What skills and technologies would you focus on for the next couple of years?

Here’s my list:

Digital not IT
Git more than SVN
Javascript over Java
JSON more than XML
Python more than PHP
Ruby even more than Rails
German more than French
Mandarin more than German
Kano more than Moscow
Kanban more than Scrum
Kaizen more than perfection
Agile much more than PRINCE2
In fact, agile rather than any specific methodology
Inquisitiveness rather than idealism
Curating more than collecting
Content design more than SEO
User needs not requirements
User research not instinct
Making more than writing
Doing more than talking
Cloud more than tin
Data not patents
Open not closed

While there’s value in (some of) the things on the right, I value the things on the left more.

Suggestions from other lovely people:



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.

Podcast recommendation: Off the Wall Post

As you might know, Shift Run Stop (that podcast I used to edit every week) is on holiday at the moment. While we work out when/how/whether to restart, I’ve found myself listening to lots more podcasts. There’s one in particular which I think you might like.

Off the Wallpost (‘a conversation about digital media in the real world’) is put together by an intelligent, funny gang of three that you want to be part of. It only took 15 minutes before there was a Ghostbusters reference. What’s not to like?

They are: Dan Biddle, a social media producer; Kat Sommers, who works in a research team developing new tech for TV and radio and Barry Pilling, a cross-platform producer. Full disclosure: I used to work with these people. I think they’re ace.

Here’s what you’ll find in episode one…

    6:00 – Artfinder.com launch. What is it, does it work, would you use it?
    13:00 – Mobile + contacts, why can’t Google and Facebook get along?
    20:00 – Charlie Sheen being bat-shit crazy on Twitter.
    24:00 – Charity and social media (covering Underheard in New York, TwitChange, Pledgehammer, ProcasDonate and more). How is online charity evolving?

And episode two…

    8:00 – Jon Bon Jovi and Steve Jobs
    10:30 – The trend of using Tumblr to do one single simple but very specific thing, like Kate Middleton For The Win. Kim Jong Il Looking at Things. [I love these so much, I don’t know where to start. I have my own collecting internet fridges and I’ve recently fallen in love with Nick Clegg Looking Sad.]
    18:00 – Facebook and Warner Movies deal – will it work?
    25:30 – Wanky words.
    26:45 – Geo-location. Foursquare, StickyBits, Google Latitude, Glimpse and more. Is Foursquare a dead end? What’s the real opportunity here?

If you’re anything like me, this is exactly the sort of stuff about which you want people to do be funny and irreverent. Why else do I like it?

  1. They’re pleasingly cutting about the jargon and bullshit which often surrounds social media experts. The first episode begins with an amnesty on the most offensive, trite and meaningless ‘wanky words from the web’, rooting out terms like ‘side-loading’ and stripping them of their power. This is refreshing, funny and fun.
  2. At usually (so far) between 35 and 45 minutes long. That’s the right length; not too long, not too short.
  3. It’s presented by British people. Not that I don’t love my friends from the USA, but in an online world where their US voices often seem to dominate it’s lovely to hear some local accents and a UK perspective for a change.
  4. It’s like a really good SXSW panel with brilliant panelists talking about things you care about (and all without having to even get in a shuttle bus or queue up).


Color: why it’s interesting and why it won’t be “the next Twitter”.

Color invites you to “creates new, dynamic social networks … wherever you go”. It’s getting a lot of attention at the moment, largely because of $41M VC funding. It’s even being hailed as having ‘a very good chance of becoming a large scale success like Twitter‘.

In case you have not yet heard of Color, here’s how Caroline McCarthy describes it for CNET

In Color, photos taken through the app are shared through proximity, something which amasses a list of your contacts through machine learning; in effect, you’ll be able to see all photos around you that were taken with Color. You’ll be able to see the Color photos of the guy sitting two tables away from you at Starbucks, but when he finishes his caramel macchiato and leaves the coffee shop, you can’t see them anymore. But if you spend a lot of time in proximity to someone–an office-mate, for example–that person’s photos will gradually begin to stay in your contacts list for longer.

Someone asked me this week whether I thought it really would be ‘the next Twitter’. I found it hard to say at first, because my first experience with the app had been so awful that I had to go back and try it again to see what I’d missed. It really is a rather hard app to pick up (and has been heavily slated in the App store reviews, often for being hard to understand) but it’s not hard to see that the idea of physical spaces having an invisible cloud of history and shared photos has potential; being able to see other angles you missed, knowing your friend was here yesterday, … you can imagine lots of fun stuff emerging from an experiment like this.

But no, I don’t think it’s going to be “the next Twitter”. Not at all.

Being based on physical proximity makes for a pretty tough first experience. Unless you happen to install and try it while you’re at a big event with at least a couple of other people using it, you’re left with a pretty unsatisfying starting point. Any app that requires you to be in the same place as other people using the same app at the same time is going to have a difficult bootstrap problem.

Most importantly though, Twitter is a platform with an open API allowing other apps to be built on top of it. Want to write your own Twitter client? Want to integrate Twitter into another app? Want to print out tweets that contain the word ‘snow’? Easy. Not so with Color. Want to make a site showing the most recent Color pictures taken in a particular place? You can’t. Unless you’re the Telegraph and you want to do a joint PR thing around the royal wedding (the sanity of which also raised some eyebrows).

That’s not to say that the situation won’t change. Instagram started closed and opened up an API after a few months. That move made it easier for people to make all sorts of really cool apps like Extragram, GramFrame, Instagrid, Instaprint, Instac.at and many more.

In fact, the most common use I’ve seen of Color so far has been that people will sometimes post a direct link to a picture to Twitter or Facebook. While that’s a useful feature (and in theory leads to more people discovering Color) it does mean that the whole local proximity and physical social discovery aspect of Color becomes optional; people continue to rely on those two tools to maintain their contact networks.

I think in its current incarnation Color is more of a photo sharing service, like Twitpic or Yfrog, with some additional features which might rarely get used. If they open up and offer an API (like Instagram did) they could become a much more interesting thing altogether, but only if it can get – and keep – users. Although I like its innovative approach, I think it’s going to be very tough for this app to become anything like mainstream.

I’ll give Color another chance, but I think I’ll also be looking out for the next next big thing.

Cross-posted to the W+K London blog.

Guardian Activate 2010

I went to Activate 2010 yesterday. It’s a conference about technology, society and the future (‘changing the world through the internet’). This is the second time the Guardian have run an Activate event (Activate 09 was very interesting, though I see I mainly ended up writing about how the event embraced the Twitter back-channel by displaying a moderated selection of tweets on stage. They did it again this year and it seemed to work, and was much less controversial, though I’d say that this year a higher percentage of people had laptops, iPads etc in their laps anyway…).

The programme featured an impressive list of speakers from a range of disciplines. It was a real treat to be made to think by a range of futurologists, ethnographers and researchers. A day to wake up your brain and make it think about important stuff. Many of the sessions were split into multiple streams, so I missed some of the best bits of the day, but what follows is some of what I saw.

Emily Bell, in what I think was her last day as director of digital content at the Guardian, introduced the day and welcomed us to the first keynote panel, which set the scene for the day very well with its ambitious title of Society, Humanity, Technology and the Web. (‘Using the power of connected networks, ubiquitous information, cutting edge technology and the spirit of the web to overcome the global challenges of our age’).

Ethan Zuckerman, founder, Global Voices gave a thoughtful and powerful eye opener. Especially for someone who had only landed in Heathrow 90 minutes earlier.

  • We need to point to, and amplify, repressed voices rather than attempting to represent them. It’s silly to speak for someone who is already seizing the microphones themselves
  • Social web = usually a place where you interact with people you already know. However, big cultural events are an opportunity to talk with strangers
  • Sending a million t-shirts to Africa (Million T-Shirts) is a bad idea. Donating clothes damages thriving local businesses.
  • TMS Ruge: “our voices count, and it would be good to partner with us – to have a conversation with us first – before any projects are started”
  • The Iranian ‘green revolution’ was mainly Iranian diaspora raising awareness in West. Twitter is not where you want to organise a revolution; the authorities read it too.
  • we need to listen to people in the developing world tell us what they care about

Jamais Cascio, The Institute for the Future is a self deprecating californian futuroligist with a TED talk and a book (‘Open the Future’) under his belt.

  • technology is culture. It’s not a field, it’s a manifestation of our beliefs, norms and politics. To understand the future of tech we need to think about the future of how we interact with each other
  • 3 drivers: consumption (watching youtube, reading twitter, reading blogs, …) creation (writing/making things), and connection (how do we relate to each other)
  • consumption + creation = attention ecology: making and reading. Largely the world we have today
  • creation + connection = ‘Lego Land’: making and creating and sharing new forms to facilitate further development. creation as collaboration
  • connection + consumption = empathic spectrum: focus on reputation, empathy (rather than attention), slower and richer than the world we have today
  • ‘will technologies make us smarter’ is less important than ‘will they make us better people’
  • human + computer = human
  • technologies are not independent of us. we create them and control and determine what shape they take

Georgia Arnold, SVP for social responsibility at MTV & executive director, Staying Alive Foundation talked about how MTV uses their brand for social good.

  • TV is technology too. 1 trillion hours of TV is watched around the world each year.
  • MTV ‘Staying Alive’ campaign = HIV and AIDS awareness campaign. Staying alive foundation funds young people doing prevention work
  • ‘Shuga’ – Kenyan TV programme. cult viewing whilst also being informative. Multi-layered social campaign: website, FB page, radio, marketing, press, teaching guide, plus lots of fan=created communities. Creativity is vital
  • actors trained with messages and become ambassadors themselves
  • success: releasing results in AIDS conference in Vienna in a couple of weeks
    stats say that if you watch Shuga you are more likely to get tested
  • technology doesn’t work in isolation. Need to think about people
  • technology is the glue that connects people, it doesn’t replace people
  • social media is not yet the most prevelant or influential agent for social change, but social media will be revolutionary in amplifying voices
  • we create everything rights-cleared for everyone to be able to use (including broadcasters)

Dr. Aubrey de Grey, biomedical gerontologist & chief science officer, SENS Foundation gave a disarmingly blunt and comic introduction to regenerative medicine. His exasperation at people who fail to fully understand why living longer is a good thing was probably less useful than trying to actually convince us.

  • SENS foundation is US registered charity focusing on regenerative medicine
  • 2/3 of all deaths worldwide are due to causes related to aging (proportion is much higher in the west)
  • because aging is (was?) inevitable, we tend to put it out of our minds rather than become preoccupied by something ghastly
  • Three approaches: Gerontology (slowing and preventing damage), Maintenance (repair of damage), Geriatrics (preventing death after damage is done).

  • claim: the maintenance approach, focusing on damage, may soon achieve a big extension of human healthy lifespan
  • his book: ‘Ending Aging’
  • eye opening quote: “there’s not much point having a voice if you’re wrong”

After a presentation from mendeley.com (who won the Activate VC pitching day award the day before) there was an interesting, if buzzword laden, panel discussion about VC funding. Bingo if you had ‘groundsourcing’ and ‘crowdfunding’, but don’t forget to take a drink every time you hear the word ‘ecosystem’.

The panel was

  • Esther Dyson (angel investor & chairman, EDventure Holdings)
  • Julie Meyer (founder & CEO, Ariadne)
  • Anil Hansjee (head of corporate development, EMEA, Google)
  • Nick Appleyard (head of digital, Technology Strategy Board)

and was chaired by Charles Cotton (director, Cambridge Enterprise).

I struggled to care about VC really, and the only thing that stood out to me was Esther Dyson’s insights about solving one small problem that make other things easier being better than trying to do everything all at once.

(Why was this a plenary session? Felt like this one could easily have been swapped with a later steamed session). Anyway, I wish we could have had more tangible examples from this panel and less vague hand-waving about ecosystems. Rather than write about this panel, I’m going to recount a little more about Medeley, which helps researchers work smarter and makes research more collaborative by building a research database. A desktop app extracts research metadata (authors, abstract, citations, etc) and aggregates research in the cloud. It can then distill trends, give realtime insights into who is citing who. Very very interesting. Clearly not aimed at me, but it looks so interesting that it makes me want to have a reason to use it.

After the break were some Lightning Presentations (‘Visionary sound bites from the brightest names on the internet on everything from the future of free to the power of unfettered information access to initiate a new world order’).

I went to stream #1…

Danny O’Brien, internet advocacy co-ordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists was excellent. He ran out of time a little bit, so I asked him to fill me in on what he missed. The last couple of points below are what he would have said if he hadn’t needed to truncate himself.

  • Danny’s work at the Committee to Protect Journalists is especially around internet journalists. Half of the journalists that were imprisoned in 2009 worked on the net, many of which are freelance without the support of big institutions
  • how do we burn in protections and reverence for free speech when building media institutions, in the same way that TCP/IP has free speech burned into it
  • Global Network Initiative – ensuring privacy and human rights of people around the world
  • whatever you build, however trivial you think it is, people will use it for vital free speech. What should you do?
  • preserve the confidentiality of your users (including protecting data from state-level adversaries)
  • make your rules public and even-handed (common trick is for states to use the tools of control against the people they want to silence, complaints, by making the rules obscure people don’t challenge)
  • keep your door open (in as well as out) – give people back their data when they want to take it elsewhere
  • make struggling speakers in dangerous regimes a use case when designing
  • turn on SSL

Sharon Biggar, COO & co-founder, Path Intelligence talked about ‘google analytics for the real world’.

  • the falling cost of sensor tech means: online research and analytics innovations can move offline, more experimentation, less need for market research
  • online shops know what we look at and choose not to purchase. Offline: if you walk into a shop and leave, the store doesn’t know what you were looking at
  • Path Intelligence works by detecting mobile devices anonymously and aggregate data around where the device goes. Currently detecting 10M unique visitors every month
  • “a little bit of information about a lot of people” rather than ” a lot from a few people”
  • At this stage, I can’t tell if I’m intrigued or frightened. This could well be an Orwellian spoof. She’s acting, right? She’s working for Liberty or someone and this presentation is going to get increasingly weird and scary until we all want to do something about it. A creative way of delivering a dystopian message about privacy perhaps?
  • surveys tend to underestimate length of time people are shopping
  • Oh. Ok. It’s not a spoof. This is an actual sales pitch for Path Intelligence’s products and services. Gosh. Why are we watching a sales pitch?

Sobia Hamid, co-founder, DataGiving.com

  • Ventroy – took data from Kiva and CrunchBase to show how many micro-enterprises could have been funded by failed startup investments
  • DataGiving beta
  • This is more world-changing, but still I’m seeing a lot more ‘look at what I’ve made’ pitching this year than last year

Matt Stinchcomb, director, Europe, Etsy

  • Etsy: “even the servers were built by hand”
  • last year $190 million of goods sold (doubling each year)
  • $0.20 listing fee, 3.5% commission
  • no reselling allowed, you have to be the maker
  • people before products
  • we think a lot about he cluetrain manifesto: markets are conversations
  • More pitching, though it would be hard not to like Matt and his open delivery.

A keynote panel on Politics, Democracy and Public Life (‘Mobilising democracy, streamlining government, improving access and empowering citizens through the internet’). Moderator: Tom Steinberg, founder, MySociety

Martha Lane-Fox, UK digital champion

  • 10M people in UK have never used internet. 2M have used it and not gone back
  • lots of organisations inviting digital engagement, and it always seems to be via the web
  • the UK could be the first country to have 100% use of internet by 2012 olympics
  • 500,000 computers are locked up in schools every night
  • computers have to somewhere you can get at them: doesn’t necessarily have to be in your home
  • don’t overcomplicate what it taks to get them online. Start with people’s passion. Focus on the benefits to them
  • People don’t yet know what the benefits are for them. Design services on line for people who don’t use them, not for people who do – start with the difficult customers
  • I think I’m a tiny bit in love with Martha Lane-Fox

Steven Clift, founder and executive director, E-Democracy talked about creating online public space for neighbours with common interest

  • every neighbourhood should have a local online space that connects people
  • Pew Internet research: 27% of US adult internet users use digital tools to talk to their neighbours. That’s 20% of adults overall
  • local voices matter, but you need the capacity to listen
  • civility matters. most people see and expect public conflict (flame wars) rather than civil conversation
  • by the way: putting up photos on the screen with ‘Creative Commns via Flickr’ as the attribution is not at all cool
  • real names work, creates reputation, builds trust and community
    inclusion matters
  • changing the neighbourhood rather than changing the world
  • e-democracy.org

Nigel Shadbolt, director, Web Science Trust & The Web Foundation talked about Open Government Data

  • politics is dog eat dog, but academia is the other way around
  • Since data.gov.uk launched, we’ve seen an ABSOrometer (how many ASBOs near where you are now). Was briefly the top free download app in the iTunes store in the UK
  • More worthy examples: UK dentists – find the nearest UK dentist
  • Showed Post Code Data newspaper as an example of what you could do with data if licensing wasn’t a problem
  • principles of public data: available in machine readable form for resuse including commercial reuse

Beth Simone Noveck, deputy chief technology officer, United States and director, White House Open Government Initiative talked about the US open government initiative, with a bit of healthy competition for data.gov.uk. Most interesting to me was a consensus on the panel that while anonymity is important, requesting first + last names, with explanation of why, creates sites in which the names mean more, with a focus on reputation and civility. I also now need to go and read the US government’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace proposals.

Final keynote presentations were grouped in the theme of Where Do We Go From Here? (‘Where next for the web? Future technologies and their impact on society and humanity’)

Joe Cerrell, European director, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation talked about philanthrophy and technology.

  • “Devices have the power to change the way we interact with media and change the world”
  • Shared examples of investments in: mobile money in Haiti, room temperature vaccines, Evidence based advocacy
  • ‘living proof’ showcase of investment results

Jan Chipchase, executive creative director of global insights, Frog Design seems to have the best job in the world. Jan (the man, sounds like ‘yan’) observes how products are used in the real world. He talked about ethnography and empathic design.

  • The poor can least afford poorly designed products and services
  • There will be 5bn mobile phone subscriptions by end of the year. 1.1bn sold every year. There’s a design responsibility that comes with that
  • Reputation has value. Reputation is collateral
  • The poor can least afford poorly designed products and services
  • And they know it
  • And now they know that you know it

Desiree Miloshevic, board trustee, Internet Society

  • How should the Internet be governed?
  • Who decides who decides?
  • Currently, mostly governed (controlled by) private sector interests
  • Used a Princess Bride allegory which I can’t relate in sufficient detail to do it justice, other than to say that the Internet = princess who is elegant and simple and virtuous by design, and there’s no clear outcome.

Clay Shirky, professor, Interactive Telecommunications Program, NYU talked about Cognitive surplus.

  • Example of Kenyan election disputed. Media blackout. Realtime news via blogs eg Kenyan Pundit -> Ushahidi
  • human generosity + free time + platform for collaboration (specifically incremental building and sharing)
  • Wikipedia is 100M hours of humans thought. Television 200bn hours eveey year in US alone. Wikipedia every weekend just in adverts in usa alone
  • Hang on a minute Clay: it was 100M hours over two years ago too.. surely that’s gone up a bit since then?
  • The future is random: Infrastructure widely spread means mass rather than depth of participation is often most important. How many people use it is more important than how fancy is it.
  • ‘Design through lack of hubris’. People who are certain of what will happen next try fewer things. People who are willing to learn through incremental public failure often find the inobvious solutions
  • Geographic spread. Innovation coming from oustife traditional centres.
  • Future is harder to predict but easier to see (globally)
  • Paying attention is a valuable tool for understanding the future

Unfortunately, I had to miss the closing presentation from Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his interview by Alan Rusbridger. Real life got in the way and I had to jump out a tiny bit early. Here are the two videos of it though:

And for much more nitty gritty of what was going on and who said what this year, rather than just the bits I saw, the Guardian’s live blog coverage is what you need.

Making a podcast – some notes and observations

For the past 3-and-a-bit months, I’ve been making a podcast with my friend Leila.

It’s called Shift Run Stop and thanks to iTunes featuring it on their Podcasts page, it’s recently started getting rather a lot more attention and listeners than we’d ever have hoped.

Shift Run Stop hits the bigtime

A few people have asked me how the recording and editing works, so I thought I’d share what little I know about this stuff and how I do it. We co-host and co-produce, and while Leila is the video editor and publicist, I’m the sound editor and chief tech monkey. I think we make a good team, and it’s certainly a lot of fun.

Recording / Capturing / Studio

We both have Zoom H2 mp3 recorders (I copied Leila) and we use one or both of them to record the audio (generally as a 256kpps MP3, which we copy across to my laptop after we finish recording). Meanwhile, Leila uses her Flip camera or iPhone to capture video tasters, which she edits later in iMovie. She’s good.

Here you can see the Zoom H2, Leila’s Flip and The Internet’s Dave Green all in action together.

Leila and Dave

The Zoom H2 is very good for the price, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a decent sound recorder on a budget. For a slightly higher end option, I definitely like the look of the Edirol R-09HR.

Mixing / Cutting / Editing

I use Reaper to edit and mix the recordings. Reaper is amazing, has a hassle-free 30 day evaluation period and after that costs a very reasonable $60 for a personal/education/small-business discounted license or $225 for the regular license.

Some of the filters I use: compressor (to even out the loud peaks), reverb (though not very much or very often) and low-pass (as a hiss filter). Here’s what an episode looks like while I’m working on it.

The editing process

Most of the podcasts you’ll find on iTunes are really quiet. I’m learning to trust what Reaper tells me about the volume level, and keeping it as high as possible so it doesn’t quite clip.

One recent complaint was that the stereo separation is sometimes too great; you hear one person in one ear and one in the other. It’s (obviously) because we sometimes record at opposite sides of the stereo microphone, i.e. at the extremes of it’s recording field. More overlap would be better. I’m going to experiment with the chanmix2 filter in Reaper to narrow the separation a bit. Longer term, to do everything properly, I’m actually quite tempted by the Alesis MultiMix 4 USB Four-Channel USB Mixer for creating a bit more of a studio setup with multiple microphones.

People have suggested that we could tighten it up a bit by removing the ‘um’s, ‘ah’s and other pauses. That’s probably true, and I do increasingly take out a bunch of the worst offenses. On the other hand, my feeling is that I wouldn’t want to go too far; leaving a bit of who we are is a good thing, and totally stripping the conversation of its natural rhythms would be bad. Sometimes I think the odd ‘umm’ can be a useful break; a sort of pressure valve to stop your brain exploding from over concentrated conversation. There are extremes here, with totally unedited two-hour long raw rambling conversations at one end (with the bad bits left in too), and an ultra tight US commercial radio programme at the other (with every hestitation and every moment of silence removed to make way for more ads).

If you’ve ever listend to Radiolab, and you should, then you’ve heard a well produced podcast (perhaps sometimes slightly over-produced for my taste), but one where the imperfections lend it an enormous charm.

In editing, I’m generally just trimming out the more glaring diversions, conversational cul-de-sacs and dull bits, cutting some of the bigger pauses and generally tidying it up a bit. In a 45 minute recording session it’s usually not hard to spot the 20 minutes of really really good stuff. We generally don’t re-order anything, or (of course) make it sound like someone said something they didn’t. I do happily switch between conversations though, and even drop listeners into things with very little introduction.

Back in November, Leila described Shift Run Stop as “an ambient soundscape sort of production, an undulation of chatter and noise, ideas, games and food…”, which I quite like. In the earliest episodes it was probably a bit too confusing, and we’re getting better at signposting what’s going on. That said, one thing I’m still really proud of is the bit in episode 4 where we drop into a couple of conversations without any sort of introduction. One right at the start (which ends up being a lead into hearing a Commodore 64 programme at in the podcast [02:30], which nobody yet seems to have loaded and run) and again at [10:03] where Dave, Tom and Leila are talking about a film and it’ll probably take you until about 11:15 to work out which one. Introducing that with ‘And now, we share our theories about a film…’ just wouldn’t have worked. You might argue that it’s confusing and stupid and annoying and wrong, and that’s just fine. Someone recently described it as ‘overhearing someone else’s conversation’ and gradually working out for yourself what’s going on. I prefer to think of it like that. It works if the conversation is interesting enough.

Publishing / Syndicating / Hosting

I use Libsyn to host the MP3s and Video files in the podcast, an instance of a WordPress to serve the shiftrunstop.co.uk blog and finally Feedburner to take an Atom feed from the blog and turn it into a podcast, while also tracking subscribers, making it work nicely in iTunes, etc.

Our setup works beautifully and was relatively painless, not to mention fairly cheap, to set up. Robert Brook was kind enough to give me some advice about Libsyn (by recording the answer to my questions in his own podcast, so you can hear it too if you want to). The only real cost is Libsyn, where I’m currently paying $24 per month for 525MB per month of upload, which is enough for 4 half-hour-ish audio episodes and 4 5-minute-ish video tasters. They have cheaper packages too. Libsyn don’t cap download bandwidth, so although Amazon S3 might have been even cheaper in the early days, Libsyn is a nice predictable cost rather than a variable one. To do it totally for free, we could just use the Internet Archive to host the audio files. Sadly, to be brutally honest, their upload is still so disappointingly flakey that I didn’t want to trust it.

Enormous Caveat: I’m probably doing everything really badly wrong. I’m documenting it here partly to share what I’ve learned by trial and error, but mostly so that people who know more about it can correct me.

TV scrobbling and attention data – What’s Dale been watching?

Dale Lane's TV Scrobbling chartsI love it when people take control of their own attention data. Dale Lane has set up a lovely TV scrobbling service in his house, allowing him to capture and share what he watches on TV.

The overlap between rich information visualisations, attention data and television is fascinating. I’m not surprised to see Dale doing it based on his impressive track record with visualising home power consumption.

I’ve been running MeeTimer on my laptop for about 9 months now to spy on my own browsing habits (and had a stab at visualising that data last year), which I continue to find very useful. Did you know that in the past month I’ve spent an average 15 minutes visiting Gmail every day, but only 9 minutes using Google Reader? Nor did I.

Dale’s project brings the same sort of self-analysis to his TV viewing, and there are plenty of interesting discoveries. He cuts the data by channel, by time, by day, whether it was recorded or live and so on.

Dale Lane's TV Scrobbling charts

Publishing not only what he (and his family) watches, when and for how long is an astonishing amount of self-revelation and probably more than most people would be comfortable with. On the other hand, I now know that he’s watched the lastest Never Mind the Buzzcocks for less than 10 minutes and I now want to ask him about that. In the same way that sharing travel plans on Dopplr leads to more opportunities to meet with friends and hence more beer, sharing your viewing with your friends creates lots of conversation starters (useful for you), plus a chance for social discovery to uncover new gems his friends would otherwise have missed (useful for the broadcasters).

Dale Lane's TV Scrobbling charts

Be sure to also read his explanation of why he wanted this system, how it works, and future plans, which include thoughts on how to detect who is watching what.

For Dale, this is all made possible because his home entertainment system is also a computer. That and the fact that he’s a very talented hacker of course. For most people, this automatic capture would be a difficult thing to set up and it raises some interesting questions about the future for personal attention data. Should YouTube,  iPlayer or 4oD  provide me with a list of what I’ve watched, or is it up to me to capture that? Will Canvas allow users to make use of their own attention data?

Imagine if future set top boxes spat out convenient XML of exactly what we’d watched, so we could all decide ourselves what we do with our data. Wouldn’t that be useful?

Update: Tristan Ferne has done a similar (though more manual) thing for nearly all of his radio listening in 2009. Meanwhile, Matt Locke points out some work he commissioned in 2005 from live|work for the BBC about user data.

“The unanimous decision was that the BBC shouldn’t use personal data solely as a source for marketing information, but that they had a responsibility to enable the public, as individuals, to own, and get value from, the data trails we all leave behind”.

Hurrah. I also know I’m not the only person at the BBC who is excited about continuing to build on that kind of thinking.

Guardian Activate 09

I went to Activate 09 today.

“an exclusive one-day summit providing a unique gathering for leaders working across all sectors to share, debate and create strategies for answering some of the world’s biggest questions.”

Activate 09

I was there for most of the day today, though I sadly had to miss a chunk of the afternoon. Here’s a taste of what I saw:

Werner Vogels, CTO, Amazon talked about Amazon Web Services:

  • Last century, all sorts of companies had to invest in generating their own electricity just to be able do business. Quickly re-fitted to take advantage of electricity as a utility when it become available.
  • The same is now becoming true for computation. Moving from capital expenditure to variable cost model.
  • Cloud computing: reduces risk, reduces startup time for new ideas, lets you pay for what you use.
  • [sales pitch for aws.amazon.com]

Clare Lockhart, co-founder and CEO, Institute for State Effectiveness, co-author with Ashraf Ghani of book ‘Fixing Failed States’, talked about government:

  • Re-rebuilding Afghanistan: the UN has no manual for building a government, and the World Bank has no manual for building an economy
  • An army and police force, paid for by tax, paid by a population who has security and justice, which requires… (it’s a circle)
  • Problems with Afghanistan: no money went to police (because it wasn’t ‘poverty-reducing’), railways (because the country was ‘too poor’) or higher education.
  • Many failed states are offline and off the grid. many won’t have electricity for > 50% of their population for 10 years
  • Citizen centered design. Citizens are interested in using the net for market pricing and the transparency of putting budgets online

Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief, The Huffington Post talked about business and politics.
Arianna Huffington at Activate 09

  • Raw data can’t be viral. You have to translate it into something that people will share, that will ‘catch fire’.
  • Were it not for the internet, ‘Obama would not be president’.
  • Mainstream media suffers from attention deficit disorder. New media suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • You consume old media sitting on your couch. You consume new media galloping on a horse.
  • The cost of launching a new business is now so low that sometimes it’s indistinguishable from starting a new hobby
  • The next interesting business to watch will be one which… ‘connects in order to disconnect in a hyper-connected society’ (e.g unplug and recharge, remember the value of sleep..)

Nick Bostrom, director, Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and founder of the world transhumanist foundation, talked about post-humanity and existential events. i.e. being wiped out by extinction or being left behind by the singularity.
Nick Bostrom at Activate 09

  • Some options for humanity: extinction, plateau of development, recurrent development and collapse, or advancement to post-humanity
  • Most significant dents in human population have been caused by ‘bad germs or bad men’ all the biggest risks are anthopgenic (i.e. caused by humans) rather than natural
  • 99.99% of all species that ever lived are now extinct
  • The Toba eruption 75,000 years ago may have reduced the population to ~500 reproducing human females
  • A ‘rather arbitrary definition’ of post-humanity: population reaches > 1 trillion, life expectancy becomes > 500 years, near-total control over sensory input for majority of people most of the time, psychological suffering becomes rare, … or something comparably profound
  • Singularity: an artificial intelligence explosion which leaves mankind behind. Proposed by John Von Neuman in 1958, developed by IJ Good in 1965 and subsequently by Ray Kertviel et al

Ed Parson, Geospatial Technologist (‘in-house geographer’ at Google) talked about mapping.

  • Ambient location finding, “the choice to know where we are”.
  • Our children will probably never know what it’s like to be lost. They will take this for granted. It’s no longer a big deal to know where you are.

Jon Udell, evangelist at Microsoft talked about an aggregation tool he’s been building at http://elmcity.cloudapp.net/ which shares local communiy events from eventful, upcoming etc, with links back to source.

Tom Steinberg, founder and director of mySociety threw away his talk about MPs expenses last night, and instead talked about new media vs old media: “this new media revolution is not the reolvution you’re looking for”

  • Joke: do you know the difference between the fall of the berlin wall and the twitter revolution in iran? The wall fell.
  • Amazon didn’t change the publishing industry by writing in industry journals about how the publishing industry could be better. It just starting doing things better.
  • What could change politics and society? 1 – the next generation of public servants could refuse to comply with current norms and conventions. 2 – or, radical change in computing which makes it harder to keep secrets. 3 – some sort of law that smuggles new ways of distributing and allocating power
  • Highly usable and simple credit card forms. (how did I buy that book? that was so easy! More people donating to obama because it was easy)

William Perrin, founder, Talk About Local talked about local campaigning using simple (and ‘unfashionable’) publishing tools

  • kingscrossenvironment.com gets 300 unique visitors per week, but considering it’s intended readership is one small part of london, it has the proportion as a national audience of 1M+. i.e. getting the same audience proportion as Newsnight in his community/ward.
  • Perfectly normal people publishing effectively using unfashionable technologies, which percolate out into wider society. More examples: Sheffield Forum, parwich.org, Digbeth is Good, Pits ‘n Pots.
  • Funding from C4 to train and support local community networks

Thomas Gensemer, managing partner and founder, Blue State Digital talked about how his agency ran Obama’s digital campaign:

  • How do you know you were effective? Because 80% of donations were raised by the online campaign
  • simplicity of giving, simplicity of volunteering
  • Blue State Digital previously worked on Ken Livingston’s mayoral election, and have worked with various trade unions, but contrary to some press reports, isn’t currently under contract for Labour
  • Ask yourself: if you had 100 of your supporters in the room, what would you ask them to do for you today? If you can’t answer that, forget about twitter, facebook etc
  • faking it is much worse than not doing it. Ted Kennedy isn’t on Twitter but it doesn’t mean he’s absent from online spaces. He participates in ways that are authentic and comfortable for him

Adam Afriyie, shadow minister for science and innovation on the role of technology in democracy, [and was the only speaker to read from a prepared speech]
Adam Afriyie at Activate 09

  • internet empowers citizens, raises expectations and reveals secrets
  • it’s not about whether you’re from the left or right, it’s about whether you ‘get it’ or you don’t
  • we need to meet expectations of transparency and connectedness without compromising privacy and security
  • conservative party has more friends on Facebook than labour and lib dems combined [useful metric?]
  • social media won’t clean up politics on its own.

Tom Watson, former minister for transformation

    Tom Watson at Activate 09

  • only 60% of government statistics are published [I’m not sure if this is a fact, an estimate or a joke]
  • civil servants who want to be on Facebook, Twitter etc at work should be able to be. It’s useful, and it shouldn’t be up to an IT or HR manager.
  • it is ‘totally unacceptable’ for the Ordnance Survey not to provide maps suitable for the digital economy
  • agrees with Adam Arfiyie that adoption and acceptance is a ‘generational issue’

Matt Webb, CEO, Schulze and Webb, as part of a panel, talked about design of digital and physical objects. [I always find Matt to be consistently quotable]

  • when my phone rings, it’s like a baby crying. I want my technology to be gossiping with me. I don’t want my washing machine to be a shitty flat-mate
  • we need to think about inviting products into out lives like inviting friends into our lives. Maybe our digital cameras are nosey. Maybe I have an abusive relationship with my email.
  • our consumption is out of proportion to our creation. This can start with putting on plays for friends and family, and knowing when our friends are around us so we can talk to them. I try to reinforce relationships with friends rather than meet stranger.

Charlie Leadbeater, founder, Participle / author, We Think / fellow, Nesta talked about African education and ‘learning from extremes
Charlie Leadbeater at Activate 09

  • we’ll learn more about the future of education not by going to where schools are, but where they aren’t
  • the biggest challenges will be in developing world cities. Cities with > 1m people, 86 in 1950, 550 in 2015
  • developing world says that Education (+ Technology) = Hope

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology, ECLS, Newcastle University talked about his hole in the wall experiments

  • children don’t need to be taught how to use it, or even the language: “you gave us a machine that worked in English, so we taught ourselves English”
  • clustering around a shared computer proves more effective than having a laptop each. Discussion and sharing key to learning. ‘self organised mediation environments’
  • “I’ve put some interesting information which is in English and very hard in the computer. Will you look at it?” 2 months later, they’d looked at it every day, and claimed to have “understood nothing”, but when pressed admitted “apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we haven’t learnt anything”
  • children’s understanding of their own learning is different from our understanding of their learning

John Van Oudenaren, Director, World Digital Library Initiative, The Library of Congress talked about the World Digital Library though I failed to take more notes than that. The site looks interesting though.

Dr. R.K. Pachauri, chairman, IPCC & director general, TERI talked about the scary reality and significant risks of climate change. [and it turns out that it’s worse than we thought, thanks to James for the link]

  • internet is estimated to represent 5% of world’s total electricity consumption (more than half of which comes from computers). ICT sector contributes 2.5% of greenhouse gases
  • energy efficiency and changes in users’ behaviour can reduce these numbers significantly
  • but ICT can have positive impact: remote sensing, information dissemination, …
  • Ghandi: speed is irrelevant if you’re going in the wrong direction

Bradley Horowitz, vice president of products, Google talked about
Bradley Horowitz at Activate 09

  • Google Apps is ‘NSA’ (Google-speak for ‘not search or ads’)
  • There is no master plan for the internet. It’s made up of billions of contributions. It’s a gestalt. It’s more like an ant colony than anything else
  • Ideas (or ‘memes’) are being selected for in natural selection. Great number of web 2.0 startups have not survived [see Meg’s excellent post which illustrates this]
  • To double your success rate, double your failure rate” – Thomas Watson (IBM founder)
  • The importance of killing projects (the time wasn’t right for Google Lively) and protecting them (Wave team was ‘given free reign to develop a platypus’ outside the normal development constraints)

One of the interesting features of the day was having Twitter on-screen on the stage at various points during the day. Regular readers will know that I’ve long been fascinated by backchannels and how they’re used at live events. The tool the Guardian were using today (developed in-house?) and the way they were using it is probably the most mature and best example of using Twitter at a conference I’ve seen to date, for three reasons.

Firstly, it wasn’t using a totally automatic feed; it allowed for local moderation, i.e. the stream was curated, with spam, off-topic and overly negative or offensive content all weeded out. The aim was to publish everything that enhanced the conversation. Meg Pickard explained the approach: “Curation for public view applies a filter which helps signal v noise” because “open access publishing to public screen is a red rag to plenty of bull“.

Secondly, several Guardian staff were present in the room and on Twitter, informally ‘hosting’ the Twitter discussion by answering questions, re-tweeting key points and generally being interesting and interested participants.

Thirdly, the Twitter stream was not shown on-stage continuously, and was only switched to when the main screen wasn’t in use with another presentation. This worked very well, with the gaps between sessions and the during questions became the obvious and appropriate moments when the comments and observations from Twitter came to the fore for the people without open mobiles or laptops.

Twitter at Activate 09

This meant a totally open back-channel continued as normal on Twitter, while the appropriate stuff was also highlighted for the hallowed ground of the stage at the right times.

I didn’t ask which, if any, of the Guardian staff twitterers were doing it formally, and which were just volunteering and helping out because they were there and it felt like the right thing to do. Perhaps a bit of both? Either way, it all felt pretty natural and was very effective. Meg, Chris, Kevin, Simon (and probably others I’ve missed) were all able to answer questions and either provide or relay additional info from the room (nice example from Simon regarding when the video will be online).

Regardless of whether you think the culling of one particular negative comment was justified and sensible or just an overly knee-jerk and defensive moderation decision, the fact that Chris and Meg were willing and able to join the discussion undoubtedly stopped the issue from escalating and overtaking the backchannel, and I noticed that it was immediately appreciated too.

Overall, the use of Twitter was excellent, and has given me plenty of ideas. Most of all, I’d like their code. :-) Instant update: Chris says they’ll be open sourcing the Twitter code next week. Hurrah. Oh, and says it again in the comments below. Double hurrah.

More links:
Guardian Activate 09 [programme, speakers]
‘#activate09’ Twitter hashtag
‘activate09’ tag on Flickr
‘#activate09’ images via Twitcaps
my photos


[image: skooal on Flickr]

I went to a BAFTA event tonight, cunningly titled ‘3D: the next dimension in TV and Games?’. It served up a panel of Andrew Oliver (CTO and founder, Blitz Games Studios), Colin Smith (Technical Analyst, ITV), Brian Lenz (product design and innovation, Sky), chaired by Guy Clapperton (freelance journalist who has been writing about 3D TV for the Guardian).

The event began with a chance to learn about the three major approaches to full-colour 3D display today, and a chance to try out a couple of them. They are:

  1. Active LCD shutter glasses darken one eye, then the other, in sync with the alternating image being shown on a standard display. This halves the effective frame rate by sharing the display across both eyes, and being an active system requires power to operate the shutters and also to be in sync with the display. Expensive glasses, but off-the-shelf (though high-end) screens or projectors. [more on wikipedia]
  2. Passive polarised glasses work much like the old red and green glasses, but using polarised filters rather than red/green means you get a full colour experience. It means cheap, passive glasses but complicated and expensive screens and projectors. If you’ve seen a colour 3D movie, this was probably the way it was delivered. [more on wikipedia]
  3. Autostereoscopic display is a stupid name for a screen which displays 3D without needing glasses by use of a lenticular or ‘parallax barrier’ layer in front of a specialised (usually LCD) display, presenting a different image based on viewing position. No glasses, but a very limited viewing angle. [more on wikipedia]

Of the three systems, all have benefits and drawbacks. There were no autostereo (i.e. glasses-free) products on display in the room, but the one I tried a couple of years ago was far lower quality than the two passive and active glasses systems I tried tonight. Both worked beautifully well, and in my quick test it was difficult to distinguish between them in terms of quality. Perhaps I need to see a more recent example of an autostereo display. (Any suggestions?)

For the other two, it’s really a tradeoff between cheap glasses and an expensive screen on the one hand, and a cheap(er) screen with expensive glasses on the other. Scale matters too; fitting out a cinema for an audience of hundreds is obviously a very different problem to kitting out your personal games computer, with equipping a living room TV (for broadcast or games) for a family of 4 falling somewhere in between. Does anyone out there have enough experience with the two technologies to have a preference for home use? I would have lived to see the same source being shown on both systems to compare them properly.

Technology: tick. What about the content? Starting with games, it’s simple enough for existing 3D games to be rendered in ‘real’ 3D rather than being flattened to a flat screen. It’s rendering problem, and since the graphics card in your computer already knows where the various objects are in three dimensions, spitting out the required output for any of the available 3D display systems is already possible.

To prove the point, Nvidia had provided an Nvidia ‘3D Vision’ equipped PC running Burnout Paradise in stereo 3D, and I must say it worked beautifully.

While rendering 3D games in 3D may be a more or less solved problem technologically, Andrew from Blitz pointed out that it’s also a design issue. Existing games have not been designed for 3D display, and while it works for some, Blitz wanted to start with a simple game designed for 3D and explore from there. They have a commercial release coming in the next couple of months; a console game which is a platformer with the 3D limited to just a few planes. It’s an intentionally simple first stab at a form in which they know they have a lot to learn. Andrew’s point was that games designers, like cinematographers, now have a new toybox of tricks, techniques and conventions to start playing with to get the best results out of 3D displays.

In television and film, stereo 3D content is equally easy in the case of computer generated (and hence a great many 3D movies so far have been CG), so perhaps it’s unsurprising that ITV’s biggest exploration of 3D TV so far seems to be building on Headcases, a satirical computer animation created in 3D, which obviously translates to stereo 3D telly very nicely (as I can confirm, having enjoyed a few minutes of it tonight).

Sky, meanwhile, have been using their existing infrastructure and experimenting with shooting everything from boxing to ballet, Gladiators and Keane in 3D.

The idea of taking existing 2D content and adding 3D perspective to it was mooted. Colin from ITV and Brian from Sky were both eloquent on the subject, saying that the filming and editing techniques used in creating good 3D content are not the same as in creating good 2D content. Eye strain is caused by making it difficult for the eye to resolve what you’re seeing, and cutting between shots forces people to re-focus, so 3D content will probably involve fewer cuts. The phrase that (I think Brian) used was “linger longer”. Taking what works well in 2D and simply 3D-ising it was repeatedly compared to Hollywood’s fad in the 20s of ‘colorization‘, something everyone seemed keen to avoid.

Brian (Sky) seemed tantlisingly close to wanting to announce something. He talked about getting past the experimentation phase and into the production phase: “we know exactly how to get there, it’s just a question of timing and conversations with TV manufacturers. You’ll see things happening in the next couple of years, for sure”. And later, “We’re not at the point right now of announcing a launch, but if the possibility of being part of another revolution in the way people watch TV is there, we want to be part of that, and we will be there, sooner rather than later.”

Other random points of interest…

  • Someone from the audience pointed out that the idea of a fixed ‘ocular distance’ of 2.5 inches (to match your eyes) between the camera lenses, is a myth. He pointed out that in fact, 2.5 inches is one of a myriad of distances that you’ll need to create depth, depending on what you’re filming. The panel agreed, saying that anything from a few millimeters to thousands of miles could be used, depending on the scale and distance of the thing you’re filming.
  • Where do you put subtitles? Andrew (Blitz) – found that ‘Hollywood 3D’ (‘things jumping out at you’ from the screen) can be too much, and they like to limit it so things very rarely seem to come out from the screen, especially because subtitles, heads-up displays etc, work well at the 0 distance, ‘on the glass’.
  • Colin (ITV) – “this is a significant evolution”. He adds that in the film industry they say it’s the biggest evolution since colour. A bigger jump than SD (Standard Definition) to HD.
  • The DTG (Digitial Television Group) is leading the first consultation into 3D TV, is the consortium of consumer electronics manufacturers and broadcasters that will probably be responsible for bringing the industry together around common standards for 3D TV.
  • There are some great terms in this 3D TV business: ‘inter-ocular distance’, ‘decreasing binocular disparity’ and ‘multi-view auto-stereo’ were just three that I wrote down.

Great event. Fascinating stuff. Glad I went.

Update: Alan Patrick was there too and took much better notes than I did.

Update 2 – disabling comments on this post for now. Too much 3D TV spam.

Laptop Stickers

Laptop stickers

I’ve been collecting photos of laptop stickers for ages.

Here’s what my ever-changing MacBook Air looks like at the moment (click the image for the Flickr version, complete with notes).

I’m always on the lookout for more. If you want me to display your sticker, and don’t mind posting it to me, let me know so I can give you a mailing address. I mean, if I’m prepared to walk into meetings with ‘sit on myspace’ emblazoned across the front of my lid, I should be able to cope with anything, right?

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