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

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Terry Pratchett

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My dad introduced me to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels when I was about 11. At a time when other boys had posters of Melinda Messenger and Gillian Anderson on their walls, I had a poster of the Discworld. More than anything else, Terry Pratchett’s books are what I think about when I reflect on my teenage years.

I’m not sure my now girlfriend would have responded to the first message I sent her, had it not been for my ability to recognise a reference to an obscure character in Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s 1990 novel Good Omens in her dating profile.


Terry Pratchett spoke to the Guardian Book Club in 2009 about science and religion. I suspect he was slightly drunk at the time, but you can’t argue with the beauty of a quote like “I’d rather be a rising ape, than a fallen angel”.


I ran a Discworld fan site during the early 2000s, back in the almost forgotten days of Geocities. Much to my surprise, the Wayback Machine has some record of the site.

I met Terry very briefly at a book signing in Camberley in 2001. It is the one and only time I have been star struck, and my memory of that event mostly consists of awkwardly shuffling up to the table where he sat, shoving a book to towards him to sign, awkwardly mentioning that I had a website about Discworld, and then awkwardly shuffling out to beat myself up about how stupid I had acted in front of my hero. I was 16 at the time, it was a big deal.

A few years later I received an email from Terry. It was about the website I ran. He disapproved of it, in fact he stated that he officially disapproved of it. I was so very proud.


In 2010, Terry Pratchett gave the 34th Richard Dimbleby Lecture. An edited extract of the lecture is also available to read on guardian.co.uk. He gave his thoughts on how to die:

I would like to die peacefully before the disease takes me over. I hope that will not be for some time, because if I knew that I could die at any time I wanted, then suddenly every day would be as precious as a million pounds. If I knew that I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice.

Too often your heroes let you down. Towards the end of their life they come out with something a bit racist, or make a desperate bid for relevance that undoes the legacy. Terry Pratchett never did. He remains a hero of mine, and I will miss him. I look forward to the day I can introduce my own children to his writing.

Terry Pratchett died in his home, with his cat sleeping on his bed surrounded by his family on Thursday. He was 66.

Wolfenstein - The New Order

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In 1992, id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, now considered the original first-person shooter. The game laid down the first-person shooter formula still used today; “point gun at bad guys, shoot at bad guys”.

Followed by Return to Castle Wolfenstein in 2001, and Wolfenstein in 2009, the series follows meathead war hero William “B.J.” Blazkowicz in his efforts to stop the Nazis from winning the war. Wolfenstein: The New Order was released last year, and in a departure from the series, takes place in an alternative 1960s where the Nazis won the Second World War.

The game opens during an assault on a German castle in 1946 to finally take down Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse. The unsuccessful mission results in Blazkowicz spending more than a decade in a semi-comatose state in a Polish asylum. Waking up in 1960, he discovers that Nazi’s rule the world (and the moon).

Generally, the series has stayed away from any depiction of the very real horrors of World War II. The New Order carefully balances the dumb fun of blowing bodies up with massive guns with the realities of Nazi atrocities. A level set in a Czech concentration camp is more modelled on a 70’s prison, with only a few subtle hints towards the belching chimneys on several buildings in the distance. There Blazkowicz receives a serial number tattooed on his arm, which in surprisingly poignant moment, he later removes with a scalpel.

Too often in Second World War games, the Germans are painted as uniformly evil, with only plucky Americans to save the day. Blazkowicz’s international team of resistance fighters are a nice touch, particularly in the audio diary entries of a German woman fighting back, which pack quite an emotional punch .

Wolfenstein The New Order

The game romps along, as you gun your way through an occupied London, escape the concentration camp, seize a nuclear U-boat… it’s all great fun. Among the carnage The New Order has some tender moments. Despite my aversion to sex in games (rarely a realistic portrayal of sex or love) the brief scene between Blazkowicz and Anya (one of Polish nurses at the asylum who cared for him) is surprisingly well handled, frank, and actually adds to the plot. Call of Duty could learn a few lessons about maturity.

Similar to Alien: Isolation, the design is a retro sci-fi world, a mix of the 1940s and 1960s. Nazi propaganda is propelled forward in time to the space-race-era. Newspaper cuttings reveal a parallel history, which feels internally consistent. In a nice reference to the original, you can optionally click on a mattress for Blazkowicz to experience a ‘nightmare,’ where you play the first level from Wolfenstein 3D.

Levelling up can be an issue in games, either randomly stating you’ve achieved an upgrade, or bogging the action down with an elaborate point assigning UI. The New Order has a neat ‘Perks’ system that I really rather like. The game rewards you for sticking to a particular approach, so five silent takedowns unlocks knife throwing, five successful knife throws will unlock a perk to carry more knives. I mostly focused on the Stealth perks, where killing five commanders would unlock their positions on the map.

I really liked this stripped down approach to levelling up. It feels like the developers, Machine Games, have tried to simplify the mechanics of the modern shooters and give you a straightforward, old-school blast-em-up first-person shooter.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is everything you want in a first-person shooter. No nonsense, kill every Nazi between you and your objective. Nein out of ten.

Who Is Tracking Your News?

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Pretty much every website tracks you. Analytics, social beacons, advertising- all building up a picture of who you are as a person, and auctioning it off to the highest bidder.

So I wondered, which news websites track you the most?

One of the benefits of installing a browser tool like uBlock is that it gives you a counter of how many privacy-invasive tracking scripts exist on a page. As an experiment I thought I’d see which news sites upset uBlock the most.

This a list of the number of requests blocked on the homepages of some major news organisations. I tested sites that are free to view 1, and ran the test a few times to average out the results.

I’ll be honest, I was hoping that the more left leaning organisations would be tracking you less, however that appears not to be the case. Given the priority The Guardian give to stories about privacy and civil liberties, (they were the UK paper to break the Snowden files), I was disappointed that they were among the most invasive, tracker-happy sites out there; worse than Fox News and The Torygraph.

For comparison, I tested the website of my local newspaper, which had 17 blocked items. Currently the top story is about a petition to save a historic lido… It’s a hotbed of drama and excitement round our way.

We can argue about the methodology here, I don’t pretend this is a partially scientific test. I set uBlock to block tracking beacons, social plugins, and analytics tools.

As BBC News doesn’t carry adverts, (for UK visitors), I’d expect them to be the lowest. I would argue that online advertising generally involves a privacy invasion, so although I didn’t turn on any additional adblock filters, the uBlock defaults were on.

Homepages generally had less tracking than individual stories. The New York Times homepage made only 5 requests that were blocked by uBlock, whereas the Politics subsection page attempted 40 blocked requests! The Daily Mail’s homepage made 29 blocked requests; an individual story had 39 blocked requests.

This makes sense as individual stories have more social ‘share this’ widgets. I believe that these social share buttons are the greater privacy threat - when a page contains a Facebook ‘like’ button, Facebook is tracking that you’re reading that article. It scans the keywords on that page and associates them to you. Building up information, across different sites, of what topics you are reading online.

Everything you do online leaks information; if you’re visiting the Autotrader anyone tracking you could make a considered guess you’re in the market for a new car.

But a news website leak more personal information, simply because they cover a great deal of subjects, all in one place. If you’re clicking on more stories about Ed Miliband than David Cameron, a third-party could draw conclusions on your political beliefs. Reading more stories about the legalisation of gay marriage across the US could suggest a sexual orientation that your closest friends may not know about.2. Clicking on lots of stories about Alzheimer’s disease could reveal private information about your families health.

Now the above information could be equally gleaned if I visited the Labour party website, Pink News, and the Alzheimer’s Society. The trouble with news websites is that everything is in one place, and data tracking works best in the aggregate. Once you start throwing in local news stories, stories about school ratings a picture of your life starts to build. All this data and aggregated information is often shared with third parties.

If you are uncomfortable about this, (and you should be), I’d suggest installing uBlock yourself. Alternatives to consider, Privacy Badger or disconnect.me.

  1. The New York Times / Telegraph have a metered paywall but I am classing them as ‘free’ for the purposes of this test.

  2. I’m not suggesting, (obviously), that reading about gay marriage makes you gay. Reading about gay marriage probably suggests you’re more liberal, less religious… I’m making incredibly broad generalisations about specific interest topics.

An Assassin's Creed Retrospective

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Eight games1 into the Assassin’s Creed series, with another already announced for late 2015, it seems a good time to examine the series.

Assassin’s Creed was released in 2007. You play Desmond Miles, a man recruited by modern-day Assassins, in their ongoing struggle against the Knights Templar. As Desmond, you enter a machine called the “Animus,” which allows you to experience the memories of your ancestors - in this case, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, an assassin in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. From this point on with I’ll dispense with recounting the storyline of Desmond Miles, because it always felt like a contrivance and was essentially dispensed with from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag onwards.

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How to Survive a Social Media Meltdown

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Sam Biddle on meeting Justine Sacco; the woman whose life was ruined after she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m White!”

Justine Sacco’s advice for what to do if you find yourself in the middle of a social media meltdown. “Just don’t engage… Do nothing. Never tweet. Never apologize. Never say anything at all. Be an inert bundle of molecules and let the world tear itself apart around you.”

This is the one thing no one in public relations—pretty much a sham industry anyway, sure—has figured out, or is smart enough to put into practice. When you fuck up on the internet, do nothing. Say nothing. Remain motionless as best you can, no matter how much you want to explain, or argue, or contextualize. Shut up! Just shut up. It’s what someone would have said to Sean Parker if he weren’t so alienated in a big tumor of tech money.

Filing this one away for future reference. Just in case.

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