When I was a kid of about 10, one of my favourite books was Usborne’s Spy’s Guidebook. (I also liked its sister the Detective’s Handbook, but the Spy’s Guidebook always seemed a smidge cooler to me).
So I was pleased when our eldest, now 7, took an interest in the book too. This morning, for example, she came to breakfast with an encrypted message for me (along with the relevant page in the book that contained the cipher I’d need to decode it).
Later, as we used the experience to talk about some of the easier practical attacks against this simple substitution cipher (letter frequency analysis, and known-plaintext attacks… I haven’t gotten on to the issue of its miniscule keyspace yet!), she asked me to make a pocket version of the code card as described in the book.
While I was eating leftover curry for lunch with one hand and producing a nice printable, foldable pocket card for her (which you can download here if you like) with the other, I realised something. There are likely to be a lot more messages in my future that are protected by this substitution cipher, so I might as well preempt them by implementing a computerised encoder/decoder right away.
If you’ve got kids of the right kind of age, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Spy’s Guidebook (and possibly the Detective’s Handbook). Either use it as a vehicle to talk about codes and maths, like I have… or let them believe it’s secure while you know you can break it, like we did with Enigma machines after WWII. Either way, they eventually learn a valuable lesson about cryptography.
Wix, the website builder company you may remember from stealing WordPress code and lying about it, has now decided the best way to gain relevance is attacking the open source WordPress community in a bizarre set of ads. They can’t even come up with original concepts for attack ads, and have tried to rip-off of Apple’s Mac vs PC ads, but tastelessly personify the WordPress community as an absent, drunken father in a therapy session.
I have a lot of empathy for whoever was forced to work on these ads, including the actors, it must have felt bad working on something that’s like Encyclopedia Britannica attacking Wikipedia. WordPress is a global movement of hundreds of thousands of volunteers and community members, coming together to make the web a better place. The code, and everything you put into it, belongs to you, and its open source license ensures that you’re in complete control, now and forever. WordPress is free, and also gives you freedom.
For those that haven’t been following the relevant bits of tech social media this last week, here’s the insanity you’ve missed:
Wix’s Twitter and YouTube responses suddenly swing from their usual “why is your customer service so slow to respond to me?” level of negative to outright hostile. LOL.
Twine 2 is a popular tool for making hypertext interactive fiction, but there’s something about physical printed “choose your own adventure”-style gamebooks that isn’t quite replicated when you’re playing on the Web. Maybe it’s the experience of keeping your finger in a page break to facilitate a “save point” for when you inevitably have to backtrack and try again?
As a medium for interactive adventures, paper isn’t dead! Our 7-year-old is currently tackling the second part of a series of books by John Diary, the latest part of which was only published in December! But I worry that authors of printed interactive fiction might have a harder time than those producing hypertext versions. Keeping track of all of your cross-references and routes is harder than writing linear fiction, and in the hypertext
So I’ve thrown together Twinebook, an experimental/prototype tool which aims to bring the feature-rich toolset of Twine to authors of paper-based interactive fiction. Simply: you upload your compiled Twine HTML to Twinebook and it gives you a printable PDF file, replacing the hyperlinks with references in the style of “turn to 27” to instruct the player where to go next. By default, the passages are all scrambled to keep it interesting, but with the starting passage in position 1… but it’s possible to override this for specific passages to facilitate puzzles that require flipping to specific numbered passages.
If this tool is valuable to anybody, that’s great! Naturally I’ve open-sourced the whole thing so others can expand on it if they like. If you find it useful, let me know.
If you’re interested in the possibility of using Twine to streamline the production of printable interactive fiction, give my Twinebook prototype a try and let me know what you think.
I don’t normally watch videos of other people playing video games. I’m even less inclined to watch “walkthroughs”.
This, though, isn’t a walkthrough. It’s basically the opposite of a walkthrough: this is somebody (slowly, painstakingly) playing through Skyrim: Special Edition without using any of the movement controls (WASD/left stick) whatsoever. Wait, what? How is such a thing possible?
That’s what makes the video so compelling. The creator used so many bizarre quirks and exploits to even make this crazy stupid idea work at all. Like (among many, many more):
Dragging a bucket towards yourself to “push” yourself backwards (although not upstairs unless you do some very careful pushing “under” your feet).
Doing an unarmed heavy attack to “stumble” forward a little at a time, avoiding the stamina loss by eating vegetable soup or by cancelling the attack (e.g. by switching quickselected arrows), which apparently works better if you’re overencumbered.
Mid-stumble, consuming a reagent that paralyses yourself to glitch through thin doors. Exploit a bug in dropping gear for your companion near an area-change doorway to get all of the reagent you’ll ever need.
Rush-grinding your way to the Whirlwind Sprint shout and Vampire Lord “Bats” ability so you’ve got a way to move forward quickly, then pairing them with paralysis to catapult yourself across the map.
When things get desperate, exploiting the fact that you can glitch-teleport yourself places by commanding your companion to go somewhere, quicksaving before they get there, then quickloading to appear there yourself.
This video’s just beautiful: the cumulation of what must be hundreds or thousands of person-hours of probing the “edges” of Skyrim‘s engine to discover all of the potentially exploitable bugs that make it possible.
Following the success of our last game of Dialect the previous month and once again in a one-week hiatus of our usual Friday Dungeons & Dragons game, I hosted a second remote game of this strange “soft” RPG with linguistics and improv drama elements.
Our backdrop to this story was Portsmouth in 1834, where we were part of a group – the Gunwharf Ants – who worked as stevedores and made our living (on top of the abysmal wages for manual handling) through the criminal pursuit of “skimming a little off the top” of the bulk-break cargo we moved between ships and onto and off the canal. These stolen goods would be hidden in the basement of nearby pub The Duke of Wellington until they could be safely fenced, and this often-lucrative enterprise made us the envy of many of the docklands’ other criminal gangs.
I played Katie – “Kegs” to her friends – the proprietor of the Duke (since her husband’s death) and matriarch of the group. I was joined by Nuek (Alec), a Scandinavian friend with a wealth of criminal experience, John “Tuck” Crawford (Matt), adoptee of the gang and our aspiring quartermaster, and “Yellow” Mathias Hammond (Simon), a navy deserter who consistently delivers better than he expects to.
While each of us had our stories and some beautiful and hilarious moments, I felt that we all quickly converged on the idea that the principal storyline in our isolation was that of young Tuck. The first act was dominated by his efforts to proof himself to the gang, and – with a little snuff – shake off his reputation as the “kid” of the group and gain acceptance amongst his peers. His chance to prove himself with a caper aboard the Queen Anne went proper merry though after she turned up tin-ful and he found himself kept in a second-place position for years longer. Tuck – and Yellow – got proofed eventually, but the extra time spent living hand-to-mouth might have been what first planted the seed of charity in the young man’s head, and kept most of his numbers out of his pocket and into those of the families he supported in the St. Stevens area.
The second act turned political, as Spiky Dave, leader of the competing gang The Barbados Boys, based over Gosport way, offered a truce between the two rivals in exchange for sharing the manpower – and profits – of a big job against a ship from South Africa… with a case of diamonds aboard. Disagreements over the deal undermined Kegs’ authority over the Ants, but despite their March it went ahead anyway and the job was a success. Except… Spiky Dave kept more than his share of the loot, and agreed to share what was promised only in exchange for the surrender of the Ants and their territory to his gang’s rulership.
We returned to interpersonal drama in the third act as Katie – tired of the gang wars and feeling her age – took perhaps more than her fair share of the barrel (the gang’s shared social care fund) and bought herself clearance to leave aboard a ship to a beachside retirement in Jamaica. She gave up her stake in the future of the gang and shrugged off their challenges in exchange for a quiet life, leaving Nuek as the senior remaining leader of the group… but Tuck the owner of the Duke of Wellington. The gang split into those that integrated with their rivals and those that went their separate ways… and their curious pidgin dissolved with them. Well, except for a few terms which hung on in dockside gang chatter, screeched amongst the gulls of Portsmouth without knowing their significance, for years to come.
Despite being fundamentally the same game and a similar setting to when we played The Outpost the previous month, this game felt very different. Dialect is versatile enough that it can be used to write… adventures, coming-of-age tales, rags-to-riches stories, a comedies, horror, romance… and unless the tone is explicitly set out at the start then it’ll (hopefully) settle somewhere mutually-acceptable to all of the players. But with a new game, new setting, and new players, it’s inevitable that a different kind of story will be told.
But more than that, the backdrop itself impacted on the tale we wove. On Mars, we were physically isolated from the rest of humankind and living in an environment in which the necessities of a new lifestyle and society necessitates new language. But the isolation of criminal gangs in Portsmouth docklands in the late Georgian era is a very different kind: it’s a partial isolation, imposed (where it is) by its members and to a lesser extent by the society around them. Which meant that while their language was still a defining aspect of their isolation, it also felt more-artificial; deliberately so, because those who developed it did so specifically in order to communicate surreptitiously… and, we discovered, to encode their group’s identity into their pidgin.
While our first game of Dialect felt like the language lead the story, this second game felt more like the language and the story co-evolved but were mostly unrelated. That’s not necessarily a problem, and I think we all had fun, but it wasn’t what we expected. I’m glad this wasn’t our first experience of Dialect, because if it were I think it might have tainted our understanding of what the game can be.
As with The Outpost, we found that some of the concepts we came up with didn’t see much use: on Mars, the concept of fibs was rooted in a history of of how our medical records were linked to one another (for e.g. transplant compatibility), but aside from our shared understanding of the background of the word this storyline didn’t really come up. Similarly, in Thieves Cant’ we developed a background about the (vegan!) roots of our gang’s ethics, but it barely got used as more than conversational flavour. In both cases I’ve wondered, after the fact, whether a “flashback” scene framed from one of our prompts might have helped solidify the concept. But I’m also not sure whether or not such a thing would be necessary. We seemed to collectively latch onto a story hook – this time around, centred around Matt’s character John Crawford’s life and our influences on it – and it played out fine.
And hey; nobody died before the epilogue, this time!
I’m looking forward to another game next time we’re on a D&D break, or perhaps some other time.
Dr. Doe’s latest Sexplanations vlog is on polyamorous language, and despite being – or, perhaps, because I’m – a bit of a long-toothed polyamorist these days, fully a quarter or more of the terms she introduced were new to me! Fascinating!
I’ve been doing a course provided through work to try to improve my ability to connect with an audience over video.
This is my fourth week in the course, and I opted to revisit a video I made during my second week and try to do it again with more engagement, more focus, more punch, and more emotion. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. Interestingly, it somewhat mirrors my Howdymattic video from when I first started at Automattic, but I pivoted my “origin story” a little bit and twisted it to fit one of my favourite parts of the Automattic Creed.
I’ve been doing a course provided through work to try to improve my ability to connect with an audience over video. For one of my assignments in this, my fourth week, I picked a topic out from the “welcome” survey I filled out when I first started the course. The topic: the Devil’s Quoits. This stone circle – not far from my new house – has such a bizarre history of construction, demolition, and reconstruction… as well as a fun folk myth about its creation… that I’d thought it’d make a great follow-up to my previous “local history” piece, Oxford’s Long-Lost Zoo. I’d already hidden a “virtual” geocache at the henge, as I previously did for the zoo: a video seemed like the next logical step.
My brief required that the video be only about a minute long, which presented its own challenge in cutting down the story I’d like to tell to a bare minimum. Then on top of that, it took me at least eight takes until I was confident that I’d have one I was happy with, and there’s still things I’d do differently if I did it again (including a better windbreak on my lapel mic, and timing my takes for when geese weren’t honking their way past overhead!).
In any case: part of the ritual of this particular course encourages you to “make videos… as if people will see them”, and I’ve been taking that seriously! Firstly, I’ve been sharing many of my videos with others either at work or on my blog, like the one about how GPS works or the one about the secret of magic. Secondly, I’ve been doing “extra credit” by recording many of my daily-standup messages as videos, in addition to providing them through our usual Slack bot.
Hi, ONS! I know we haven’t really spoken since you ghosted me in 2011, but I just wanted to clear something up for you –
This is not a mistake:
Back in 2011 you thought it was a mistake, and this prevented my partner, her husband and I from filling out the digital version of the census. I’m sure it’s not common for somebody to have multiple cohabiting romantic relationships (though it’s possibly more common than some other things you track…), but surely an “Are you sure?” would be better than a “No you don’t!”
We worked around it in 2011 by using the paper forms. Apparently this way you still end up “correcting” our relationship status for us (gee, thanks!) but at least – I gather – the originals are retained. So maybe in a more-enlightened time, future statisticians might be able ask about the demographics of domestic nonmonogamy and have at least some data to work with from the early 21st century.
I know you’re keen for as many people as possible to do the census digitally this year. But unless you’ve fixed your forms then my family and I – and thousands of others like us – will either have to use the paper copies you’re trying to phase out… or else knowingly lie on the digital versions. Which would you prefer?
While I was traipsing off around the countryside to commemorate the anniversary of the death of my dad, one of his former colleagues uploaded to YouTube a video that he originally produced for the UK Bus Awards Presentation Ceremony 2012.
As his son, it felt a little weird for me to be marking the occasion on what: the ninth anniversary of his death? It’s not even a nice round number. But clearly I’m not the only one whose mind drifted to my father on 19 February.
Fun fact: this photo – extracted from the video – was originally taken by me:
Maybe I should be asking for royalties! Or at least, using the video as an excuse to springboard my career as a professional photographer.
A slightly tongue-in-cheek (see the “serial monogamy” chain and some of the subtitles!) but moderately-complete diagram of popular varieties of relationship structure. Obviously there’s gaps – relationships are as diverse as their participants – and lots of room for refinement, but the joy of an infographic is making visible the breadth of a field, not in providing encyclopaedic comprehension of that field. I especially like the attention to detail in “connecting” often-related concepts.
Field behind Hill Barn, near the Gom’s Hole public footpath, in the valley beneath the hamlet of Clapton-on-the-Hill. About 4km outside the village of Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire.
Dan Q (as a retrohash on the same date but 19 years later, on 2021-02-19)
On the second anniversary of the death of my father, a man who loved to get out into the world and get lost, I undertook my first geohashing expedition. As this seemed to be a good way to remember him I decided to repeat the experience on this, the ninth anniversary of his death, but the actual hashpoints for the day didn’t look interesting… so I opted to make my way to what would have been my nearest hashpoint on the day he died.
The weather looked horrible and the COVID lockdown (and working from home in general in recent years) has put me out of practice at cycling, so I thought a 40-50 mile round trip through the rolling hills of the Cotswolds was just the thing. This may have been a mistake, as my aching legs were able to testify for several days.
Cycling through Witney, over the hills behind Burford, and then across the Windrush valley and into Gloucestershire was a long, arduous, and damp journey, but what really got me was the wind picking up in the afternoon and giving me a headwind to fight against all the way back home.
Near the hashpoint I was able to lock my bike up at the junction between Sherbourne Street and Bourton Hill – a place shown on my map as “Gom’s Hole” which sounds exactly like what a D&D dungeon master would have a goblin would name his bar. From there I followed the footpath towards Farringdon. As the hashpoint drew closer I began to suspect that it would be unreachable: tall walls, fences, and hedges stood on both sides of the (flooded) footpath, but at the last minute they gave way to wide meadows. I turned off the path and crossed a dyke to the hashpoint, where I had a great view of hares and deer in the valley below. Minutes later, the owner of Hill Barn came over with her dog and asked what I was doing around the back of her land and why I was taking pictures, so I explained that I’d strayed from the footpath (true) because my GPS had told me too (technically true) but I was heading back down to what I could see was the path, now (true, if misleading).
She continued to watch me all the way back to my bike, so I changed my plans (which had been to eat a sandwich lunch and drink a pint of Guinness: my dad’s beer of choice) near the hashpoint and instead I cycled away to a nearby layby to have my lunch.
After a 48.3 mile round trip I got back home aching and exhausted, but pleased to have made it to this damp hashpoint.
The basilisk collection (also known as the basilisk file or basilisk.txt) is a collection of over 125 million partial hash inversions of the SHA-256cryptographic hash function. Assuming state-of-the art methods were used to compute the inversions, the entries in the collection collectively represent a proof-of-work far exceeding the computational capacity of the human race. The collection was released in parts through BitTorrent beginning in June 2018, although it was not widely reported or discussed until early 2019. On August 4th, 2019 the complete collection of 125,552,089 known hash inversions was compiled and published by CryTor, the cybersecurity lab of the University of Toronto.
The existence of the basilisk collection has had wide reaching consequences in the field of cryptography, and has been blamed for catalyzing the January 2019 Bitcoin crash.
Presented in the style of an alternate-reality Wikipedia article, this piece of what the author calls “unfiction” describes the narratively believable-but-spooky (if theoretically unlikely from a technical standpoint) 2018 disclosure of evidence for a new presumed mathematical weakness in the SHA-2 hash function set. (And if that doesn’t sound like a good premise for a story to you, I don’t know what’s wrong with you! 😂)
Cryptographic weaknesses that make feasible attacks on hashing algorithms are a demonstrably real thing. But even with the benefit of the known vulnerabilities in SHA-2 (meet-in-the-middle attacks that involve up-to-halving the search space by solving from “both ends”, plus deterministic weaknesses that make it easier to find two inputs that produce the same hash so long as you choose the inputs carefully) the “article” correctly states that to produce a long list of hash inversions of the kinds described, that follow a predictable sequence, might be expected to require more computer processing power than humans have ever applied to any problem, ever.
As a piece of alternate history science fiction, this piece not only provides a technically-accurate explanation of its premises… it also does a good job of speculating what the impact on the world would have been of such an event. But my single favourite part of the piece is that it includes what superficially look like genuine examples of what a hypothetical basilisk.txt would contain. To do this, the author wrote a brute force hash finder and ran it for over a year. That’s some serious dedication. For those that were fooled by this seemingly-convincing evidence of the realism of the piece, here’s the actual results of the hash alongside the claimed ones (let this be a reminder to you that it’s not sufficient to skim-read your hash comparisons, people!):