Absolutely Not Weeknotes

For a start, they’re so very 2013. For another thing, the last time I did them, I kept them up for about a fortnight. But in keep with my general resolution to document what I’ve been up to a bit better, just for the sake of remembering it all in years to come, a brief round of boring you all with What I Done Did This Week:

  • Went to see a weird theatre piece in the Waterloo tunnels, about the old Necropolis railway, and about our modern relationship with death. Combination of a guided walk and a theatre bit, it was hard to tell what was actual history, and what was made up because it made for good theatre. Annoyingly the bit I found most interesting/amusing – the source of a pub name – is one of things I haven’t been able to substantiate.
  • The Six Nations has started back up, and I had folk round to watch Saturday’s matches. Teenage me is spinning in his grave – I had fun watching sport. A few rounds of board games thereafter, including a few hands of my newly-purchased Skulls and Roses, which I am filing along with Perudo as a good game for a whisky and cigars type evening.
  • Went to Dishoom for the first time, for Stu and Andrea’s birthday meal. Really lovely night out, both for the company and the food. Had never thought to associate curry with being comfort food before, but the general tenor of several of the dishes is absolutely the sort of thing I would want a big bowl of when I’m unwell.

The week ahead holds fun with TfL APIs at work, which I’m quite looking forward to, a couple of lots of gaming, and I want to start some more “serious” research for a pseudo-historical game I want to start later in the year, sent in the wake of the Albigensian Crusades.

2015: Station Identification

Geometry

My name is Alasdair Watson. I live in London, where I work down the Internet Mines, and play story-games of various types. Sometimes I write. I also take photos, and occasionally cook. I am a nerd-of-all-trades.

This blog is largely a collection of stuff I want to remember, relating to technology, programming, and stuff that might be reference material for some kind of terrible fiction. Sometimes, I use it to have opinions in public.

I don’t imagine any of that will come as a terrible shock to any of you who are reading this, but I thought this was a good time of year to remind myself what it’s for, and post a photo.

Not Saying Anything About Gamergate

If you have no idea what Gamergate it, then skip this, and move on. You’ll be happier.

I’ve not been saying anything about Gamergate, in large part because I can’t imagine anyone actually gives a toss what I think about it, and because I would imagine anyone who knows me, or who has been reading along for even a short length of time, can probably guess what I think of those malign little bags of rancid fuck.

But then I read Felicia Day’s post the other day, and I thought, well, perhaps on some level, it’s important that I say at least something. If not to anyone else, than at least to me. Gamergate is such a stupid thing to feel the need to make sure I’ve stood up and been counted as against – because it’s so evidently disgusting that I feel everyone should be against it, in the same way I feel that everyone should, y’know, breathe – but in the light of posts like Ms. Day’s, I sort of feel like it might be useful (in whatever trivial sense) for people to stand up and say “Fuck them”. To maybe redress the balance just slightly. Not in a “not all gamers” way – just in a way that says that their attempts to create a climate of fear will not work.

Of course I have very little to fear. I’m a straight white male. But I sort of feel like I should try and do something, however small, to ensure that gaming does not become the kind of place that these vile shitweasels want it to be.

Gaming has brought me so much joy. I’ve made friends with so many people and even fallen in love with (a smaller number of) people I’ve met through gaming. All these folks are wonderful, wonderful people, and the thought that running into another gamer and thinking “are they one of the dangerous ones?” is now good sense and caution, well, it’s just incredibly saddening.

So, in so far as I have any sort of statement to make about Gamergate it’s this: I will continue to run games that strive to be open, inclusive and safe spaces, and if I falter in this from time to time, I will continue to seek correction, and strive to do better. Outside of things I have direct involvement with, I will continue to support progressive gaming projects in whatever way I can. And the very second I find out that someone I know thinks that Gamergate is in any sense in the right, they will no longer be welcome at any game I’m running, or in my house.

Novel

Just marking the date and time, really.

I always used to say I couldn’t write a novel. That I couldn’t do long-form prose. I might write comics scripts, and role playing games, and all sorts of drivel, but not a novel.

Guess what I just finished writing?

Let’s be clear: it’s a first draft, at best.

I’ve already got loads and loads of notes for things I need to re-write. And even once I’ve done that, I’d be amazed if it were publishable. For right now, it’s going in a box until christmas, in any case. I’ll come back to it in a few months, and see what, if anything, I want to do with it.

I’m aware that “have written an unpublishable novel” is hardly one of the world’s great achievements, and that there are plenty folks I know who’ve enjoyed some modest success by taking the obvious next step.

But honestly, I never thought I’d get to this one.

Next step: start writing second novel. Make it better than this one.

Although possibly not tonight.

Comixology, Amazon and Apple

Twitter is a pain in the arse, isn’t it? Someone says something you want to engage with, but you can’t really express a nuanced difference of opinion in 140 characters or less. So a lot of the “debate” I’ve seen on Twitter about Comixology’s changes has basically been people some people saying “Amazon are bad!” and others saying “No, Apple are bad, and it’s reasonable for Amazon to want to get away from them!”

(I should perhaps say that if you really don’t give two shits about how digital comics are bought and sold, you should look away now. I am obviously pretty exercised about this, and likely to go on at length, because this touches on both my profession and one of my nerdy interests.)

If you’re still here, and don’t know what I’m talking about, popular (indeed, pretty much monopolistic in real terms) digital comic merchant Comixology were purchased by Amazon a few weeks ago.

And then a couple of days ago, they announced that they were updating their applications, to change the purchase mechanism. For Android users, this just meant having to re-enter their credit card details, then business as usual. For iOs users, this meant they they could no longer make in-app purchases, and the purchasing experience has been degraded the same nigh-unusable state that Kindle purchases are on iOS – you are required to quit the reading app, use a web browser to navigate on on-line store, make your purchases, log in on the website (requiring a switch to a password manager and back again) and then make your purchases before returning to the comics app to read them. From being a one-click process, it has become a multi-stage process requiring 5 switches between 3 different apps, if you’re on iOS, while Android users still get the same simple experience.

Amazon’s reason for the change is, of course, purely commercial. They’re gambling that the sales they lose through this awful, awful user experience will be less that 30% of their iOS revenue, thereby making them a net gain, because they no longer have to pay Apple 30% of their in-app sales.

I am really, really hoping they’re wrong, and that they’ll have to re-instate the thing in a couple of months, because I think I need to stop buying comics on a point of professional principle.

On a professional level, I believe that offering one group of your users a much worse user experience than another, simply because of the device they use, is indefensible. An aside: I would be interested to see if this was challengeable under disability rights legislation. Probably not, but my objection is basically the same principle – if you are operating an on-line service, I believe you have a duty to your customers to treat them all as equally as it is possible to do. The only possible defence to this in my view is that a given user is on a device that is not capable of providing the service. This is not the case here. Amazon/Comixology are simply making it clear that they’re willing to force bad UX on some customers, simply because they don’t like the platform as much.

So what’s the other side of the argument, then? Who am I disagreeing with?

Those people who are welcoming the move are arguing that Apple are censorious, and they their 30% cut of app store revenue is inherently unreasonable, that Apple’s fixation on forcing things to be purchased through their app store is a blow against net neutrality, and in a few of the more deranged cases, arguing that anyone who says otherwise is basically a Cupertino-worshiping sheep, who has been scammed into believing that Apple should be allowed to take a 30% cut of the proceeds.

These points aren’t without merit.

I am honestly not sure that a 30% cut of in app purchases in entirely merited. I think a 30% of the actual app sales is OK, I’m less sure about in-app purchases.

But taking a second to look at the numbers, one gets a different story. The best set I could find are about a year old, but I don’t think much has happened to massively disrupt the picture they paint, which is that excluding their own apps (which are both extremely popular, and relatively expensive, and skew the numbers quite significantly), Apple make about 1-2% profit margin on the App Store and iTunes.

So they take a 30% revenue cut, but most of that is eaten by operating costs, because it’s not cheap to run a system that complex. And as it turns out the actual margins they make are pretty small. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem unreasonable greedy to me.

Those figures don’t break in-app purchases out as separate figures, but I imagine they’re the same – I don’t imagine the hosting costs for Apple to mechanically enable in-app purchases are any different from those of apps. So the margins will presumably be similar.

I do not believe the app store is a blow against net neutrality, and anyone arguing that it is is fundamentally misunderstanding and misrepresenting net neutrality in a harmful way and ought to stop. Net Neutrality is about technical-level bandwidth and traffic routing, and if you want a term to suggest that you consider walled gardens to be harmful (a position I agree with) please find another one.

I don’t think Apple have built a walled garden in iOS, and the way I think we can tell they haven’t is because Amazon can do this with Comixology. They haven’t prevented anyone from re-implementing purchasing on iOS, all they’ve said is that if you want to do it in a user-friendly way, using the technology that they’ve built, consuming computing resources that they supply, you have to cut them in, to the tune that enables them to make a 1-2% profit.

Yes, you could argue that Apple have implemented their platform in a way that makes it hard to re-implement purchasing, but I honestly believe (based on conversations with serious iOS developers) that this is largely done in the name of user security. As in, the complexity is a feature of design decisions based on building a more secure, stable and responsive platform, not a deliberate decision to make things harder for other people. I won’t deny it’s to Apple’s benefit, but I think that’s a happy (from Apple’s point of view) side-effect of their real focus.

Last one, then: Apple are censorious.

True. Simply flat out true. Apple have made some determinations about what they’re willing to sell through their stores, and they won’t sell material they believe is in contravention of that. And some good works have fallen foul of it, particularly via Comixology, funnily enough. They’re not truly censorious, in that they don’t stop anything being produced or distributed, they just won’t take any part in the distribution of anything they don’t like, and what they don’t like is a pretty wide definition of “porn”.

I can’t say Apple don’t have the right to do that, but it irks me that they use it. It would, perhaps, irk me less if they were consistent, but Apple’s content reviewers are notoriously fickle and inconsistent. Personally, I’d like to see an 18+ option added to their stores, but I do understand why that might not be high on the priority list. (Largely: it would almost certainly massively spike traffic/server loads as people started selling porn via iTunes *and* would come with a lot of “protect the kids” hassles. Basically: internet porn is, ironically, almost all downside for anyone whose core internet business isn’t porn.)

But yes, Apple have opted to be censorious in what they accept into their stores. It is annoying, if understandable, and I wish very much they did it better.

About all I can say is that, to their credit Comixology are not attempting to paint this as an attempt to get round the evil censors. Because it isn’t that, but I can understand why people might be relieved that getting round them is a pleasing side effect.

There is a last argument being advanced, that not having to pay Apple will get the creators a larger cut of the monies, and that’s good. I wouldn’t presume to argue with the idea that paying creators more is good, but Amazon are notoriously bad, over the long term, for publishers and creators, because they employ utterly shitty tactics to drive prices down. I am not convinced that a win for creators today is a net long-term gain.

I just don’t think it’s worth treating one section of your user base worse than another. It offends my professional instincts. And my personal ones, come to that. It is expressly saying “our users are nothing more than profit centres that are to be milked as hard as possible, and who will jump through as many hoops as we demand of them”. It is contemptuous.

And I’m probably not buying comics again in the near future.

Bollocks.

Sensible Precautions

I occasionally get asked about things like backups and passwords, and generally how to make one’s digital life a bit safer/easier, and I’ve been trying to write a reference blog post about this sort of thing for months, but it keeps running away with me. What follows is my opinion on the most sensible things one can do to make one’s digital life better.

Step One: Get a Mac.

Yeah, I know. They’re very expensive, and most people feel that a much cheaper Windows machine is, in some sense, better value. I disagree.

The ease of use of a Mac – the automation of backups, the lack of need to worry overly-much about viruses, and the overall better standard of the software, pays for itself in man-hours spent doing useful things instead of fighting with the operating system and doing tedious maintenance jobs.

More than that: you’ll probably find it has a much longer lifespan that any PC you’ve owned. I’m still using a Mac I bought in 2005 – not as my main computer, but I use it daily, and it’s working just fine. The laptop I’m writing on now, is three years old, but is showing no signs of age. I know plenty of people using five-year-old Macs who have no complaints about them. I don’t think I know many people who are 100% happy with their five-year-old PCs.

All that said: I’ve no interest in arguing with people who disagree, I’m just saying that in my professional opinion, the single thing you can do that will most improve your digital life, making it safer and easier, is to save up the money, and get a Mac. But if you disagree, well, the rest of this guide should still work for you. Basically: as long as you’re using a computer that you’re actively happy using, then you’re using the right computer for you.

Step Two: Backups

Buy as large an external hard drive as you can afford. Plug it in.

If you’ve got a Mac, Time Machine will offer itself up – set it up, and away you go.

If you’ve got anything else: get an account with Crashplan and install their software. They offer a version that does free local backups – so all you need to do is buy an external hard drive, plug it in, and set it up, and it’ll keep a local copy of everything you need.

If you can afford it, I also strongly suggest getting a paid account with them (on both Mac and Windows) and using their internet backups as well. That way, if you’re burgled, and your hard drive stolen, or your house catches fire, or something like that, then while you might have lost all sort of things, you won’t have lost your data.

Step Three: Passwords

If you heed no other advice in this post (and I know there are perfectly valid reasons not to) heed this: get a password manager. Get 1Password or Lastpass.

There are only two passwords in your life you should be able to remember and type by hand: your log on password for your computer, and a second password that unlocks your password manager. Everything else should be 20 or more random characters, mixing numbers, letters and punctuation, held in a password manager. If you can remember and type your gmail password, or your amazon password or your facebook or twitter password, it’s not secure enough. And if you’re using the same password for more than one website, it’s definitely not secure enough.

Step Four: Anti-Virus

Install Sophos. Honestly: I’ve been using a Mac for long enough that my anti-virus recommendations may be hopelessly out of date. I mostly rely on the fact that Mac viruses are few and far between, and that I never open unexpected email attachments to keep me virus free. But back when I was using Windows based systems, Sophos was far and away the best one I found.

That’s really pretty much it. There’s other things I could recommend – browser extensions to do improving privacy and security, but the big ones are really: use a good backup system and a password manager.

I hope that lot is useful to someone.

Looking Back/Looking Ahead

I’ve been trying to write a year in review.

I can’t seem to do it without whinging.

So let’s do this quickly, like pulling a sticky-plaster off. 2013: Professionally stressful, personally awful, my pleasure in my hobbies is more or less gone, and I’m in therapy.

On the bright side, (and it is a very, very bright side), my niece arrived and becomes more adorable every time I see her.

My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has made a really rubbish year that bit more bearable.

2014: All the usual plans: write more, take more photos, exercise more. A few others that I’ll talk about when I’m ready to, which may be this year, or may be a few years away yet. All I’m really hoping for for 2014 is that I’ll be happier at the end of it.

Which is what I wish for all of you, too. I hope your 2013 was excellent, or at least better than mine, but much more importantly: I hope your 2014 is better.

2012

OK, the end is nigh. Now we’ve got that bit out of the way, it’s time to think about the coming year. I actually wrote this back in mid December, but then life took a sharp turn sideways, and I’ve only had the time to get back to it now. In my ususal tradition of this sort of bollocks, half of what I’m currently planning won’t happen, because I’ll get distracted by something newer and shinier, but that’s OK.

So this year’s list:

  1. New LARP. The experimental (read: small) LARP of the last couple of years taught me quite a lot. So now it’s time to apply what I’ve learned to something a bit larger.
  2. Finish that novel. I’ve had to set it aside for the last couple of months, just because of the level of prep work I’ve needed to do for the new LARP, but I’m looking forward to getting back to it in February. Before you ask: no. It’s drivel. I’m writing it for the sake of writing it, at the moment. I’ll see about turning it into not-drivel once I’m done. Then, maybe. More likely, I shall simply get on with writing #2, and hoping it’s slightly less like drivel.
  3. I need a few new projects. Thinking about a “cook one new recipe a week and blog about it” sort of thing. Would certainly like to cook more, and do new things. May or may not blog about it.
  4. I’ve been saying I’ll do it for years, but I really would like to learn Objective-C/Cocoa so I can make apps for Mac/iOS. Maybe this year will be the year I finally do.
  5. I want to do a course, or a class of some kind. I’d like to pick up some new skills. Not sure what.
  6. Lifting up heavy things, then setting them down again. I’ve been out of the exercise habit for a while now. I’d like to get back into it. This means sorting myself out a program, and sticking to it.

That’ll do for now. Come back in a year, if we don’t all perish in fire, and we’ll see how I did.

Banging On About Facebook Round #247

So there’s a post written by a smart lad here. But he leads with a lot of technical proofs that will, I imagine, confuse the crap out of a number of people. So I’m going to bullet point the most pertinent parts of it. I’m not telling anyone what do to here, you understand. I am simply providing the facts as I understand them. You may make your own decisions.

  • If you visit a website that has a facebook “like” button on it, Facebook knows about it, regardless of whether or not you click said “like” button.
  • If you are logged in to Facebook when you visit that website, Facebook knows that you specifically have done it.
  • If you are not logged in when you visit a website with a like button on it, and subsequently log in to Facebook without first clearing out all Facebook cookies, then Facebook will know that you specifically have visited all the sites you visited while logged out.
  • As a result of the latest changes to the Facebook API, it is now possible for Facebook applications to post to Facebook on your behalf, without your specific consent – if you consent to an application posting to Facebook for you once, it can they do it at other times, without asking you.

That last item isn’t directly related to the first ones, except in this: how long do you think it will be for someone to think it’s funny to come up a honey trap application with a “post this test result to facebook” and then use that consent to later post someone’s complete browsing history, including all their porn? Yeah. And even if they don’t, do you really want Facebook knowing about all the sites you visit, in order to sell that information on to their advertisers?

If you wish to continue using Facebook, and avoid that risk, my best recommendation is that you download a new web browser – if you usually use Firefox, download Chrome. If you’re an IE user, get Opera (and add your own joke here). If you’re a Safari user, get Firefox. Or really any combination of the above, the point is simply to get a completely new web browser that you have never used before installed on your computer. Clear out all your cookies on your old browser, and then keep using it as normal for most sites. But never, ever log in to Facebook on it, and don’t allow anyone else to do so, either.

And, if you want to use Facebook, use this fresh new browser to do it in. Don’t ever visit any websites other than Facebook in this browser. Treat it like a quarantine zone.

Oh, and don’t ever log into Facebook on any public access computer. Otherwise Facebook will think that all the sites that the other users of that computer visited are sites that you’ve visited.

I hope this proves helpful to some of you.