The inevitability of ad-blocking

As I work in the content industry I’ve always felt bad about installing ad-blocking software. I’ve always felt that adverts were part of the deal of having free content.

Recently I have started to use them in some of my browser sessions and the reason is almost purely technical: adverts were wrecking my power consumption and hogging my CPU.

The issue is naturally acute on smartphones, which is why Apple is starting to allow ad-blocking on iOS Safari, but my recent problems have actually been on laptops. I have an aging Chromebook which you might expect to have problems but I have also found that in the last six months my pretty powerful dev laptop has also been going into full-fan power drain mode, often resulting in less than two hours of battery life.

At first I thought the issue was simply that I am a total tab monster, keeping open loads of pages and referring to them while coding or researching things.

However by digging into the developer tools and the OS monitors it became apparent that just a few of my tabs were causing all these problems (swap file paging I still have to put my hands up to) and all of them were running visually innocuous ads that were taking up vast quantities of CPU and memory.

With no way of telling whether any given webpage is going to kill my computer or not, the only sane response is to not take the risk and install an ad-blocker.

Since installing them (I’ve been using uBlock) I have indeed obtained longer battery-life and less memory-crashes on my Chromebook.

While I am still worried about how we can pay for high-quality open web content in a world without ads there is no tenable future for an open web that clients cannot viably run.

In my personal web usage I prefer to pay for the services I use and rely on. For those that I’m uncertain of I’m happy to trial and therefore to be the product rather than the customer.

In these situations though I am really dealing with the web as an app delivery platform. For content production there needs to be something better than the annual fundraising drive.

Frustratingly there is also a place for ads. Without advertising then everything becomes (online) word of mouth. There’s a positive case to be made for awareness-based advertising. I want to do it myself around recruitment as part of my work.

These adverts though are really nothing more than pictures and words. They shouldn’t be things that are taxing the capabilities of your hardware.

Advertisers are bringing this change on themselves. If they can’t find a way to square their needs and those of the people they are trying to reach then there isn’t going to be an online advertising market in nine months time and that might mean some big changes to the way the web works for everyone.


Peak Peak

The Guardian recent published a little spattering of articles talking about such frivolous things as peak beard and peak craft beer. While this is a cute way of poking fun at current trends I worry that it is devaluing a useful term.

Most people are using “peak X” to mean simply “X suffers diminishing returns”. Namely that at some point supply of a product, be it facial hair or small-batch beer, exceeds demand and its over-supply actually diminishes demand.

The original form of the term, peak oil, refers to the moment when you maximise the conversion of a finite resource. The point about peak oil is that once you’ve hit it you can no longer achieve the same output again. After the peak, the value of the resource begins to rise due to its scarcity and the diminishing availability of the resource starts to outweigh the efficiency gains in its conversion.

Although it seems that in terms of popular usage the misapplication of “peak” seems to be winning, I think it would be a shame if people start misunderstanding the original meaning of the term due to the misapplication to renewal resources.


The Fifth Estate

Courtesy of a preview screening for Guardian staff I got to see the Fifth Estate last night. The biggest point of reference is The Social Network with the script focussing on the relationship between Julian Assange and Daniel Berg. However whereas the Social Network focusses on friendship, loneliness and betrayal this film focuses on ambition, idealism and inspiration.

The film depicts Berg as someone in search of a purpose who finds a leader and a cause in Assange. The rest of the script plays out the consequences of success and the interplay of loyalty, obedience and belief in a radical political organisation.

The film tritely suggests that Assange’s childhood experience of being part of a cult and later trial for hacking (where his fellow defendants testified against him) is mirrored in how he structures WikiLeaks with Assange as the undisputed leader of an organisation centred unquestioningly around him.

The better parts of the film do a more nuanced job of representing how the strength of personality required to change the world in a radical, political way also manifest in the personality flaws of paranoia and arrogance.

All radical political movements are charismatic, disruptive and unstable. The Fifth Estate tries to contrast political achievement with personal cost but it feels laboured with the visual metaphors bludgeoning and the dialogue clunking.

There is also a massive problem in that “computer stuff” is just visually difficult to portray, like theoretical physics or philosophy. It’s primarily the internal workings of thought.

Really the most enjoyable part of the film are the central performances of Benedict Cumberbach and Daniel Brühl. Some of the photography is pretty good as well.

The script uses some heavy-handed techniques for showing that the leaks were not “victimless” but actually affected real people in difficult situations. The disconnection between actions and consequences for cyber-activists was worth addressing.

As for the depiction of the Guardian. Well naturally anything you know about always seems to be travestied when outsiders write about it and this is no different. Most of the journalism stuff seems clichéd. The film doesn’t capture any of the real debate about the nature of “citizen journalism” within the Guardian or the wider world of commercial journalism.

More weirdly though the presence of the Guardian feels irrelevant to the central themes of the film and therefore tends to drag on the plot. However in the real world the involvement of profession organisations was actually vital for turning the raw data into some explicable to a wider audience. That aspect of the story is some what glossed over or under-explained.


Why I’m sticking with Diaspora

Diaspora’s Kickstarter crowdfunded kickoff has led from euphoric hype to snarky unhappiness, the emotional highs and lows of which really have had nothing to do the product and the proposal but actually the perception and anticipation of a social network that would finally be right for everyone.

I use Diaspora I recently contributed again to Diaspora to help fund the next phase of development. Diaspora feels right for me for the following reasons…

A customer not an audience

It has a clear funding model, it allows you to be a customer of service rather than an audience for advertising or a source of demographic data. This isn’t a minor thing, it is actually a unique feature. Whether it is sustainable or not will be seen. Will people value a social network in the way they do Wikipedia? My feeling is that certain people do and others might and that could be enough to fund the network for everyone.

It acknowledges the primacy of the user as the creator of content

The other social networks allow you to extract your content to some extent but Diaspora correctly puts the user and the content they create centrally and makes it straightforward to extract and use yourself. The ability to federate and even pull your content and publishing entirely under your control should you wish to clearly goes further than any provider today.

It returns control to the user

It allows you to put some measure of control back on your online social life. Although this has now gone more mainstream with things like Google’s Circles Diaspora was the first to properly implement it and go through the real-world feedback loop. Diaspora’s Aspects allow to segment your network by audience and interest. They are a surprisingly powerful tool.

Is this enough?

Diaspora may not succeed, network effects rely almost entirely on volume of users and therefore it is critical that Diaspora has just enough use that there is some kind of feedback loop and you do not feel like everything you are doing is just being fired off into a void. However it does not have to be as successful as Google+ or Facebook to succeed in providing a valuable service to those who have concerns about control and trust.


Is this hardcore?

The UK mobile operators have been indulging themselves in a bit of commercial skulduggery recently in the name of “protecting the children”. I recently bought an Orange data SIM and was surprised to see that access to a games discussion site was blocked due to its “extreme violence or pornography”. Of course as with any half-arsed censorship strategy it’s still perfectly possible to access hate, pr0n and violent sites. The reasoning behind this protection becomes apparent when you try and get it removed from your SIM. O2 wants moniez, Orange wants you to register your phone and give them your name, address and other valuable demographic and advertising information (ironically because I want to pay them by credit card they already know this information but their information strategy is so screwed they can’t relate your various pieces of information). Talking to other people this censorship also affects contract customers (the justification being that like cigarettes and alcohol irresponsible adults might be tempted to pass on unlocked interwebs to children) which is the ultimate in crazy.

I’m not sure where to start on how stupid all of this is. So let’s start with age-restrictions. At 16 you are allowed to fuck who you want but reading about fucking on a website via your phone would, in the view of the mobile networks, destroy your soul.

Next how about an opt-in rather than opt-out? The number of children with data phones whose parents wish to restrict access must surely be the minority number of customers. Let concerned parents be responsible for their children rather than make every adult in UK be part of their anxiety trip.

Censorship is always bad and website blocking is particularly bad because what gets blocked are legitimate but difficult sites. It is Lady Chatterley’s Lover that gets hit by censorship not Cum Sluts Vol. 4. Extreme sites can duck and dive away from any blacklist.

Finally if this is about protecting the vulnerable there should be no opportunity for operators to commercially benefit from it. If I present myself, my id and my phone at an operator’s store then the block should be removed right there and then. No charging of credit card, no details taken.

I wanted to complain about this to someone but its one of things where no-one seems to be responsible for this. The operators and regulators all seem to be hiding behind one another and the fig leaf, of course, of protecting children.


London Zine Symposium

On Sunday I took a trip to the London Zine Symposium in the East End and filled up on a lot of zines, falafel and flapjack. Unfortunately due to other commitments I wasn’t able to spend the whole afternoon there but I was glad to get along to it and enjoyed a lot of what I saw.

The venue was pretty good, a slightly musty workshop-style space that was slightly overcrowded and under-ventilated but with a nice open courtyard and space for a wide variety of stalls. The organisation was also excellent with a lovely programme, a series of talks and a zine in a day effort. I always enjoy having an active, creative element to an event like this and the talks were really welcome as a way of having a bit more depth than just buying zines.

Personally I was looking for what has been happening in the zine scene as I haven’t really been that involved for a couple of years (I have been looking more towards the internet, of which more later) but I was also looking for relatively heavyweight zines that focussed on prose as I have enough poetry, sketchbooks, comics and collage books to last a life time. One thing that immediately struck me is that there is a wave of graphic design sweeping through and in particular screen printing seems to have taken off and people are really good at it.

In terms of content though I was disappointed, I haven’t gone through all my purchases carefully enough but there was very little that I was immediately excited about. The revolution still hasn’t come, grrrls and queers are still upset, girly kitsch is timeless and all the DIY guides still come from America. There was a sense that the topics are the same and in fact the forms are being recycled by a new generation to experience something for themselves. That’s a shame because actually when revitalising and reinventing something like DIY (as an aesthetic) or zines then everything should be up for grabs. It actually felt that a lot of the technology stuff I’ve been doing in the last year (unconferences, Social Innovation Camp) actually feel a lot more radical because they are pushing the boundaries of everything to do with their organisation, running and communication.

Of course things like zines are very broad church or at least should be. The old tensions are still there between the politics, the aesthetics, the purism but there also felt like there was now this tension between the artists and those people capable of organising very high production values and the older lo-fi crowd. It is all nonsense as usual and is probably a good sign as factionalism only occurs in large groups. The marginal tend to have to stick together out of necessity.

One thing that was clear though was that the Internet was often dismissed out of hand. That might seem natural at an event dedicated to physical works but I was disappointed as the next logical transition is to combine on and offline works in a continuum. I am a huge DIY zine fan and I have espoused the importance of the physical zine for a while. I have also been looking at the idea of Constructivism and the mass produced artefact. The photocopied booklet seems to me the logical extension of a lot of those ideas.

However as Internet access becomes more pervasive and the ability to create and host content online becomes less and less mediated it seems against the goals of the culture not to embrace it. The photocopy seems democratic but the truth is that by itself the handmade limited edition is more elitist or ghettoised than the webpage. Valuing the physicality of something is fine, valuing it over the ability to connect to an audience is an ideological limitation. The internet has done more to achieve the creation of communities and the connectedness of individuals than the physical zine has ever managed. We cannot pretend it is the 70s anymore.

For me the event itself showed a good example of how to combine the power of the web to organise and co-ordinate the event with physical tokens of attendance in the form of the programme. I will also be following the reaction to the event online via people’s blogs rather than through the zines. However in six months time the things I have seen and read will go on to form some kind of zine because it is something I still love and a format I feel is still enjoyable.

So what would have excited me? Well having a look at the pages people were creating for the on day zine I think that there is an undue emphasis on the personal or single creator zine currently. I found only one anthology zine (although there may have been two punk collectives who seemed to be creating single collective titles but collections of reviews, gig reports and interviews don’t really have the cohesive editorial content I was looking for) I would have liked a few more. I also would have liked more words, something really text heavy with an emphasis not on impressionist feeling but actually essays and arguments. Things that appeared to engage outside the personal, domestic world.

Things I did like were zines made up of digital camera photos and text messages, I enjoyed the way they reflected both changing creative possibilities but also the way our world is changing. I liked stalls that had a synopsis of the zines they were selling. I liked the artist’s books, but only so far as their cost made it feel difficult to buy something that might have good and bad moments. I liked the collectives who mixed the books with prints, cards and more conventional black and white photocopies.

I also really liked people who were selling their own food and cakes. What an obvious gap in most shows I’ve been to, don’t just sell the recipe booklets! The Symposium t-shirts were pretty cool too. It was a good afternoon and I would have liked a little more time but hopefully there will be another one next year.


Generational shifts

One interesting thing about SiCamp was getting to legitimately hang out with people who are about ten or fifteen years younger than me. Interesting differences were in views on Facebook Apps and SMS integration. Apparently there is no business proposal or application that cannot be improved by the addition of these two things. Both of which I really hate. I enjoy basic Facebook but I’ve never found an application that I really trusted to share my data with or that even had a compelling reason for existing.

I also hate the idea of web apps SMS’ing me or me, them. I can barely understand why you might want to SMS microblogging sites (after all SMS wasn’t designed for group messaging) but seriously why do you want to encourage a stream of textspeek to your website? Are we really such whores for user content? Isn’t there something really sinister about being tracked through time and space by websites? Didn’t people die to try and stop that happening?

It was also clear that the appeal of Google Maps has passed me by but I am prepared to accept that you ain’t got an app until you’ve geotagged stuff and asked Google for a map with pins and icons on it. It makes your site look the same as everyone else’s and they aren’t a coherent part of the your design but what the hell. The api doesn’t seem that complex and user’s critical faculties seem to be completely disabled by the magic of maps with lines showing how you get from one place to another.

culture, Films

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls

I saw the new Indiana Jones last night with a few friends and I was relieved to find that it wasn’t Phantom Menace bad. In fact it was the kind of action packed pulp romp that makes mainstream blockbuster cinema so enjoyable.

The trouble is that it didn’t really need to be an Indiana Jones movie. Set after the war it felt like a different era, it also falls firmly on the side of the supernatural, lacking the ambiguity of Temple of Doom. Harrison Ford puts a lot of heart into it but he isn’t a convincing action hero any more. While not trying to be prejudiced he really is too old for this.

The Mummy actually felt more like an Indiana Jones movie than the Crystal Skulls. Shia LeBeouf is no Brendon Fraser and the former’s Marlon Brando riff really doesn’t work.

I’m hoping for more Indiana Jones films but less Indiana Jones.

Books, culture

Decompress your verbage

I just wanted to share a little gem from Embattled Avant-Gardes which I am wading through at the moment.

“… this practice reflected nothing more than the typical experience of individuals living in modern conditions of space-time compression, in which personal identity become a precarious project of continuous negotiation rather than a received form that is lived out.”

It’s on page 14 if you happen to have a copy yourself.

Now I do understand what this quote means, I understand that it is a relatively compact way of talking about about a very complex topic. In fact I even like the rhythm and composition of the sentence. However… did the author really think that anyone was going to read that sentence with any enthusiasm or enjoyment? Instead it reads like the kind of dense, wordy and pretentious piece of academic barrier raising that it is. “Space-time compression”? Does the author honestly believe that the invention of the radio and telegraph actually compressed space-time? Probably not, it is probably just a yowie zowie way of describing the increasing quick transmission of ideas in the early 20th Century. It was probably also intended to establish the writer’s credentials. I expect English translations of Derrida to read like this quote but not histories of cultural movements.

The book is not as terrible as the quote above makes it sound. If you skip the introduction and the first chapter the historical element of the book seems perfectly serviceable.