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

London Comic-Con

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Last weekend was the October London MCM Comic-Con.

Held in the vast ExCeL Centre in London Docklands, Comic-Con is an odd event. On the one hand, it’s a weekend where thousands of men, women, and children can be found wearing homemade costumes, clutching papier-mâché swords and bags stuffed with poster rolls. On the other hand they are queuing passionately for hours, at events around the world, to see the things that marketers want them to see.

And the thing is, Comic-con is both of those - it’s a marketing bonanza for the media, and it’s a massive, weird, beautifully inventive costume party.

My girlfriend made Game of Thrones costumes for her sisters and herself, I decided to take the role of photographer. Here are my photos from the October Comic-Con.

This was my second Comic-Con, the first being in earlier this year in May.

The Cosplay element of Comic-Con is easy to mock if you’ve never been. I admit that before I went I viewed Cosplay a weird niche thing, that appealed only to Trekkies. I was wrong. I was constantly amazed by the dedication people put into their costumes, and my photos show only a fraction of Cosplay there.

Some of the costumes were frankly a bit shit, but many were simply unbelievable. The sheer skill level is takes to replicate a costume from a film or computer game is really quite astounding. Many people came up to compliment my girlfriend on the costumes she’d made, wanting to ask questions as to the fabric and how she’d achieved certain stitching. I couldn’t count the number of times people wanted to take photos of them. At times it felt more like convention for fashion designers.

There is an Exhibit Hall for dealer stands and exhibitors selling all sorts of merchandise based on games and films and comics. The replica Lord of the Rings weapons are impressive (though the prices are eye-watering), and the stand selling Studio Ghibli items would have made a significant dent in my wallet if I hadn’t purposely avoided it.

I guess the appeal of the big Comic-Con events in New York or San Diego is the chance to meet really big Hollywood celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence or Hugh Jackman, film directors and superstar authors like George R.R. Martin.

The stars at Comic-Con London… erm, well not so much. Daniel Radcliffe was there on the Friday, but as for the weekend the biggest stars I recognised that they managed to muster were Danny John-Jules and Hattie Hayridge from Red Dwarf. Not that’s not to take anything away from Danny John-Jules1, or Hattie Hayridge, but I think even they would agree that when compared to Jennifer Lawrence… well they probably don’t get invited to the same parties.

Danny John-Jules looked great and has seemingly never aged, but damn Hattie Hayridge looks old. When I was there in May they had Robert Llewellyn signing autographs… and Shane Richie. Shane Richie!?! I am just as puzzled as you are, I don’t know why he was there either. I suspect he was pretty miffed that Kryten was more popular than him. Apparently Troy Baker was there last year, who I would have loved to meet.

You can take a look at the other Special Guests listed on the website. See how many you can recognise. I managed to recognise two, but had to dock myself a point as I’d mistaken one of them for someone else.

I walked past the table where former members of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were charging £15 per autograph. They looked lonely.

I also saw cosplayer Jessica Nigri who has seemingly built a career on the back of being blond, attractive and willing to wear a variety of fluffy bikinis ‘inspired’ by pop culture characters. I shouldn’t knock Nigri, she seemed genuinely friendly to every nervous bloke who shuffled up to have a photo taken with her.

The unashamed, warm acceptance of full blown nerdity at Comic-Con brought a warm glow to the little black husk where my heart used to be. We’ll be going back in May.

  1. Forever in my mind ‘Barrington’ in the greatest children’s sitcom of all time Maid Marian and Her Merry Men

A Former Web Designer

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For fifteen years, I’ve worked as a website designer for hire, as a freelancer and a contractor. And now I’ve quit.

It was much easier when I started out in the mid 90s, mostly because all you really needed was a computer and the conviction you knew better than most other people. Which, was generally true 15 years ago when the guys who ran companies had no idea what a website was, except that they didn’t have one.

Web design was ludicrously easy industry to enter, a basic understanding of HTML would get you most of the way. There was plenty of demand for cheap work to get started, and you could increase your price as you got better. Today, web design is considerably more complicated; responsive design, retina images, CSS, jQuery, mobile apps, tying into social networks, backend databases. Working as a one-man shop is less and less viable, and frankly there are a lot of keen young chaps in India or Vietnam who can do the job for a lot less than I can.

I’m not saying I don’t enjoy using the tools we have to play with now, but I no longer have the patience to corral these features into a unified thing that pleases someone who’s main concern is flogging overpriced driving lessons.

It wasn’t one specific client, but I’ve lost almost all interest in being a web designer for anything other than my own projects. Too many clients seem to want to sabotage their own projects with terrible design sense. I’ve had my share of clients from hell, and some commissions have been through the Oatmeal experience.

As a sideline I was never very partially happy with the responsibility of other people’s businesses relying on my hobby in my spare time. It wasn’t helped by having to support obscure browsers, and frequently receiving Word documents full of pictures and poorly spelt text, with the expectation I would be able to magic it into something acceptable. I refused to play dumb SEO games, create ugly “call to action” buttons and otherwise cock around with social media unnecessarily; ‘you’re a care home- the core demographic are not going to “Like” you on Facebook’.

So I’ve quit. My full time job takes up more than enough of my time, and new pastimes are now my focus when I’m not working. Frankly it feels good to only be making websites that I am truly proud of.

Gunpoint - A Case of Crossed Wires

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Gunpoint is a great little noir stealth puzzle game. Here’s the trailer. Best £6 I’ve spent in a while, with a wonderful soundtrack. You can get the game on Steam for Windows, Mac and Linux.

#permalink

Apple Encryption and Washington Post Criticism

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iOS 8 comes with updated encryption of user data, both locally on the iPhone or iPad device and stored remotely via iCloud. Whereas previously only some of the data was encrypted, now much more of it is- specifically photos and text messages which tend to be of interest to the Police and Law Enforcement.

Apple’s updated privacy statement goes into more detail, but essentially data is now encrypted with a user set key and Apple does not have a way of unlocking the data without that key. So even when law enforcement obtain a search warrant, Apple cannot be compelled to turn over the data, only the user can. 1

The Washington Post reported on this in an editorial, noting that:

FBI Director James B. Comey said he could not understand why the tech companies would “market something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law.”

The problem here, is that the FBI, (and the other Five Eyes, have shown that they repeatedly place themselves beyond the law. Edward Snowden exposed the mass surveillance of phone and internet communications by our governments.

They have been actively working to degrade international standards to promote vulnerable cryptography, sweeping up huge quantities of private data and information on private citizens across the world. They have also found ways to break SSL connections; that’s the foundation of how you and I do any kind of banking and shopping securely online.

The Washington Post editorial went onto say that:

This is not about mass surveillance. Law enforcement authorities are not asking for the ability to surveil everyone’s smartphone, only those relatively few cases where there is a court-approved search warrant. This seems reasonable and not excessively intrusive.

The Washington Post said that. The paper in which Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal. No, “law enforcement authorities are not asking for the ability to surveil everyone’s smartphone”… they already are, and have been for years, with breath-taking arrogance. This is everything about mass surveillance, and the Washington Post is losing any credibility to stand for independent, robust reporting.

The Washington Post editorial board went on to say:

How to resolve this? A police “back door” for all smartphones is undesirable — a back door can and will be exploited by bad guys, too. However, with all their wizardry, perhaps Apple and Google could invent a kind of secure golden key they would retain and use only when a court has approved a search warrant.

John Gruber’s response:

Just use their magic to help the good guys. Maybe if Apple and Google can’t figure this out, they can get help from the computer science department at Hogwarts.

The Washington Post states that “smartphone users must accept that they cannot be above the law if there is a valid search warrant.” However, Apple has not deliberately designed a system that prevents law enforcement from executing legitimate warrants. Apple have built a system that prevents anyone from getting hold of your data, be they hackers, disgruntled Apple employees, criminals, hostile foreign governments and your own government.

You can choose not to use many of the security features available on your iPhone, and you can choose more generally not to be careful about the data you provide to third parties. This is about customers being responsible for the security of their data; not Apple.

  1. That is an oversimplification, and there are caveats which cryptographer Matthew Green explains.

Antisocial - Ello and Facebook

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There is a new social networking site, Ello.co, which is “simple, beautiful & ad-free.”

Ello has been bubbling under the surface since March this year, but over the last week a number of articles have inflated its profile and non-tech people have become aware of its existence. It’s an attractive new service pitching itself under the banner of “Facebook is rubbish these days, vive la révolution!”

I’m not that old - within shambling distance of 30 - but I’ve been online for long enough to see various social networks come and go. The dominant social network currently is Facebook, with 71% of the internet using the site, and despite predictions that the site will lose up to 80% of its users within the next three years, it remains a seemingly unstoppable beast.

Ello isn’t the first anti-Facebook; I had an account on App.net and backed Diaspora on Kickstarter, but neither have gained any traction other than with the first wave nerds.

I deleted my Facebook account in November 2012, and in the almost two years since then I’ve hardly missed it. I realise I’m not normal in this regard, along with Facebook my Google account is gone. LinkedIn never sat well with me. I guess I’m just not a social network kinda guy.

I’ve stuck with Twitter, even though I’ve assumed for ages now that eventually Twitter will become unusable. I don’t know what replaces it though, if it wasn’t for the various forms of Tweetbot I’d struggle to use Twitter’s own product as it is.

Ello promises to be the new Facebook, a Facebook without adverts and selling out your data. That promise already seems questionable, as Ello has taken a $435,000 round of seed funding in January from FreshTracks Capital, a Vermont-based VC firm. VCs expect a return on investment. Ello says that it’s going to monetise by selling features. It might work, but enough to be sustainable and keep VCs happy? Not likely Andy Baio:

VCs don’t give money out of goodwill, and taking VC funding — even seed funding — creates outside pressures that shape the inevitable direction of a company.

Every social network I’ve used has either failed to gain enough traction to encapsulate the full range of people that make up ones nearest and dearest, or been forced to pivot from social utility to corporate advertising media platform.

Social Networks are “YOUR FRIENDSHIPS! (Sponsored by Subway)”. Two incompatible forces of social connectedness and corporate interests.

I can’t work up any enthusiasm for Ello. I certainly don’t intend to use Ello. Maybe I am just getting old. Or maybe social networks have had their day. Facebook is 10 years old this year, and the internet has changed so much in 10 years.

When Facebook started, communication online wasn’t particularly easy. It was message boards and forums. You could contact friends online via email and instant message. Both required a desktop computer, and often only after checking no one else needed to use the phone-line. Today email and instant message have been replaced by… email and iMessage.

My iPhone can contact anyone, anywhere, anytime. I don’t need a social network to facilitate my interactions with friends and family.