Archive for July, 2013

Letter to my MP about web censorship

This morning I wrote to my MP, John Hemming, via writetothem.com to express my concern about web censorship:

Dear John Hemming,

I noticed you tweeting that your geek rating is 90%, so I guess I don’t need to explain why David Cameron and Claire Perry’s attempts to censor the Web are so dangerous.

I’d like to know your thoughts on why this isn’t being debated in parliament; why it seems to go against their own policy after a consultation on the issue, and whether you (as my representative) agree with Mr Cameron’s ideas?

I’m deeply concerned at the scope-creep of these policies. We all oppose obscene images of children and rape. But those are illegal, and filtered, already. Is it true that we will have to opt-in to “extremist” material, and material on “smoking”? Who decides what is “extremist”?

I urge you to oppose this censorship by the back door, and I hope you’ll raise it in parliament, which is the proper place to debate such matters.

Yours sincerely,

Bruce Lawson.

To Mr Hemming’s credit, his reply came after a couple of hours:

My understanding is that the proposals relate to the default or factory settings of the domestic broadband router. I don’t think anyone has a problem with this.

Why not write to your MP? Hopefully you’ll get a more sympathetic response.

Added 17 August 2013: I’ve just had an hour long meeting with my MP, John Hemming (both of us lying on his floor as his back was gone, and it was weird for me to sit while he lay) about the plans for a UK-wide Web filter. He agrees with me that it’s a civil liberties problem, and we’ll work together to campaign against it. More detail later.

Reading List

Web Standards

Industry

Misc

Taffy at The Black Heart, Camden

Last week, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours upstairs in a sweaty windowless room above a pub in Camden on a scorching summer’s evening.

The reason I subjected myself to this misery was to see a Japanese punky-pop-shoegaze band called Taffy play. Taffy are a bit like The Primitives, with chainsaw guitar and great pop melodies but also sport a shoegazey-disorted lead guitar and sweet vocals from a singer called Iris. Their drummer, an ever-smiling bespectacled chap who reminds me of Penfold from Dangermouse, plays like two drummers together. They might not be ground-breaking, but they do make a great, summery sound. They’re much too cheerful to be real shoegaze, and they’re better musicians and singers than Shonen Knife, with none of their studied wackiness.

Best thing to do is listen. Here’s their latest single “Tumbling” (but the best tracks from their new Lixiviate album, Sweet Violet and Train aren’t singles):

After paying my £6 to get in, who should I bump into but drummer Ken at the bar. As my 14 year old daughter is in love with him (“he’s so adorable”, apparently) she demanded by text that I have a photo taken with him.

ken

The photo was taken by the guitarist. They both signed my CD cover. Note that Ken’s autograph is a smiling anthropomorphised drum kit. (“It’s so adorable!” squealed my daughter.) I didn’t know what Iris or the bassist looked like to get their signatures, so lost my chance at a rare collectible there.

cover

The band went on, and they were great. The sound was terrible, naturally: pub gigs never have a decent PA, the drummer plays loud to fill the room, the guitars turn up loud so they can hear themselves, and vocals are lost in the mix. Iris has a tuneful, engaging voice, but it’s quite high and not powerful. But they were brilliantly tight, and obviously loved playing. The bassist grooved around until his shirt was wringing wet, Ken flailed around on his drums, cleaning sweat off his specs between songs and never letting his smile falter. The guitarist even played an intro by hitting the strings with a glow stick.

As a band, they’ll either disappear or get really big and you’ll all be jealous of my seeing them in a room of 40 people in Camden. I think their tour finished tonight, but I heartily recommend their album.

Taffy band

Reading List

Standards

Industry

  • Call for information on the supply of Information and Communications Technology to the public sector – UK Office of Fair Trading seeks to find out “whether there are barriers to entry which make it difficult for smaller businesses to compete”, “whether public sector users face high barriers to switching suppliers, such as costs of transferring and restrictive licence agreements”, “whether some suppliers seek to limit the interoperability and use of competitor systems with their own”
  • A Gov Supreme by Jeremy Keith: “the biggest challenges of responsive design … are to do with people. Specifically, the way that people work together.”
  • Leaked letter shows ISPs and government at war – BBC report on the UK government’s “think of the children” pretext for Web censorship
  • The web: less engine, more gas – “we look like magpies constantly alighting on the next shiny thing, losing sight of the bigger picture”

Misc

PS: We just released a preview of Opera 16. Here’s a comparison video made by Austin Evans, a technology video producer on Youtube, comparing Opera 15, Firefox 22, Chrome 27 and IE 10. He tested the browsers’ speed, security and performance in a variety of ways.

I’ve got the most beautiful pants (in all of Worcestershire)

Here’s an ancient traditional folk song that I wrote a few years ago to entertain the kids, and came back to me while jamming with the little oiks last night. Daughter’s on ukelele; son is way too cool to be in a stupid video, so is cameraman.

If you’re reading this, George Martin, and want to score it for orchestra and give me a massive recording contract, leave a comment below.

(Note to Americans: “pants” means underwear and not trousers – which are correctly called “trousers”.)

I’ve got the most beautiful pants
in all of Worcestershire.
Wherever I go folks say “hello”,
and everybody wants to know
at which Parisian fashion show
I bought my beautful pants.

I’ve got the most beautiful pants
in all of Worcestershire.
Whenever I pass folks say “what class!
The haute couture cloth that covers his arse”,
and all the young bucks come up to ask
where they can buy those pants.

I’ve got the most beautiful pants
in all of Worcestershire.
Wherever I stay folks say “hurray!
They’re bright and bonny and blithe and gay!”
They’re frequently washed, but they never turn grey –
my marvellous colour-fast pants.

I’ve got the most beautiful pants
in all of Worcestershire.
When I come near, the chicks all cheer
and fathers lock up their daughters in fear,
for maidens don’t price their virginity dear
when I’m wearing my wonderful pants.

Notes on Yaron Schoen’s “Platform economics in a nutshell”

Obviously, you’ve read Yaron Schoen’s ovarian1 article Platform economics in a nutshell. Even Syd Lawrence has.

It’s an insightful piece of meta-analysis, to be certain. But I can’t help but feel that while it’s certainly superficially persuasive, it somewhat disingenuously glosses over some important points.

For example, Schoen writes “tablets and smartphones have been tilted to make better shots on Dribbble, it’s hard to see how that will affect crowdfunding in the future.” This is an obvious truism, wilfilly obfuscated by the needless “Dribble” tangent, invoking the Tinman rhetorical fallacy in order to raise the spectre of declining ARPU which, on closer examination, proves orthogonal to the central question: whither ROI in a world of increasingly unmediated business-to-consumer conversational engagement?

I can’t help feel that Schoen deliberately fails to deconstruct the disruptive effects of hybrid apps’ use of wearable web components (polymers) in the social space.

Thoughts?

Footnote 1: “ovarian”, in order to reject the sexist term “seminal”. Is it any wonder no women ever go to conferences? Even Schoen’s title “nutshell”, with its atavistic reference to the scrotum, perpetuates the phallocentric patriarchy that Kristeva so eloquently exposes. Have we so quickly forgotten “Já não há histórias de amor. No entanto, as mulheres desejam-nas e os homens também, quando não se envergonham de ser ternos e tristes como as mulheres”?

Update #1: It’s painfully apparent that Schoen is blind to sparklines showing a huge preference for disintermediated pan-segmental consumption trends.

Update #2: What’s the point of words, when an infograffik explains it all so much better?

nonsensical infographic

Update #3: renumbered preceeding updates.

Reading List

If you’re in the UK and are interested in the Web, the Speak The Web conference will be in Nottingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester this month, for a very small sum of money. What’s really surprising, of course, is that there is anyone outside Brighton who does any Web work.

Standards ‘n’ shizz

The vision behind Opera 15 and beyond

It’s not often that I post stuff directly related to my employer, but for web/ browser wonks, what Opera’s done (swapping its rendering engine and redesigning) is unusual.

Following Tuesday’s launch of Opera 15 for Windows and Mac, my chum Andreas Bovens and I wrote an overview of the over-arching vision behind it, and some of the design decisions.

When we released our first browser in 1996, most web users were people who weren’t afraid to tinker, and who liked lots of options and configurability. Fast-forward 17 years, and the Web is everywhere. Speedy browsing and sites working properly is the most important thing to many, many people.

That leaves us with the riddle that every software developer faces at some point: how best to make a UI simple enough to be intuitive for a consumer who wants a solid, fast browser that just works, and yet is customizable and extensible so that power users can add the features they want?

The answer is to build a strong, extensible foundation on which to innovate. Opera 15 is a fresh start, to which we will continue to add features.

A closer look at Opera 15

When we took the decision to switch to Chromium, compatibility was one reason — but most importantly, we wanted to spend our time on browser innovation, rather than competing on building a rendering engine. We had a deep look at Opera’s internal architecture and it soon became clear that Quick, the cross-platform UI framework we’d introduced back in 2003, was so entangled with Presto’s code that just swapping Presto with Chromium was far from a straightforward task.

The same was true for M2: adding it to Opera 15 would require rebuilding it from scratch, more to download for users and more UI for those who don’t use the feature. For that reason, we spun it out into a separate download.

At the same time, we also wanted to give Opera a more native look and feel. And hence, taking also into account that native toolkits have evolved over the last 10 years (especially on Mac), we decided to build the whole UI with native code: we stripped away Chromium’s UI layer, and built it piece by piece from scratch — a big undertaking, and what you see today is just the beginning.

At first, we also planned to build Speed Dial, Stash, Discover and so on with native code, but when seeing that the performance of our first functional web-based prototypes was excellent, we decided to go with a web-based (and hence cross-platform) UI for these parts instead. Indeed, you can open Web Inspector and see how they’re built.

So, starting from this fresh base, we decided to carefully consider how to build up Opera again: over the years, Presto-based Opera had become overloaded with features, a number of them confusing rather than helping our users — you can’t imagine how many reports we’ve gotten from users telling us that their favorite site was broken, simply because they had turned on fit-to-width by accident, for instance.

So, the approach when building the new product has been and still is to cater for various browsing use cases, but at all times, to keep the UI really simple, so that anyone can use it.

Let’s have a close-up look at four of Opera 15’s features, and explain the thinking that went into them.

Speed Dial

We introduced the Speed Dial concept in 2007. When we extended it allow unlimited Speed Dial entries, we became aware that the conceptual difference between traditional bookmarks and Speed Dial was shrinking. Indeed, rather than browsing through a tree structure in a menu or panel, hunting for the right bookmark, users were relying on the address bar’s auto-complete, Speed Dial entries, or built-in search to get to their site of choice. That gave us the idea to move bookmarks right into the browser window where all the browsing happens. The addition of one level-deep folders with visual thumbnails and super-fast search allows you to find any favorite site in an instant.

Stash

We found that modern browsers are hard to do research in. You open tab after tab (comparing different shopping items for instance), and after a while you can’t keep track of what’s where. Sessions and tab stacking attempted to help, but also confused a lot of users, adding extra UI complexity. So we came up with Stash, which is a vertical overview of items you’ve added with super-fast full-text search, so you can compare and filter. This limits the amount of tabs you need to have open, reducing the number of running processes.

Discover

Now the Web is everywhere, it’s very common to be lounging on a sofa, or waiting at a bus stop, entertaining yourself with a notebook, tablet or phone. But with a world of content out there, where to start? Discover is a feature that brings pre-selected content, in a range of languages and subjects, straight to your brain.

Off-road Mode

Not everyone is on a fast connection all the time. Opera 10 introduced Opera Turbo to render pages faster on slow connections, which was subsequently improved by compressing images into WebP format in Opera 11.10. Off-road mode in Opera 15 adds SPDY to the mix so that your pages render even faster.

…and beyond

It’s no coincidence that Opera 15 was released on the same day as our rapid release cycle began. You’ll soon see what’s on the table for future versions. At the moment, we’re looking at themes, syncing between devices and improving tab handling.

If you’re a power-user (and if you’re reading this, you almost certainly are) and you find that Opera 15 doesn’t have a feature you depend upon, first check the growing list of extensions. You may find the basic bookmarks manager extension that I worked on with Stuart Langridge fits the bill — or you may find the cottonTracks extension is an innovative way to solve a problem. If you miss Notes, try the Evernote extension.

If you find Opera 15 is missing something that you absolutely depend on, that’s why we still have Opera 12 out, and why you are not auto-updated to 15. And of course, Opera 16 is just around the corner.

We’re looking at your comments and feedback (as we have for 17 years!). Please send us bug reports if you find mistakes. Inside the company, we all have our own personal wish-lists (I keep harping on about ctrl+enter and Turkish Discover; Andreas harasses everyone about Extension APIs and bookmarks).

Some of these will be rolled out to more than 50 million users. Some won’t — we’re not looking to make a faster horse. Nor are we cloning Opera 12, or any other browser. We will continue to innovate to build the best browser.