Notes on media, politics & technology, by Adam Wilcox.

DRM and eBooks


From The Guardian:

Scholastic, the publisher of such children’s book juggernauts as The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series, announced recently that its Storia ebook shop would shortly be “transitioning” to a streaming model. What this means for its readers is that books they have already purchased might become unreadable.

When you ‘buy’ an eBook with digital rights management (DRM), you are not really buying the book; merely renting it.

According to Scholastic’s website: “The switch to streaming means that eBooks you’ve previously purchased may soon no longer be accessible.”

Imagine if you got up one morning, and wandered into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, only to discover that a representative from Russell Hobbs had snuck in overnight and made off with your kettle, because buying the kettle “no longer suited their business model”. This is the insane situation we have with eBooks, and it really shouldn’t be like this.

I’ve never bought anything from the Scholastic website, but I have bought eBooks from the Amazon Kindle Store.

eBooks purchased from Amazon come with DRM, and if Amazon decided to close your account, you would lose access to all your books, (something they have done before). You need an insurance policy against losing access to your account, or the specific DRM simply being no longer supported.

I use Calibre and install plugins to strip Amazon’s DRM from my purchased eBook files. Zachary West has a clear guide to removing Amazon’s DRM.

Obviously, this should only be used for gaining full access to your own ebooks for archiving, conversion, or convenience. Don’t go uploading them to PirateBay, that doesn’t help the case against DRM and it only hurts the original authors of the books.

No Database


Recently, a friend and I were discussing a website. His website to be exact, which had been lost in an unfortunate server fail.

Despite my friend being a very successful1 systems administrator, he had failed to make a backup of the site. He really, really should know better, but his defence was that it was a Wordpress site.

I’ve used Wordpress2, and despite considering it a mature platform with excellent resources for plugins and themes, I would rather chew my own leg off than use Wordpress again.

Without launching into a full on assault on the many and varied faults of Wordpress, while it may be possible to run your blog/business/e-commerce website on Wordpress, it is still a slow, insecure, lumbering beast which tries to do everything, yet does nothing particularly well. Due to its ubiquity, Wordpress is a very appealing target for hackers, earlier today the very excellent Nearly Free Speech hosting company tweeted:

Seeing about 200k attacks/hour on members’ WordPress blogs today. We’ve taken steps, but if you use WP, please make sure it’s up to date. #

For many people setting up and securing a website properly really isn’t straight forward, and even an experienced web developer can get caught out by a subtle Wordpress exploit that hasn’t been published widely.

Also, backing up a Wordpress site is a genuine faff. First, you need to backup the files; the core Wordpress code, plus your themes, plugins, configurations, and static pages. Second, you need to backup the database. A cottage industry has built up around the unnecessarily awkward backup process for Wordpress sites.

I refuse to make sites that require a database, particularly client websites3, and have turned away paid gigs for projects that would have required a database. I can’t be bothered anymore with the hassle that goes with managing database backed websites.

This website uses Jekyll, a static site generator, which takes a collection of files and generates all the required pages for a website as a static entity, which can be uploaded to a server. No database with Jekyll, just a bunch of text files in a folder. It’s surprisingly flexible; I’ve built my photo blog with Jekyll.

Blogging is still a pretty nerdy pastime. I can count on one hand the amount of close friends who maintain a blog4, and I remember the horrific shame I felt when someone at work found out I had a website (although having an eponymous domain runs an explicit risk).

Blogging is a great liberator. It allows you to publish their thoughts to anyone, anywhere. However, using a software as a service system like Squarespace, Tumblr, or requires you to give up your privacy and control to a third-party. What is needed is something like Jekyll as an application. You could write in ordinary text files, run the application, and your site is generated ready to be uploaded via FTP. There was some discussion around this idea on the Jekyll issues page, however it didn’t seem to gain much traction or interest.

In the end, despite my objections, my friend decided he would rebuild his site with Wordpress.

  1. His hallway is probably bigger than my entire apartment.

  2. and Habari, Tumblr, Chyrp, Scriptogram. I’ve used many blogging platforms, as well as a home-brewed .asp system I never dignified to name, although Igor would have been appropriate given it was an amalgamation of bits and pieces that should never have worked.

  3. For client websites that require an admin backend, I highly recommend using Kirby, a flat-file based CMS. I’ve also recently been pointing people in the direction of Squarespace.

  4. By ‘maintain’ I mean update it more than once every six months.

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives


BBC documentary about Mark Oliver Everett, of the Eels, trying to understand the theory of parallel worlds pioneered by his father Hugh Everett III, the quantum physicist.

I watched this when it first aired in 2007, but I only just discovered it has been made available to watch on Vimeo.


The Dunkirk Carnival


After the success of the turkey festival, Mike emailed me a month later to film the Dunkirk Carnival. First stop was Cité Europe, a shopping centre next to the French terminal of the Channel Tunnel at Coquelles. Mike was keen to stock up on few crates of Chilean Merlot, so along with my role as cameraman, I was deputised to Head of Carrying Wine Boxes.

We then headed to Dunkirk for the Fisherman’s Carnival, also known as ‘Les Trois Joyeuses’. The festival runs from late January to the middle of March and is one the biggest carnivals in northern France. Dating from the 18th century, it began as a feast and celebration before the fishermen of the town set sail for cod fishing in the dangerously icy Icelandic water. Many never made it back.

The main event takes place on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Participants of the carnival are known as the ‘Carnavaleux’. The men dress as women, with gravity defying padded bras and colourful wigs, most in full makeup, bright yellow raincoats and fishing waders. Many waved feather dusters and umbrellas in the air, which, (as far as I could gather), was some sort of reference to the English being effeminate. Blackface makeup seemed disconcertingly frequent, and although the participants claim it is tradition and has no social meaning, (as captured in this short documentary by Marie Neirynck), I can’t say I was overly convinced.

The parade usually lasts the best part of five hours, stretching across 6 km of Dunkirk’s streets. Mike explained that from what he’d heard the festival got pretty out of control, and if we got separated, I was to meet him at the Town Hall at 8pm. After about ten minutes I managed to lose Mike, and spent the next five hours wandering around Dunkirk trying not to get trampled in the scrum.

Dunkirk Fisherman's Carnival

It was during this shoot that I learned two very important facts - the first is that a brandishing a broadcast video camera is like owning a magic passport that gets you into practically anywhere, and second even if you don’t know any French, the phrase “Pardon! Télévision anglaise!” will part crowds like nobody’s business.

Thousands of people swarmed through the town’s narrow streets. The noise was incredible, pipes and drums combined with the deafening roars of crowds coming seemingly from everywhere in the town. Frequently stopping to refuel (drink), the Carnavaleux felt like an unstoppable force of feather boas and garters. I was kissed by two flamboyant gentlemen, flashed by a fat French man, and fell into the arms of an extremely attractive French woman for all too brief a time.

At one point, I was walking backwards getting shot of the crowds surging forward. I felt a bump behind me and realised with horror I’d backed into a wall, yet the vast crowd advanced on me. I was about to be crushed and submerged when, just in time, a hand reached down from the top of the wall, grabbed my jacket and half pulled, half dragged me up the wall to safety. My rescuer and I spent the next ten minutes sitting on the top of the wall watching the parade pass.

As evening approaches, the carnival descends on the square in front of the Dunkirk Town Hall. From the balcony, the Mayor appears as the crowd below demand “what they deserve,” and “Let the kippers free”. This last demand is answered by the Mayor and helpers throwing a thousand kippers to the crowd. The kipper throwing is said to symbolise the fisherman’s last meal before setting sail.

My notes include an email from Mike after the event which reads in part, “Hope the balls are better”. Thankfully, in the nine years since these events, I seem to have completely blanked out whatever happened to my balls.

No Comment


From Ed Smith’s latest piece in the New Statesman on the over importance journalists put on Social Media:

In December 2012, the Guardian revealed two facts about its online community… First, the newspaper website’s audited audience for the previous month was 70.5 million unique users. Second, the paper revealed that its site “publishes around 600,000 comments a month, with 2,600 people posting more than 40 comments a month”.

Thats 20% of online comments made by just 0.0037% readers. This is why the comments section on pretty much every website is best avoided. Actually, I’ve been using Steven Frank’s shutup.css tool for a few years which hides comments on many websites via a custom stylesheet. You shouldn’t be browsing without it.

On the subject of comments, I’ve always subscribed to the Daring Fireball line of thinking:

Comments, at least on popular websites, aren’t conversations. They’re cacophonous shouting matches. (Daring Fireball) is a curated conversation, to be sure, but that’s the whole premise.

Or more succinctly:

You write on your site; I write on mine.

This is my site, my name is up at the top. Thats why there are no comments here.