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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 11 August 2017, 3:31 pm

Here's TechBlog editor Paul Brislen's view on tech  this week...

New Zealand's Next Top Government

They say a week is a long time in politics. Seldom have "they" been so right.

What was shaping up to be a dull and plodding affair appears to have caught fire with last-minute leadership changes, policy scuffles and public floggings galore and I honestly haven't had this much fun since the first MMP election let me vote early AND vote often.

Of course, some policies will receive a lot more attention than others and sadly, for those of us who cover the tech sector, the nearest we get to the dancing on tables brigade is a mild discussion about the new telecommunications legislation.

Oh well. It's probably a good thing.

Policy wise we have asked all the major parties to let us know what they have planned for the sector and we'll publish them in the Techblog pages as they come in.

First off the blocks are the Māori Party and Greens with a hot take each on what they'd like to see from our next government.

The Māori Party makes a strong case for more Māori being introduced to the ICT sector. Currently only 2.3% of the Māori workforce is employed in ICT roles and fewer than 1% of Māori in tertiary education are studying towards an ICT qualification.

Those numbers are woefully low and given we have a skills shortage surely we can do better. One way is to bridge the digital divide. In Māori households only 68% have internet access - that's 15% below the national average. For the Māori Party, these are key issues and rightly so.

The Greens are coming at these issues from, not surprisingly, left field. Last year the party introduced a policy aimed at supporting the growing gaming industry, by giving game developers access to the kinds of government funding previously held back for TV and radio broadcast work.

The Greens do support the UFB and RBI projects but say more must be done to bring internet access and true connectivity to all corners of the country. Hopefully they'll have some more detail on how they'll achieve that in the coming weeks.

NZ Herald - New regulatory regime for telecommunications lines hits Parliament

NBR - Telco Act overhaul smacks into election barrier

Techblog - Show us your policy: The Māori Party

Techblog - Show us your policy: The Green Party

Techblog - Turn up the heat

Techblog - Research and development (still) needs an overhaul

Techblog - Technology Education Policy in Election 2017

 

Dead CERT

Yes, yes, yes, my email account got hijacked. Well, nearly. I regularly get asked to sign documents and when someone sent me one with a fancy "click on the link to sign using our special service" I didn't think twice. My normally sensitive antenna didn't even twitch but suddenly I was flooded with alerts from my AV and firewall and Google was telling me someone was accessing my email from Nigeria.

I changed all the passwords and stopped the ratbags in their tracks but they had managed to add a filter to my incoming email routing all new emails to the trash. They do this, apparently, so once they take control I don't notice all those cries of alarm from friends and contacts until it's far too late.

Thankfully a virus scan and a quick round of rejigging my passwords meant I was OK.

But I'm not the only one. In the first three months of operation, the government's Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT NZ) has been notified of 364 incidents and the loss of $730,000.

Golly!

After I'd whined about my incident on Twitter, the CERT team asked me to fill out the forms to help them out, which I duly did, and was contacted by a chap concerned by my comment about having two-factor authentication turned on. 2FA is the answer to any hijacking madness as the code to your phone or other device is needed and it's unlikely the ratbag will have that as well. I thought I'd turned it on but it turns out I hadn't. This is sadly very easy a mistake to make because Google's Gmail service talks a lot about turning on a TXT message notification service (which is what 2FA is, in essence) but doesn't tell you anything at all about 2FA unless you dig for it. I have found several colleagues who were of the same view as I was - that they had it on - when in fact they did not.

So now I have it on, and gone one step further and downloaded the Google Authenticator app and so am smug.

I also wrote about it for The Spin Off, figuring I might as well put my own tale to good use, and boy did I get told off. You see, I quoted an old interview I conducted with Bruce Schneier who told me to write down my passwords, and this is something I've believed in ever since. Apparently some of you out there think this is akin to smoking in church, but hear me out.

If someone steals my laptop, they aren't interested in my data. If someone wants to steal my data, they aren't interested in my little book with weird phrases written all over it.

So, make the password as difficult as possible, and write it down. Great idea.

Of course, these days we have password managers but having set up a couple I can say they're clumsy and oafish and for the target audience, that is my Mum, they're not going to fly.

I have found one I like, Dashlane, and will report on its usability in future no doubt.

Oh, and if you're one of those nutters who believes we should change our password more often than we do our underwear, there's a special circle in hell for the likes of you. Just stop it, OK?

Stuff - Cert NZ builds picture of cyber-crime

NZ Herald - Cert NZ receives 364 incident reports in first three months of operation

NZ Herald - Juha Saarinen: The bizarre arrest of WannaCry hero

The Spin Off - How my email was hijacked, and how you can stop it happening to you

 

CERT

 

And now for something completely different

Who is this Jim... or is it Brendan... guy, anyway?

You've seen his cartoons and I thought you might like to meet the real Jim (IF that is his name) so, in a dusty backroom here at ITP HQ I sat him down, turned on the spot light and began questioning him.

1: How and when were you drawn (ahahahah) to cartooning?

 It was a dark and stormy night in 1986 … well, more like a hot and desultory afternoon in a nondescript country town in southern New South Wales, Australia. I initially discovered the joy of cartoons through the many paperback comic strip collections of Charles M Schulz's 'Peanuts' that were scattered amidst the theology books on my church minister dad's office bookshelves - so I guess you could say that I found cartooning through God.

I'd always liked to draw, so pretty soon I started tinkering around with a few characters of my own, based on some graffiti I'd seen on walls in Melbourne which morphed into the lead players for my first comic strip, called The Twangups - a band of three hapless punks trying to make it big in a fickle music industry. (Click here for their full story)

It was also around this time - aged 13 - that I entered a cartoon caption competition that was being run by a local meat company (what else) in the aforementioned country town. The words I put into the mouths of the sheep and farmers in those pictures were apparently funny enough to win me first place in the competition and a $100 prize, which was an interesting enough for the local rag to do a short 'local boy does good' story with a photo for their weekly edition. Starting young as a self-promoter, I mentioned to them that I had my own comic strip - which they asked me to submit for publication consideration. Two weeks later the first strip appeared. The Twangups went on to run weekly for the next two years. With that teenage experience of becoming a published cartoonist, I was hooked for life. 

2: Whose cartoons do you enjoy seeing?

 My favourite cartoonist of all time is Berkeley Breathed, who is best known for the 'Bloom County' comic strip that ran for much of the 80s, and subsequent strips 'Outland' in the 1990s and 'Opus' in the 2000s. He's also written and illustrated a bunch of spectacularly illustrated and very funny kids' books. In 2015 - much to my giddy excitement - he brought back Bloom County for the digital age, and in no small part because of the warm cartoon fodder provided by one Donald J. Trump, who he had previously wrangled with in the 1980s.

 Another cartoonist I really admire and appreciate is Dan Piraro, best known for his panel comic 'Bizarro'. Humour-wise, I feel like my cartoons are in the same ballpark as his, and I often find myself reading and laughing at his work and thinking, "Damn. I should have thought of that first!" He has a fantastic surrealist eye, and a very active blog that is worth checking out at http://bizzaro.com

Locally, I always enjoy the work of Rod Emmerson, Guy Body, Chris Slane and Sharon Murdoch. It's great too to see new stuff coming out regularly from the younger set, such as Toby Morris and Eddie Monotone, on a variety of platforms.

3: What makes a good cartoon?

 That has an obvious and not-so-obvious answer. Obviously, a good cartoon makes you laugh. Not so obvious though is why it makes you laugh. There have been whole books written about this (and comedian Jimmy Carr's book 'The Naked Jape' is a great one to start with).

The way I describe it is that a good cartoon reveals the truth about its subject in a new, yet familiar way. How it does that depends on the angle from which the cartoonist decides to look at the subject. If it's done right, when the reader recognises that truth, it will bring about a laugh.

Of course, sometimes a fart joke works just as well. But even then, the truth in a fart joke is that in spite of the grandiose views we humans have about our place in the universe, we are basically just stinky piles of carbon who pass methane on a regular basis.

4: How is tech cartooning different to other forms?

It's not really different to cartooning about any other topic, except that there is a certain iconography you can use to illustrate things in tech-themed cartoons which will have a resonance for a tech industry audience that may not click as much for an ordinary civilian.

For example, you'll often see guys appear in my tech cartoons wearing white collared shirts with blue ties, which for me is the quintessential image of the IT professional - the kind I worked with for many years across more than a decade working in and around the tech industry. You'll also see a range of gadgetry from the last decade or so of tech evolution pop up on the desks and in the hands of my characters. In fact, quite a few of my cartoons can be dated by the look of the particular kind of smartphone or computer screen that's depicted in there. I don't try and get too specific with drawing devices, but my laptop illustrations have certainly got thinner over the years!

5: How do you come up with an idea - take us through a recent cartoon.

Finding the right idea can be sky-diving - coming up with a good idea and getting it drawn in time is like jumping out of a plane with the aim of successfully landing on a specific point. The cartoon itself is the parachute, but without a rip-cord of an idea, the cartoonist will plummet to the an unceremonious, cartoony death. So the aim is always to come up with that idea with enough time so one floats gently to the landing destination.

Take the recent cartoon I did on Net Neutrality. There were plenty of articles about the topic that I read to get the gist of what the issue was all about and understand the truth of the matter that lay at the heart of the reason why it was in the news at all that week. In this case, it was because net neutrality was facing a fresh threat from the US president who was looking at removing the industry regulations that kept the flow of information on the Internet away from the influence of moneyed interests.

As I read, I look out for words or phrases that spark an image for me that could become the central images for the cartoon, all the while doodling words and free-associated images on my sketchpad. With Net Neutrality, it seemed immediately clear to me that I needed to represent the US somehow, as it was essentially a US issue. The traditional image of 'Uncle Sam' - ie. the clichéd, bearded war-time character pointing his finger and saying 'I want YOU!' jumps into my mind. I play around with that for a bit. The concept of net regulation affecting how people surf the internet sparks another thought - what would it look like and feel like for a gnarly surfer to have his much-loved activity restricted? I play around with that for a bit, and things start developing steadily from there.

Often the thought process can go down some blind alleys and need to backtrack before heading in the right direction. Eventually though, the final idea starts to take shape and before long (or hours later), there's a kind of 'click' in my mind where I realise that I've landed on the right idea.

The drawing is usually the quickest part of the process, as I just have to focus on drawing the concept I've just thought up, so I like to do this while listening to a comedy or music album of a favourite artist. (Gary Gulman is top of the list right now.) I use a pencil to do the basic sketch and lettering on paper, then ink it with a range of pen types.

When that's all done, it's off to the scanner to get the black and white image into the computer as an editable bitmap. I then use good ol' faithful MS Paint to make any tweaks to the lines and then drop in some colour, before saving the final image as a JPEG.

One point I should make - 99% of the time the above activity happens late at night, which tends to be when my cartooning brain works the best - and obviously when it's not otherwise occupied with my day job. That said, I have had some of my best ideas arrive in the midst of particularly dull meetings - but on the whole, the stillness and solitude of the evening is when I tend to find my clearest focus.

6: You've been in the tech industry for yonks - what keeps you coming back for more?

Rightly or wrongly, technology is the measure for humanity's progress, and by working in the technology industry you get to meet so many inspiring people who are striving to shift humanity a bit further down that path in their own small way. There's a genuine excitement and thrill that comes from being a part of that, so it's what has drawn me back to the industry time and time again.

It's also what my most recent cartoon book was all about. In that, I reflected extensively on humanity's obsession with technology, and while acknowledging the vital part that technological innovation plays in our collective lives, it also took the piss out of our very human obsessions with that same technology. I guess that's why my enthusiasm for cartooning about technology refuses to abate. Inside I hope that one day we will gauge humanity's progress by how happy we truly are, rather than how cool our technology is. I have this crazy theory that cartoons might be able to help a little with that pursuit. 

7: What equipment do you use?

I'm very old-school. My cartoons start as black ink pen on paper. I do have a Wacom tablet, but every time I've tried it has felt a bit cold and impersonal, and while I still edit, colour and caption my cartoons on the computer, the sensory experience of making ink flow onto paper still has magic for me, so I stick with it.

So, the tools I use include a variety of Artline Drawing System pens from 0.1 to 0.8 width, depending on what sort of line I want, and also a range of Faber-Castell PITT artist pens with both nib and brush tips. The 1.5mm brush pen I use mostly for panel borders and speech bubbles, and for lettering I use an Artline 210 Medium 0.6 pen. Characters are most usually done with the 0.2 width nib pen.

8: What would your ultimate tech cartoon look like?

I guess the ultimate tech cartoon for me would be one that makes a searing and perceptive comment about technology without depicting or writing anything in the cartoon that is even remotely technological - and yet everyone who reads it knows exactly what you're making a joke about. I can think of a few cartoons I've done that have attempted that, but not perfectly. The Holy Grail quest continues … <makes coconut noises and rides off>


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