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.

Weeknotes 38: publishing stuff

I’ve been quite busy in the past couple of weeks looking after a small team putting the Government Digital Strategy online.

In the words of the policy professionals who actually wrote the words, it was published as a website rather than published on a website. This may sound like a small distinction, but it makes it easier for people to link to specific bits, and also means we get the benefit of analytics. I’m hoping that more government publications will start to be published in this way.

Jack, our front end developer, has already written up the geek-eye view of the project on the GDS blog , but the short version is that we had a properly multi-disciplinary team (policy, design, dev..) all working together using GitHub with some compile scripts which use Kramdown to turn the Markdown source files into HTML and PDF.

The best bit is that we’re not finished. As with any good online product, ‘launch’ shouldn’t mean it starts to die. We’ve continued to make small improvements (you can see them for yourself in the GitHub commit history).

We’re also refactoring to extract useful functionality into other projects. The best example so far is the code that Tim and Jack developed to create accessible jQuery bar charts from HTML tables. We’ve refactored that out to be its own open source project called Magna Charta and there are some early working examples of it in action here.

Meanwhile, I’ve been continuing to look after ERTP (demo-ing to the House of Lords recently, a task which required the rather unusual step of wearing of a suit to work).

I’ve also been picking up the product management for a management information dashboard tool, which I can’t really talk about yet but is moving into a second phase of prototype development. (No, it’s not that one.)

I’ve missed doing these weeknotes. I might try to make it a habit.

My LEGO studio

Here’s my LEGO studio.

My LEGO studio

The main desk at the front is two metres wide and has two levels; plenty of space to store things I need to have close at hand. On the left of the room are a bunch of fishing tackle boxes, drawers, trays and little boxes which I lift out and place on or under the desk as needed.

Four trays   Divided by colour, but sorted by type

Windows and small parts   Compartmentalised trays

On the right of the main desk is an IKEA Vika Veine hinge desk, which allows me to store projects in progress and keep things tidy.

On the right - lid open

Inside the desk you can see a couple of cutlery trays (which I also picked up at IKEA; Rationell Variera are nice and cheap). I’ve found it’s handy to have at least two of these; one for temporarily storing handfuls of parts ready to build and another to sort dismantled parts ready to put back into their respective drawers.

This right hand desk sits on top of a three IKEA Antonius drawer frames, each of which is filled with large plastic drawers.

Drawers and drawers of LEGO

Each drawer is quite big, so in order to store lots of different types of LEGO part, I have filled some of the drawers with small removable storage boxes. I had some Stanley organisers, which each have 10 removable compartments. Plus, if you ever need to travel with a selection of parts they can pop back into their carry cases for easy transportation.

Stanley organiser Small boxes of unique parts

Different people have different techniques for storing large collections. Some even stack their bricks and plates for efficient storage, which I’m fascinated by but have never really got on with. Personally, I’m a massive fan of the lots-of-little-drawers-and-trays approach.

There’s still a bit more sorting to do and (believe it or not) still a bit of room for more storage. I’m really tempted to add some by some Draper 12015 30 drawer organiser cabinets or even LEGO’s own cabinet.

Inky-Linky

I made a thing.

Inky-Linky makes web pages 100% more useful and irritating when printed. It’s a bookmarklet that adds a QR code to the margins for each external link in the page.

It came about because I wanted to make it easy to visit a link from a printed page, and also wanted to see if I could find an actual useful use for the much (rightly) maligned QR code.

Although it just about works there are, or course, quite a few things wrong with it.

  • It really doesn’t work very well on very busy pages with lots of links.
  • The layout algorithm could be a bit smarter when deciding which margin to use (e.g. links on the right of the page should ideally prefer to be shown in the right margin, rather than blindly alternating).

If that doesn’t put you off, and you want to try it for yourself, here’s the Inky Linky repository and installation page. Enjoy.

(Oh, hello Boingboing!)

Some of my collections

I spoke at the Shoreditch Ideas Club last night, an event that Hugh Garry organises for Shoreditch House.

I wanted to explore whether the act of collecting might have some additional extrinsic value beyond the collection itself. It’s also a bit of a confession (spoiler: it turns out that I collect collections) so if you end up skimming through this list, do re-join it when you see the wooden toadstools near the end. There’s a point. Honestly.

Spoons!

This collection of spoons is probably my first collection. I collected tea spoons at every opportunity for a few years but now they’re in this box frame in my kitchen and I have not added to it for a long time. I’m not proud of the fact that quite a few of them are stolen from cafes and restaurants.

LEGO 7190 Millennium Falcon

I’ve always loved LEGO, but I started collecting it seriously at university, when this Star Wars stuff was new. A few years ago I sold a few sets on eBay (including this one), and as anyone who has sold something on eBay knows, Paypal money is easier to spend than money in the bank…

Harry Potter LEGO minifigs (bagged and ready for sale) Harry Potter LEGO minigs (stockpile) Harry Potter storage

I became a Lego trader for a while; buying in bulk and selling on eBay to the highest bidder. I ended up buying quite a lot of Lego.

Boxes and boxes of Lego (1) Boxes (stacked) with notes

As you can see, it all got a bit out of hand. I now have a rather ridiculous collection. These days it’s actually sorted into little trays and my spare room is now an actual Lego studio. Oh yes. A lot of people want to know if I ever actually play with it.

WOPR - 1 of 3 Usual Suspects Who wants to be a millionaire?

Not as much as I’d like, but I do sometimes make things. You’ll hopefully recognise the WOPR from War Games, the Usual Suspects and Chris Tarrant saying ‘we don’t want to give you that’ on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

But really, other people make all the best stuff.

The Beatles, Abbey Road American Beauty "Break's Over"

That’s The Beatles, Abbey Road by Dunechaser, American Beauty by Matijagrguric, and Break’s Over by appius95, based on the level in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 called ‘Cliffhanger’.

This sort of scene on a small base is known as a vignette. I liked the form so much that I set up a Flickr group to collect them.

LegoVignettes_group.png

This is bliss for the serious collector; a public group like this is very passive way to build a public collection. Over the past few years I mostly go in a couple of times each month to do some gardening. The group now holds 8,000 photos from 1,700 users.

Let’s see. What else?

In The Fridge

A few years ago, I saw this photo from kaptainkobold (another adult fan of Lego), which he took inside the fridge with the door closed, using a self-timer and a flash.

In the fridge

I thought “That looks fun” and quickly took my own, adding notes to annotate what each thing is. You can tell quite a lot about a person by the inside of their fridge.

In the fridge View from the inside Inside a fridge (w/ cabbage)

At dinner parties I would ask friends if I could take a photo of the inside of their fridge. They would open the door for me, at which point I’d have to explain that I was going to need them to shut it again and would they bear with me while the flash warmed up.

InTheFridge_group.png

Of course I created another Flickr group called In the fridge to collect them. The rules are quite specific.

InTheFridge_rules.png

Constraints are important.

A few years ago I became mildly obsessed with finding examples of things being described as being the new something else.

XIsTheNewY_google.png

Grey is the new black, 30 is the new 40, and so on. So I started finding and collecting examples of them.

isTheNew_search.png

Some people collect butterflies. I collected examples of the phrase ‘x is the new y’ and I was regularly going hunting, collecting them quite intentionally, in order to make directed graphs like this one.

y is the new z (neato)

I’d look at the graph and spot interesting leads; gaps that needed filling. Tea is the new coffee and coffee is the new tea, Glorious. Friendster is the new Livejournal? What’s Livejournal the new one of? As I continued to collect them over a few weeks it grew into quite a big collection. I was quite surprised when The Boston Globe asked me if I’d extend it into something they could publish in their ‘Ideas’ supplement.

roo's in the boston globe!

They took my SVG files and employed actual graphic artists to make it prettier. My first front page. Of a supplement, but still.

[Update: I've just noticed this lovely new tool Built by Bloom using Twitter's streaming API to show what people on Twitter are saying is the new something else.]

I’ve always loved this joke and for a while collected variations on it, writing them down in a list. I went on holiday recently to Poole. In Dorset? Yes, I’d recommend it to anyone. You get the idea.

swohoa.png

So my friend Nick O’Leary and I built a website to collect these jokes and let other people contribute their own.

swohoa_map.png

And because each one is on a map, you can find jokes for a specific place. It continues to attract new additions, and has expanded my pencil-and-paper list of a dozen ‘Jamaica’ jokes up to about 800 jokes over the past four years.

The Internet fridge has long been the default example of what we can expect in the near future. Imagine a fridge which knows when you need more milk… I can surf the net, cook and keep an eye on my children at the same time… Urgh.

So, I started collecting Internet Fridges. Or more accurately, pictures and mentions of Internet Fridges. Every time there’s a new Consumer Electronics show, people send me lots of links.

Pretty much every tech company makes one, but very few people seem interested in buying them.

More recently, I’ve started another ridiculous collection: photos and videos of things riding on the back of other things.

thingsRidingOnThings_thumbnails.png

YouTube appears to be literally full of videos of things riding on the back of other things. I go digging for them, but people suggest a couple of new ones every week.

Things Riding on Things

I also maintain this grid of things riding on the back of other things. Want a photo of a monkey riding on a pig? Just find the right row and column. The more examples there are in that category, the bigger the dot.

I collect interesting links and send them out in a weekly email newsletter. As a side effect, it gives me something else (beyond the links and the subscribers) to collect; the number of Out Of Office emails I receive for each email sent.

Unsurprisingly, it spiked a couple of times during the summer. What will happen in at Christmas? I can’t wait to see.

I didn’t mention this one during the presentation, but I’ve since remembered that I used to take photographs of all the books I read every month, and write a quick review/summary of each month’s reading.

20 months of reading

I’d forgotten that one.

There are some amazing collections on the web and, unsurprisingly, many of the best ones are not maintained by me…

  • kimjongillookingatthings.tumblr.com (a collection which continues to grow despite the death of our dear leader) is maintained by an Art Director at Y&R Lison.
  • kempfolds.blogspot.co.uk is a blog which collects photos of Ross Kemp’s face, folded. Running since 2008, and recently it’s been updated nearly every day. Why Ross Kemp? Who knows. Perhaps he’s just got a very foldable face.
  • sneezecount.joyfeed.com is perhaps my favourite. Peter Fletcher has been counting his sneezes since the 12th of July, 2007. Each sneeze gets its own entry, including the time and date, location, a comment, and a subjective measure of strength. Peter says

    “Think of each sneeze as a single frame in the time-lapse animation of your life. The film might depict a disproportionate amount of time spent suffering from colds, or scrambling about at the back of dusty cupboards, but the pseudo-random unpredictability of the sneeze makes it a curiously representative filter on a life.”

    “Once I had been counting sneezes for a short time, I became disturbed when I saw someone sneeze, and then not look closely at their watch or mobile phone and take out and write something … in a notebook”

    (I once interviewed Peter about this sneeze count blog, and more. I suppose the guests on the Shift Run Stop podcast, and the episodes themselves, are another sort of collection.)

So. Is there a point to all of this?

I hope so.

Putting this presentation together gave me ample opportunity for self-reflection, and I sort of want to justify myself. But:

  • I’m not going to tell you that constraints foster creativity.
  • I’m not going to tell you that curation of a public collection is an especially interesting form of co-creation in which issues of shared ownership are explored.
  • I’m not even going to tell you that by sharing a collection publicly it holds you accountable (to others and ultimately to yourself) which encourages you to keep at it.

All of those things are true, but I think it’s actually simpler than that. It’s a hobby.

Dad's handmade wooden toadstools

My dad has a stressful job, and he sometimes makes wooden toadstools to unwind. It gives his hands something interesting but unimportant to do, and helps him relax.

Now, I know what you might be thinking; this is classic procrastination.

Pencil tips

But my collections (and my Dad’s wooden toadstools) are not about intentional procrastination. ‘Sharpening pencils’ when you should be writing or drawing is risky because it’s too easy to confuse it with what you should be doing. If someone walks in on you sharpening your pencil you can claim to be just getting ready to start. If you’re collecting pictures of Colonel Gaddafi shaking hands with world leaders though (oh yes, that’s another one), then it’s pretty hard to convince anyone – let alone yourself – that you’re doing anything useful with your time.

And that’s the point. It isn’t about making something useful. Making or collecting something is not always about getting your day job done directly. Yes, it might help develop your taste, and it might even be beautiful in its own right, but the real benefit is letting your subconscious mind unwind. Not with something too taxing (or the stress returns), and not something too easy (otherwise your mind will wander). The perfect hobby is something that requires just enough attention for your conscious mind to become occupied with something interesting but unimportant, freeing your subconscious to wander around solving problems.

Think of Lester Freamon in ‘The Wire’, quietly making his dollhouse miniature furniture. It’s a perfectly absorbing activity. Other people prefer to knit (someone at W+K used to knit in meetings, which might stop working when you get too good at it). Some people write Haiku. We shouldn’t be surprised that people who spend a lot of time online have online hobbies too.

For me, my preferred way to relax is collecting things and putting them on the internet.

Thank you to everyone who heard this presentation and didn’t ask where do you find the time?

Things riding on things

For the past month or so, I’ve been trying to make at least one thing every week. This week, while digging through my list of someday/maybe projects, I was delighted to find this little beauty: “website idea: a collection of things riding on other things. Videos of kittens riding on tortoises, etc”.

I had originally been expecting to build a whole thing from scratch; a gallery, a submissions engine, the lot. Crazy. Tumblr is custom built for things like this. So, may I humbly present Things Riding on Things, ‘a comprehensive collection’.

A consistent tagging structure was required, so I’ve gone for a simple system where all entries are tagged with rider, ridee and rider:ridee. Therefore, if you want to find entries in which a monkey is riding on a deer, you need thingsridingonthings.tumblr.com/tagged/monkey:deer. Easy.

Building further on that, I hacked together a quick script to generate a matrix of all the things riding on all the other things, to help visualise the various relationships between rider and ridee.

Things Riding on Things

Contributions are already coming in thick and fast. Feel free to suggest your own.

Slow London

Things happen fast in London. I wondered what it would look like if it could all be slowed down.

I was inspired by Trey Ratcliff’s ‘Stuck in Motion’ technique and shot this on an iPhone 4S at 60fps using SloPro

The Voice UK Judges judge themselves

I made a video.

Would The Voice UK judges have turned around for themselves?

Weeknotes 2: my first big project

My second week in the new job and I’m still getting to know people and projects. One thing I do know already is that I’m very happy to be here.

One thing I love about GDS is the scale of some of the projects we get to be involved in. On Monday I was introduced to the ERTP (Electoral Registration Transformation Programme), a project which will let people apply online to register to vote. That’s pretty important. Mat Wall (previously of the Guardian) is the technical architect on the project. His team had already completed their first sprint by the time I joined, but they’d been coping without a product owner. On Tuesday, I picked up that role. Much of the rest of the week was spent getting familiar with the product backlog (expressed as user stories of course) and making sure they were prioritised ready for the start of the next sprint.

On Friday we had our second weekly show and tell, showing various project stakeholders the progress so far. We got good feedback and they were especially impressed to see the choices we’ve been talking about in the past few days delivered already in working code. This is where the power of working iteratively and using agile methods really shows its worth.  Lots more iterations to come of course, but we already have an end-to-end product working, and have made a good start on the user experience.

Speaking of which, it’s been really good to work closely with Paul Annett this week, and we have some big decisions to make about the online form. For example, should it be “First name” or “Given name”? Is it “Surname”, “Last name” or “Family name”? Various online (and paper) forms already exist of course, but it’s incredibly inconsistent. While there are some agreed standards for how to pass data around, there is no equivalent for how to describe these things to users. That’s something we should get to fix and define as part of the Global Experience Language that will be used for lots of other government products.

Things I’ve been doing this week:

  • Picking up the product manager role for ERTP. Working with the various stakeholders and requirements wranglers for that project
  • Making sure the important user stories are captured, and starting to get them prioritised.
  • Drafting a plan for bringing in a few developers to work on innovation projects. Lots of re-drafts, and it’s still not done.
  • Agreeing next steps for another big project and starting to line up workshops to capture user needs. I look forward to the world being awash with index cards.
  • Meeting various departments. I turned down one potential project on the grounds that two weeks wasn’t long enough to do a good job of it. We’ll stay in touch and hopefully work on something for the same team later in the year. More of this sort of thing.
  • Lots more bits and pieces with the innovation team, mainly focusing on ensuring user stories are captured and priorities are understood. Everyone loves learning a new thing, so helping people learn agile + scrum stuff is fun.
  • Passing on a not-as-tongue-in-cheek-as-it-sounds pet theory: good techies are lazy. Being a lazy developer means you’re more efficient and don’t waste time on things you don’t need to do. I was delighted when I overheard someone subsequently encouraging someone else in the team to be lazy and do the simplest thing that would work, rather than over-develop something.
  • Continuing to send my newsletter every week day. It’s up to 270 subscribers now, and I’m enjoying having to find a handful of interesting things to share.
  • Setting up some time with Leila to record some more Shift Run Stop.

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