birth, costume or behaviour).
- Toby Barnes on a brief history of cheating in video-games (cheating, when it involves other people, is wrong).
- Leila Johnston read some snippets from her very funny book, ‘The Enemy of Chaos‘
- Cait Hurley talked about Arthur Jefferson (Stan Laurel’s dad and an awesome guy).
- Alby Reid told us that everything we knew about nuclear power was wrong (How many people died as a result of Chernobyl? 56.)
- Katy Lindemann enthused about robots (Tweenbots are especially adorable).
- The very cute Bubblino made an appearance on stage (blowing bubbles across the stage every time ‘interesting’ was mentioned on twitter).
- Dominic Tinley explained why we don’t see the colour violet on our computers and cameras, as well as what Radio 4 would look like if we could see sound.
- Andy Huntington took us on a tour of keyboard instruments and explained ‘equal temperament’.
- Alice Taylor talked about ‘merchants vs craftants’ (give some love back to the crafters).
- Tim Duckett kindly taught us morse code in 10 minutes. For example: Z = Zinc Zoo kee-per = - – . .
- Michal Migurski talked about maps and paper and a much-photocopied intersection map of San Francisco (paper wiki).
- Josie Fraser talked about psychological violence in UK 1970s and 80s girls comics (‘it can be dangerous to mock a monkey’).
- Dan Maier talked about Sir Francis Galton (I now really want to read Galton’s book ‘The Art of Travel‘, and to a lesser extent his thoughts on ‘Africa for the Chinese’ (“one of the 5 most racist things I’ve ever read”, according to Dan) and ‘Arithmetic by Smell‘).
- Asi Sharabi showed us 6-8 year old children’s ideas of interestingness (which centered around technology, friends, motors and animals).
- Meg Pickard taught us about drinking rituals and associated customs (toast, cheers, your good health, chin chin, rule of thumb).
- Alex Deschamps-Sonsino got us to make a very complicated origami box.
- Tuur Van Balen talked about yoghurt and DNA synthesis (“I’ve never done bio-technology under such time pressure!”)
- Jon Gisby taught us how to conduct a symphony orchestra (“It’s like riding a horse at speed; fun, but with a significant risk of abject and public failure”).
- Jessica Bigarel discussed, and beautifully presented, her meta meta data data (capturing each flight of stairs travelled up or down was “an arduous dataset and it was very disruptive to my life”).
- Craig Smith talked about his dad (“he sharpens a drill bit better than any man in Huddersfield”) and showed us the types of water wheels (under shot, breast shot, over shot and pitch back).
- Tom Fishburne talked about innovation and cartoons.
- Anab Jain talked about her Indian superpowers.
- Naomi Alderman talked about greek tragedy and goats.
- Gavin Bell talked about the writing of his new ‘Social Web Applications’ book (wifi is a blessing and a curse).
- Emma Marsland shared the ponies she has loved, real and imagined, from since 1970
- Nick Hand shared his ongoing journey around the coast of mainland Britain (5000 miles in 100 days).
- We heard about the ‘BIL‘ unconference in Oxford next summer (BIL is to TED as Bar camp is to Foo camp).
- Mark Earls and his Darwinian Display Team demonstrated random drift.
- Robert Thomas demonstrated RjDj (‘Music as Software’).
- Gem Spear talked about electric trains and underground creeks (GM’s inglorious part in killing off the inter-urban railway systems in the US, and a rather nice discussion of running surface runoff water through gardens rather then through underground culverts).
- Paul Hammond showed us how to win at Monopoly (if you can buy it, buy it; trade up to a full colour group asap; go for the oranges (stats!); unless it’s early in the game, stay in jail; create a housing shortage; don’t play house rules, as they’ll only make the game take too long; don’t play it at all, it’s a rubbish game. Instead, play German board games, which are not all German and not all board games).
- David Smith gave a touching and powerful talk about teaching (you can’t teach children well unless you love children).
- Richard Reynolds mentioned his Guerilla Gardening book and told a lovely story about planting sunflowers opposite Parliament.
- We watched Jim Le Fevre‘s beautiful astrotagging film.
- Claire Margetts told us about the ‘Do’ lectures.
- Matt Ward showed us why frivolity is important by showing his plans for watching a bullet reach the top of its trajectory (“Understanding comes through doing”).
- Dan Germain talked about sunsets (“basically, when the sun disappears”, by which time it has apparently already happened) and asked why we persist in taking bad photos of them, pondering whether it’s because they remind us of death).
I don’t often talk about work projects, but I cant hold my tongue about this one. I’ve been rather excited about it for a while, and it went live today.
Adam Curtis is the documentary filmmaker behind ‘The Power of Nightmares‘, ‘The Century of the Self‘ and more. Recently, he’s done some pieces for Screenwipe about the rise and fall of the television journalist and another about ‘oh dearism’ in the news for Newswipe.
Adam writes: “This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives.”
All rather exciting. Of course, the rights issues with some of the clips, and especially the music, make it hard to publish them all for an internet-wide audience and sadly some of the content has to be restricted to the UK for right reasons, but the plan is for as much as possible to be globally available as the blog goes forward.
Some related links:
- It Felt Like a Kiss – Adam Curtis and Felix Barrett with Punchdrunk, original music by Damon Albarn – Manchester International Festival, 2nd – 19th July 2009
- Guardian video about ‘It Felt Like a Kiss’
- The Register – inside Adam Curtis’ funhouse
- Update: (Saturday) – Charlie Brooker’s piece in this weekend’s Guide has an interview, and concludes with “TV industry! Here’s a little bombshell for you. From now on, all of Curtis’s work will be produced first and foremost for the internet…”
While I’m pimping BBC blogs, other recent-ish blog launches you might have missed: