The XKCD Geohashing Wiki has been down ever since the forums hosted on the same server were hacked almost three months ago. But the algorithm is
functionally open-source and there’s nothing to stop an enterprising Geohasher from undertaking adventures even when the biggest silo is offline (I’m trying to negotiate a solution to
that problem, too, but that’s another story).
So I planned to take a slightly extended lunch break for what looked like an easy expedition: drive up to Fullwell where it looked like I’d be able to park the car and then explore the
footpath from its Western end.
Everything went well until I’d parked the car and gotten out. We’ve had some pretty wet weather lately and I quickly discovered that my footwear was less than ideal for the conditions.
Clinging to the barbed wire fence to avoid slipping over, I made my way along a footpath saturated with ankle-deep slippery mud. Up ahead, things looked better, so I pressed on…
…but what I’d initially surveyed to be a drier, smoother part of the field up ahead quickly turned out to be a thin dried crust on top of a pool of knee-to-waist-deep ooze. Letting out
a smelling like a mixture of stagnant water and animal waste runoff, the surface cracked and I was sucked deep into the pit. I was glad that my boots were tied tightly or I might have
lost them to the deep: it was all I could do to turn around and drag my heavy, sticky legs back to the car.
This is my first failed hashpoint expedition that wasn’t cancelled-before-it-started. It’s a little disappointing, but I’m glad I turned around when I did – when I spoke to somebody
near where I’d parked, they told me that it got even worse in the next field and a farmer’s tractor had gotten briefly stuck there recently!
An abundance of leaf mulch made it more–challenging than I’d anticipated both to reach the GZ, on account of slipperiness, and to find the
container, on account of camouflage. My geosense took me directly to the right spot but after an initially fruitless search I expanded my radius. Then, still having had no luck, I
checked the hint and returned to the site of my initial hunch for a more-thorough search. Soon, the cache was in my hand. SL, TNLN.
Like many previous finders I’m staying in the nearby Alexandra House. My fellow volunteers and I at a nonprofit we run were getting together for our AGM and a Christmas meal (I know it’s early in the year for such things, but among our activities was signing Christmas cards to the hundreds of
charities we support, and we have to catch the last international posting dates!).
As has become my tradition at our get-togethers, I got up for a quick hike/geocaching expedition before breakfast. I’m glad I did! This under-hunted cache represents much of what’s best
about the activity: a decent sized container, maintained for many years, in a location that justifies a nice walk. FP awarded.
Side note: there’s a bus stop (pictured) at the North end of this footpath. Who’s it for??? In the middle of nowhere with a two-hourly bus five days a week, it doesn’t seem to be
serving anybody! Maybe a geocacher will disembark there, someday.
Dropped by to give this cache a checkup before the winter really sets in. It’s well and healthy, only a tiny bit damp. Getting a little lost in fallen leaves but its size and colour
mean that it still stands out!
This is A.C. Gilbert’s creation, the Polar Cub Electric Vibrator No. B87, and it’s nearly 100 years old. This vibrator is so ancient it was manufactured before any
of my grandparents were born, which delights me terribly. The box is in shambles — on the front, a cute flapper holds the vibrator to her throat with a mischievous glint in her eye.
A thin, fragile slip of paper serves as the original receipt, dated June 15th, 1925, in the amount of $2.95. I love this vibrator with every fiber of my being. Just thinking about
how extremely not alive I was at that time is exciting to me.
And of course, I’m going to have an orgasm with this thing. An orgasm that transcends time. That’s what all of this is about.
Fabulous, frequently-funny review of three vibrators from the 1910s through 1960s and are still in some kind of working order.
…why would cookies ever need to work across domains? Authentication, shopping carts and all that good stuff can happen on the same domain. Third-party cookies, on the other hand,
seem custom made for tracking and frankly, not much else.
even more arbitrary code—onto your website? That seems like a security nightmare!
would be on by default, globally. I’m not sure that they’d be universally blocked at the browser level as Jeremy suggests, though: the Web has always been about empowering developers,
acting as a playground for experimentation, and third-party stuff does provide benefits: sharing a login across multiple subdomains, for example (which in turn can exist as a
security feature, if different authors get permission to add content to those subdomains).
Instead, then, I imagine that a Web re-invented today would treat third-party content a little like we treat CORS or we’re
beginning to treat resource types specified by Content-Security-Policy and Feature-Policy headers. That is, website owners would need to “opt-in” to which third-party domains could be
trusted to provide content, perhaps subdivided into scripts and cookies. This wouldn’t prohibit trackers, but it would make their use less of an assumed-default (develolpers would have
to truly think about the implications of what they were enabling) and more transparent: it’d be very easy for a browser to list (and optionally block, sandbox, or anonymise) third-party
trackers could potentially target them, on a given site, without having to first evaluate any scripts and their sources.
I was recently inspired by Dave Rupert to remove
Google Analytics from this blog. For a while, there’ll have been no third-party scripts being delivered on this site at all, except through iframes (for video embedding etc., which
is different anyway because there’s significantly less scope leak). Recently, I’ve been experimenting with Jetpack because I get it for free through
my new employer, but I’m always looking for ways to improve how well my site “stands alone”: you can block all third-party resources
and this site should still work just fine (I wonder if I can add a feature to my service worker to allow visitors to control exactly what third party content they’re exposed to?).
Last week I happened to be at an unveiling/premiere event for the new Renault Clio. That’s a coincidence: I was actually there to see the new Zoe, because we’re hoping to be among the
first people to get the right-hand-drive version of the new model when it starts rolling off the production line in 2020.
But I’ll tell you what, if they’d have shown me this video instead of showing me the advertising stuff they did, last week, I’d have been all: sure thing, Clio it is,
SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! I’ve watched this ad four times now and seen more things in it every single time. (I even managed to not-cry at it on the fourth watch-through, too; hurrah!).
The language we use is always changing, like how the word “cute” was originally a truncation of the word “acute”, which you’d use to describe somebody who was sharp-witted, as in “don’t
get cute with me”. Nowadays, we use it when describing adorable things, like the subject of this GIF:
But hang on a minute: that’s another word that’s changed meaning: GIF. Want to see how?
What people think it means
File format (or the files themselves) designed for animations and transparency. Or: any animation without sound.
What it originally meant
File format designed for efficient colour images. Animation was secondary; transparency was an afterthought.
Back in the 1980s cyberspace was in its infancy. Sir Tim hadn’t yet dreamed up the Web, and the Internet wasn’t something that most
people could connect to, and bulletin board systems (BBSes) –
dial-up services, often local or regional, sometimes connected to one another in one of a variety of ways – dominated the scene. Larger services like CompuServe acted a little like huge
BBSes but with dial-up nodes in multiple countries, helping to bridge the international gaps and provide a lower learning curve
than the smaller boards (albeit for a hefty monthly fee in addition to the costs of the calls). These services would later go on to double as, and eventually become
exclusively, Internet Service Providers, but for the time being they were a force unto themselves.
In 1987, CompuServe were about to start rolling out colour graphics as a new feature, but needed a new graphics format to support that. Their engineer Steve Wilhite had the
idea for a bitmap image format backed by LZW compression
and called it GIF, for Graphics Interchange Format. Each image could be composed of multiple frames each having up to 256
distinct colours (hence the common mistaken belief that a GIF can only have 256 colours). The nature of the palette system
and compression algorithm made GIF a particularly efficient format for (still) images with solid contiguous blocks of
colour, like logos and diagrams, but generally underperformed against cosine-transfer-based algorithms like
JPEG/JFIF for images with gradients (like most
GIF would go on to become most famous for two things, neither of which it was capable of upon its initial release: binary
transparency (having “see through” bits, which made it an excellent choice for use on Web pages with background images or non-static background colours; these would become popular in
the mid-1990s) and animation. Animation involves adding a series of frames which overlay one another in sequence: extensions to the format in 1989 allowed the creator to specify the
duration of each frame, making the feature useful (prior to this, they would be displayed as fast as they could be downloaded and interpreted!). In 1995, Netscape added a custom extension to GIF to allow them to
loop (either a specified number of times or indefinitely) and this proved so popular that virtually all other software followed suit, but it’s worth noting that “looping” GIFs have never been part of the official standard!
Compatibility was an issue. For a period during the mid-nineties it was quite possible that among the visitors to your website there would be a mixture of:
people who wouldn’t see your GIFs at all, owing to browser, bandwidth, preference, or accessibility limitations,
people who would only see the first frame of your animated GIFs, because their browser didn’t support animation,
people who would see your animation play once, because their browser didn’t support looping, and
people who would see your GIFs as you intended, fully looping
This made it hard to depend upon GIFs without carefully considering their use. But people still did, and they just stuck a
button on to warn people, as if that made up for it. All of this has happened before, etc.
In any case: as better, newer standards like PNG came to dominate the Web’s need for lossless static (optionally
transparent) image transmission, the only thing GIFs remained good for was animation. Standards like APNG/MNG failed to get off the ground, and so GIFs remained the dominant animated-image standard. As Internet connections became faster and faster in the 2000s, they experienced a
resurgence in popularity. The Web didn’t yet have the <video> element and so embedding videos on pages required a mixture of at least two of
<object>, <embed>, Flash, and black magic… but animated GIFs just worked and
soon appeared everywhere.
Nowadays, when people talk about GIFs, they often don’t actually mean GIFs! If you see a GIF on Giphy or WhatsApp, you’re probably actually seeing an MPEG-4 video file with no audio track! Now that Web video
is widely-supported, service providers know that they can save on bandwidth by delivering you actual videos even when you expect a GIF. More than ever before, GIF has become a byword for short, often-looping Internet
animations without sound… even though that’s got little to do with the underlying file format that the name implies.
Verdict: We still can’t agree on whether to pronounce it with a soft-G (“jif”), as Wilhite intended, or with a hard-G, as any sane person would, but it seems that GIFs are here to stay
in name even if not in form. And that’s okay. I guess.
That moment when you realise, to your immense surprise, that the research you’ve spent most of the year on might actually demonstrate the thing you set out to test after all. 😲
Screw you, null hypothesis.
If you make accessibility or internationalization in a code library an optional component, you just know half of the people deploying it will ignore it—out of ignorance or as
optimization. So taking the side of the end user versus the dev user means just pre-bundling these things
If you write a library, add accessibility features as standard.
If you fail to do this, you do a disservice to the developers who use your library and, worse, to the users of their software. Accessibility is for everybody, but it’s still
surprisingly hard to get right: don’t make it any harder by neglecting to include it in your library’s design.
Make those accessibility features on-by-default.
You can’t rely on developers to follow your instructions to make the use of your library accessible. Even the most well-meaning developers find themselves hurried by deadlines and by
less-well-meaning managers. Don’t even make accessibility a simple switch: just put it on to begin with.
Don’t provide a feature to disable accessibility features.
If you allow accessibility features to be turned off, developers will turn them off. They’ll do this for all kinds of reasons, like trying to get pixel-perfect accuracy with a design
or to make a web application behave more like a “hip” mobile app. You’ll probably find that you can never fully prevent developers from breaking your accessibility tools, but you must
make it so that doing so must be significantly more-effort than simply toggling a constant.
Until the 17th century, to “fathom” something was to embrace it. Nowadays, it’s more likely to refer to your understanding of something in depth. The migration came via the
similarly-named imperial unit of measurement, which was originally defined as the span of a man’s outstretched arms, so you can
understand how we got from one to the other. But you know what I can’t fathom? Broadband.
Broadband Internet access has become almost ubiquitous over the last decade and a half, but ask people to define “broadband” and they have a very specific idea about what it means. It’s
not the technical definition, and this re-invention of the word can cause problems.
What people think it means
High-speed, always-on Internet access.
What it originally meant
Communications channel capable of multiple different traffic types simultaneously.
Throughout the 19th century, optical (semaphore) telegraph networks gave way to the new-fangled electrical telegraph, which not only worked regardless of the weather but resulted in
significantly faster transmission. “Faster” here means two distinct things: latency – how long it takes a message to reach its destination, and bandwidth – how much
information can be transmitted at once. If you’re having difficulty understanding the difference, consider this: a man on a horse might be faster than a telegraph if the size of the
message is big enough because a backpack full of scrolls has greater bandwidth than a Morse code pedal, but the latency of an electrical wire beats land transport
every time. Or as Andrew S. Tanenbaum famously put it: Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of
tapes hurtling down the highway.
Telegraph companies were keen to be able to increase their bandwidth – that is, to get more messages on the wire – and this was achieved by multiplexing. The simplest approach,
time-division multiplexing, involves messages (or parts of messages) “taking turns”, and doesn’t actually increase bandwidth at all: although it does improve the perception of
speed by giving recipients the start of their messages early on. A variety of other multiplexing techniques were (and continue to be) explored, but the one that’s most-interesting to us
right now was called acoustic telegraphy: today, we’d call it frequency-division multiplexing.
What if, asked folks-you’ll-have-heard-of like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, we were to send telegraph messages down the line at different frequencies. Some beeps and bips
would be high tones, and some would be low tones, and a machine at the receiving end could separate them out again (so long as you chose your frequencies carefully, to avoid harmonic
distortion). As might be clear from the names I dropped earlier, this approach – sending sound down a telegraph wire – ultimately led to the invention of the
telephone. Hurrah, I’m sure they all immediately called one another to say, our efforts to create a higher-bandwidth medium for telegrams has accidentally resulted in a
lower-bandwidth (but more-convenient!) way for people to communicate. Job’s a good ‘un.
Most electronic communications systems that have ever existed have been narrowband: they’ve been capable of only a single kind of transmission at a time. Even if you’re
multiplexing a dozen different frequencies to carry a dozen different telegraph messages at once, you’re still only transmitting telegraph messages. For the most part, that’s
fine: we’re pretty clever and we can find workarounds when we need them. For example, when we started wanting to be able to send data to one another (because computers are cool now)
over telephone wires (which are conveniently everywhere), we did so by teaching our computers to make sounds and understand one another’s sounds. If you’re old enough to have heard
a fax machine call a landline or, better yet used a dial-up modem, you know what I’m talking about.
As the Internet became more and more critical to business and home life, and the limitations (of bandwidth and convenience) of dial-up access became increasingly questionable,
a better solution was needed. Bringing broadband to Internet access was necessary, but the technologies involved weren’t revolutionary: they were just the result of the application of a
We’d seen this kind of imagination before. Consider teletext, for example (for those of you too young to remember teletext, it was a
standard for browsing pages of text and simple graphics using an 70s-90s analogue television), which is – strictly speaking – a broadband technology. Teletext works by embedding pages
of digital data, encoded in an analogue stream, in the otherwise-“wasted” space in-between frames of broadcast video. When you told your television to show you a particular page, either
by entering its three-digit number or by following one of four colour-coded hyperlinks, your television would wait until the page you were looking for came around again in the
broadcast stream, decode it, and show it to you.
Teletext was, fundamentally, broadband. In addition to carrying television pictures and audio, the same radio wave was being used to transmit text: not pictures of text, but
encoded characters. Analogue subtitles (which used basically the same technology): also broadband. Broadband doesn’t have to mean “Internet access”, and indeed for much of its history,
Here in the UK, ISDN (from 1988!) and later ADSL would be the first widespread technologies to provide broadband data connections over the copper wires simultaneously used to
carry telephone calls. ADSL does this in basically the same way as Edison and Bell’s acoustic telegraphy: a portion
of the available frequencies (usually the first 4MHz) is reserved for telephone calls, followed by a no-mans-land band, followed by two frequency bands of different sizes (hence the
asymmetry: the A in ADSL) for up- and downstream data. This, at last, allowed true “broadband Internet”.
But was it fast? Well, relative to dial-up, certainly… but the essential nature of broadband technologies is that they share the bandwidth with other services. A connection
that doesn’t have to share will always have more bandwidth, all other things being equal! Leased lines, despite
technically being a narrowband technology, necessarily outperform broadband connections having the same total bandwidth because they don’t have to share it with other services. And
don’t forget that not all speed is created equal: satellite Internet access is a narrowband technology with excellent bandwidth… but sometimes-problematic latency issues!
Equating the word “broadband” with speed is based on a consumer-centric misunderstanding about what broadband is, because it’s necessarily true that if your home “broadband” weren’t
configured to be able to support old-fashioned telephone calls, it’d be (a) (slightly) faster, and (b) not-broadband.
But does the word that people use to refer to their high-speed Internet connection matter. More than you’d think: various countries around the world have begun to make legal
definitions of the word “broadband” based not on the technical meaning but on the populist one, and it’s becoming a source of friction. In the USA, the FCC variously defines broadband as having a minimum download speed of
10Mbps or 25Mbps, among other characteristics (they seem to use the former when protecting consumer rights and the latter when reporting on penetration, and you can read into that what
you will). In the UK, Ofcom‘s regulations differentiate between “decent” (yes, that’s really the word they use) and “superfast” broadband at
10Mbps and 24Mbps download speeds, respectively, while the Scottish and Welsh governments as well as the EU say it must be 30Mbps to be
I’m all in favour of regulation that protects consumers and makes it easier for them to compare products. It’s a little messy that definitions vary so widely on what different speeds
mean, but that’s not the biggest problem. I don’t even mind that these agencies have all given themselves very little breathing room for the future: where do you go after “superfast”?
Ultrafast (actually, that’s exactly where we go)? Megafast? Ludicrous speed?
What I mind is the redefining of a useful term to differentiate whether a connection is shared with other services or not to be tied to a completely independent characteristic of that
connection. It’d have been simple for the FCC, for example, to have defined e.g. “full-speed broadband” as
providing a particular bandwidth.
Verdict: It’s not a big deal; I should just chill out. I’m probably going to have to throw in the towel anyway on this one and join the masses in calling all high-speed
Internet connections “broadband” and not using that word for all slower and non-Internet connections, regardless of how they’re set up.