On This Day In 2005

I normally reserve my “on this day” posts to look back at my own archived content, but once in a while I get a moment of nostalgia for something of somebody else’s that “fell off the web”. And so I bring you something you probably haven’t seen in over a decade: Paul and Jon‘s Birmingham Egg.

Paul's lunch on this day 13 years ago: Birmingham Egg with Naan Bread
Is this honestly so different from the kind of crap that most of our circle of friends ate in 2005?

It was a simpler time: a time when YouTube was a new “fringe” site (which is probably why I don’t have a surviving copy of the original video) and not yet owned by Google, before Facebook was universally-available, and when original Web content remained decentralised (maybe we’re moving back in that direction, but I wouldn’t count on it…). And only a few days after issue 175 of the b3ta newsletter wrote:

* BIRMINGHAM EGG - Take 5 scotch eggs, cut in
  half and cover in masala sauce. Place in
  Balti dish and serve with naan and/or chips. 
  We'll send a b3ta t-shirt to anyone who cooks
  this up, eats it and makes a lovely little
  photo log / write up of their adventure.
Birmingham Egg preparation
Sure, this looks like the kind of thing that seems like a good idea when you’re a student.

Clearly-inspired, Paul said “Guess what we’re doing on Sunday?” and sure enough, he delivered. On this day 13 years ago and with the help of Jon, Liz, Siân, and Andy R, Paul whipped up the dish and presented his findings to the Internet: the original page is long-gone, but I’ve resurrected it for posterity. I don’t know if he ever got his promised free t-shirt, but he earned it: the page went briefly viral and brought joy to the world before being forgotten the following week when we all started arguing about whether 9 Songs was a good film or not.

It was a simpler time, when, having fewer responsibilities, we were able to do things like this “for the lulz”. But more than that, it was still at the tail-end of the era in which individuals putting absurd shit online was still a legitimate art form on the Web. Somewhere along the way, the Web got serious and siloed. It’s not all a bad thing, but it does mean that we’re publishing less weirdness than we were back then.

Neural nets respond to pranks like children do

A recent article by Janelle Shane talked about her recent experience with Microsoft Azure’s image processing API. If you’ve not come across her work before, I recommend starting with her candy hearts, or else new My Little Pony characters, invented by a computer. Anyway:

The Azure image processing API is a software tool powered by a neural net, a type of artificial intelligence that attempts to replicate a particular model of how (we believe) brains to work: connecting inputs (in this case, pixels of an image) to the entry nodes of a large, self-modifying network and reading the output, “retraining” the network based on feedback from the quality of the output it produces. Neural nets have loads of practical uses and even more theoretical ones, but Janelle’s article was about how confused the AI got when shown certain pictures containing (or not containing!) sheep.

A foggy field, incorrectly identified by an AI as containing sheep.
There are probably sheep in the fog somewhere, but they’re certainly not visible.

The AI had clearly been trained with lots of pictures that contained green, foggy, rural hillsides and sheep, and had come to associate the two. Remember that all the machine is doing is learning to associate keywords with particular features, and it’s clearly been shown many pictures that “look like” this that do contain sheep, and so it’s come to learn that “sheep” is one of the words that you use when you see a scene like this. Janelle took to Twitter to ask for pictures of sheep in unusual places, and the Internet obliged.

An AI mistakes a sheep for a dog when it is held by a child.
When the sheep is held by a child, it becomes a “dog”.

Many of the experiments resulting from this – such as the one shown above – work well to demonstrate this hyper-focus on context: a sheep up a tree is a bird, a sheep on a lead is a dog, a sheep painted orange is a flower, and so on. And while we laugh at them, there’s something about them that’s actually pretty… “human”.

Annabel with a goat.
Our eldest really loves cats. Also goats, apparently. Azure described this photo as “a person wearing a costume”, but it did include keywords such as “small”, “girl”, “petting”, and… “dog”.

I say this because I’ve observed similar quirks in the way that small children pick up language, too (conveniently, I’ve got a pair of readily-available subjects, aged 4 and 1, for my experiments in language acquisition…). You’ve probably seen it yourself: a toddler whose “training set” of data has principally included a suburban landscape describing the first cow they see as a “dog”. Or when they use a new word or phrase they’ve learned in a way that makes no sense in the current context, like when our eldest interrupted dinner to say, in the most-polite voice imaginable, “for God’s sake would somebody give me some water please”. And just the other day, the youngest waved goodbye to an empty room, presumably because it’s one that he often leaves on his way up to bed

Annabel snuggling one of Nanna Doreen's cats.
“A cat lying on a blanket”, says Azure, completely overlooking the small child in the picture. I guess the algorithm was trained on an Internet’s worth of cat pictures and didn’t see as much of people-with-cats.

For all we joke, this similarity between the ways in which artificial neural nets and small humans learn language is perhaps the most-accessible evidence that neural nets are a strong (if imperfect) model for how brains actually work! The major differences between the two might be simply that:

  1. Our artificial neural nets are significantly smaller and less-sophisticated than most biological ones.
  2. Biological neural nets (brains) benefit from continuous varied stimuli from an enormous number of sensory inputs, and will even self-stimulate (via, for example, dreaming) – although the latter is something with which AI researchers sometimes experiment.
John looking out of the window.
“Ca’! Ca’! Ca’!” Maybe if he shouts it excitedly enough, one of the cats (or dogs, which are for now just a special kind of cat) he’s spotted will give in and let him pet it. But I don’t fancy his chances.

Things we take as fundamental, such as the nouns we assign to the objects in our world, are actually social/intellectual constructs. Our minds are powerful general-purpose computers, but they’re built on top of a biology with far simpler concerns: about what is and is-not part of our family or tribe, about what’s delicious to eat, about which animals are friendly and which are dangerous, and so on. Insofar as artificial neural nets are an effective model of human learning, the way they react to “pranks” like these might reveal underlying truths about how we perceive the world.

And maybe somewhere, an android really is dreaming of an electric sheep… only it’s actually an electric cat.

Lunar Lander

Just want to play my game without reading this whole post? Play the game here – press a key, mouse button, or touch the screen to fire the thrusters, and try to land at less than 4 m/s with as much fuel left over as possible.

In 1969, when all the nerds were still excited by sending humans to the moon instead of flinging cars around the sun, the hottest video game was Rocket (or Lunar) for the PDP-8. Originally implemented in FOCAL by high school student Jim Storer and soon afterwards ported to BASIC (the other dominant language to come as standard with microcomputers), Rocket became the precursor to an entire genre of video games called “Lunar Lander games“.

Source code of Rocket and sample output.
Like many pieces of microcomputer software of the time, Rocket was distributed as printed source code that you’d need to carefully type in at the other end.

The aim of these games was to land a spacecraft on the moon or similar body by controlling the thrust (and in some advanced versions, the rotation) of the engine. The spacecraft begins in freefall towards the surface and will accelerate under gravity: this can be counteracted with thrust, but engaging the engine burns through the player’s limited supply of fuel. Furthermore, using fuel lowers the total mass of the vessel (a large proportion of the mass of the Apollo landers was fuel for use in the descent stage) which reduces its inertia, giving the engine more “kick” which must be compensated for during the critical final stages. It sounds dry and maths-y, but I promise that graphical versions can usually be played entirely “by eye”.

Atari's Lunar Lander (1979)
Atari’s 1979 adaptation is perhaps the classic version you’d recognise, although its release was somewhat overshadowed by their other vector-graphics space-themed release in 1979: Asteroids.

Let’s fast-forward a little. In 1997 I enrolled to do my A-levels at what was then called Preston College, where my Computing tutor was a chap called Kevin Geldard: you can see him at 49 seconds into this hilariously low-fi video which I guess must have been originally shot on VHS despite being uploaded to YouTube in 2009. He’s an interesting chap in his own right whose contributions to my career in computing deserve their own blog post, but for the time being all you need to know is that he was the kind of geek who, like me, writes software “for fun” more often than not. Kevin owned a Psion 3 palmtop – part of a series of devices with which I also have a long history and interest – and he taught himself to program OPL by reimplementing a favourite game of his younger years on it: his take on the classic mid-70s-style graphical Lunar Lander.

Psion Series 3
I never owned a Psion Series 3 (pictured), but I bought a Series 5mx in early 2000 out of my second student loan cheque, ultimately wrote most of my undergraduate dissertation using it, and eventually sold it to a collector in about 2009 for almost as much as I originally paid for it. The 5mx was an amazing bit of kit. But I’ll blog about that another day, I guess.

My A-level computing class consisted of a competitive group of geeky lads, and we made sort-of a personal extracurricular challenge to ourselves of re-implementing Kevin’s take on Lunar Lander using Turbo Pascal, the primary language in which our class was taught. Many hours out-of-class were spent in the computer lab, tweaking and comparing our various implementations (with only ocassional breaks to play Spacy, CivNet, or my adaptation of LORD2): later, some of us would extend our competition by going on to re-re-implement in Delphi, Visual Basic, or Java, or by adding additional levels relating to orbital rendezvous or landing on other planetary bodies. I was quite proud of mine at the time: it was highly-playable, fun, and – at least on your first few goes – moderately challenging.

Dan's Lunar Lander (2018)
I sometimes wonder what it would have looked like if I’d have implemented my 1997 Lunar Lander today. So I did.

Always game to try old new things, and ocassionally finding time between the many things that I do to code, I decided to expand upon my recently-discovered interest in canvas coding to bring back my extracurricular Lunar Lander game of two decades ago in a modern format. My goals were:

  • A one-button version of a classic “straight descent only” lunar lander game (unlike my 1997 version, which had 10 engine power levels, this remake has just “on” and “off”)
  • An implementation based initially on real physics (although not necessarily graphically to scale)… and then adapted as necessary to give a fun/playability balance that feels good
  • Runs in a standards-compliant browser without need for plugins: HTML5, Canvas, Javascript
  • Adapts gracefully to any device, screen resolution, and orientation with graceful degredation/progressive enhancement

You can have a go at my game right here in your web browser! The aim is to reach the ground travelling at a velocity of no more than 4 m/s with the maximum amount of fuel left over: this, if anything, is your “score”. My record is 52% of fuel remaining, but honestly anything in the 40%+ range is very good. Touch the screen (if it’s a touchscreen) or press a mouse button or any key to engage your thrusters and slow your descent.

End point of Dan's Lunar Lander (2018)
“Houston, the Eagle has landed.” Kerbal Space Program, it isn’t. Here’s a very good landing: 3 m/s with 48% of the fuel tank remaining.

And of course it’s all open-source, so you’re more than welcome to take it, rip it apart, learn from it, or make something better out of it.

Bureaucracy vs. Common Sense

In addition to the pension I get from my “day job” employer, I maintain a pension pot with a separate private provider which I top up with money from my freelance work. I logged in to that second pension provider’s (reliably shonky, web-standards-violating) website about a month ago and found that I couldn’t do anything because they’d added a new mandatory field to the “My Profile” page and I wasn’t allowed to do anything else until I’d filled it out. No problem, I thought: a few seconds won’t kill me.

Neon sign showing the words "Work Harder"
If I’m lucky, I might be able to afford to retire this century.

The newly-added field turned out to be “Gender”, and as it was apparently unacceptable to leave this unspecified (as would be my preference: after all, I’ll certainly be retiring after November 2018, when gender will cease to have any legal bearing on retirement age), I clicked the drop-down to see what options they’d provided. “Not provided”, “Male”, and “Female” were the options: fine, I thought, I’ll just pick “Not provided” and be done with it. And for a while, everything seemed fine.

Gender field with options "Not provided", "Male", "Female".
Leaving the field as the undefined “Select One” option wasn’t valid (I tried!) so I changed the value.

Over three weeks later I received a message from them saying that they hadn’t yet been able to action the changes to my profile because they hadn’t yet received hard-copy documentary evidence from me. By this point, I’d forgotten about the minor not-really-a-change change I’d made and assumed that whatever they were on about must probably be related to my unusual name. I sent a message back to them to ask exactly what kind of evidence they needed to see. And that’s when things got weird.

I received a message back – very-definitely from a human – to say that what they needed to see what evidence of my gender change. That is, my change of gender from “not specified” to “not provided”.

Fluttershy says "If I had fingers, I'd be showing you one."
Fluttershy gets it.

They went on to suggest that I could get my doctor to certify a letter verifying my gender change. Needless to say, I haven’t made an appointment to try to get my GP to sign a document that confirms that my gender is “not provided”. Instead, I’ve emailed back to ask them to read what they just asked me for again, and perhaps this time they’ll engage both brain cells and try to think about what they’re actually asking, rather than getting tied up in knots in their own bureaucratic process. Let’s see how that goes.

Replacing “love” with “butt” in song lyrics

Seeing as it’s almost Valentine’s Day and by way of proof that I’m not always so serious as to write about important topics like WordPress’s CAPTCHA implementation or how I became a brony, here are some of the highlights of a conversation that Ruth and I just had (tapping in to our inner 12-year-olds, I guess: some alcohol might have been involved) about song lyrics that are immeasurably improved if you replace the word “love” with “butt”. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Greatest Butt Of All – Whitney Houston
  • Can You Feel The Butt Tonight? – Elton John
  • Shower Me With Your Butt – Surface
    Eww.
  • Big Butt – Fleetwood Mac
  • I Would Do Anything For Butt (But I Won’t Do That) – Meat Loaf
  • Too Much Butt Will Kill You
    “Torn between the butter and the butt you leave behind.” Yes, you can totally turn “lover” into “butter”, but it’s the addition of the word “behind” that made me snortle.
  • Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran
    “Will your mouth still remember the taste of my butt? Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks?”
  • Butt Song For A Vampire – Annie Lennox
  • Bleeding Butt – Leona Lewis
    “Keep bleeding. Keep, keep bleeding, butt. You cut me open”
  • How Deep Is Your Butt? – Bee Gees
  • Addicted to Butt – Robert Palmer
    “It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough. You know you’re gonna have to face it: you’re addicted to butt.”
  • One – U2
    “Did I disappoint you, or leave a bad taste in your mouth? You act like you never had butt and you want me to go without.”
  • Lay All Your Butt On Me – ABBA
  • Butt Stinks – The J. Geils Band
  • Tainted Butt – Soft Cell
  • Can’t Help Falling In Butt – Elvis Prestley

Okay, now I’ve got that out of my system we can carry on as normal.

Bypassing WordPress/Jetpack’s “Prove your humanity:” CAPTCHA

One of the most-popular WordPress plugins is Jetpack, a product of Automattic (best-known for providing the widely-used WordPress hosting service “WordPress.com“). Among Jetpack’s features (many of which are very good) is Jetpack Protect which adds – among other things – the possibility for a CAPTCHA to appear on your login pages. This feature is slightly worse than pointless as it makes it harder for humans to log in but has no significant impact upon automated robots; at best, it provides a false sense of security and merely frustrates and slows down legitimate human editors.

WordPress/Jetpack's CAPTCHA, asking for the solution to "9+10="
Thanks, WordPress, for slowing me down with a CAPTCHA that a robot can solve more-easily than a human.

“Proving your humanity”, as you’re asked to do, is a task that’s significantly easier for a robot to perform than a human. Eventually, of course, all tests of this nature seem likely to fail as robots become smarter than humans (especially as the most-popular system is specifically geared towards training robots), but that’s hardly an excuse for inventing a system that was a failure from its inception. Jetpack’s approach is fundamentally flawed because it makes absolutely no effort to disguise the challenge in a way that humans are able to read any-differently than robots. I’ll demonstrate that in a moment.

Jetpack security settings: "Protect" switch
Don’t just disable this, though! Other “Protect” features make some sense. If only you could disable just the stupid one…

A while back, a colleague of mine network-enabled Jetpack Protect across a handful of websites that I occasionally need to log into, and it bugged me that it ‘broke’ my password safe’s ability to automatically log me in. So to streamline my workflow – as well as to demonstrate quite how broken Jetpack Protect’s CAPTCHA is, I’ve written a userscript that you can install into your web browser that will completely circumvent it, solving the maths problems on your behalf so that you don’t have to. Here’s how to use it:

  1. Install a userscript manager into your browser if you don’t have one already: I use Tampermonkey, but it ought to work with almost any of them.
  2. Install Jetpack Maths Solver.

From now on, whenever you go to a page whose web path begins with “/wp-login.php” that contains a Jetpack Protect maths problem, the answer will be automatically calculated and filled-in on your behalf. The usual userscript rules apply: if you don’t trust me, read the source code (there are really only five lines to check) and disable automatic updates for it (especially as it operates across all domains), and feel free to adapt/improve however you see fit. Maybe if we can get enough people using it Automattic will fix this half-hearted CAPTCHA – or at least give us a switch to disable it in the first place.

On This Day In 2004

Looking Back

On this day in 2004… Troma Night XXI took place at The Flat. Six people were in attendance: Claire, Paul, Kit, Bryn, (Strokey) Adam and I and, unusually – remember that the digital cameras in phones were still appalling – I took pictures of everybody who showed up.

Troma Night XXI Attendees - clockwise from top left: Dan, Claire, Paul, Adam, Bryn, Kit
Cue exclamations of “didn’t we all look young”, etc.

Troma Night was, of course, our weekly film night back in Aberystwyth (the RockMonkey wiki once described it as “fun”). Originally launched as a one-off and then a maybe-a-few-off event with a theme of watching films produced (or later: distributed) by Troma Entertainment, it quickly became a regular event with a remit to watch “all of the best and the worst films ever made”. Expanding into MST3K, the IMDb “bottom 250”, and once in a while a good film, we eventually spent somewhere over 300 nights on this activity (you can relive our 300th, if you like!) and somehow managed to retain a modicum of sanity.

Kit, Alec, Siân, (Strokey) Adam, Bryn, Paul, Mark, Claire and I consuming far too much alcohol at Troma Night V and Troma Night VI.
Copious quantities of alcohol might have been part of our survival strategy, as evidenced by these pictures from Troma Night V and Troma Night VI.

Starting out in Claire and I’s then-home, The Flat, Troma Night followed us to The Sharp and eventually to The Cottage, where – ignoring a few ‘tours’ to other people’s homes – it remained from then on. Fuelled by pizza, crisps, and beer, we made it through such terrible films as Manos: The Hands of Fate, the truly awful nightmare fuel that is Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy, and the so-bad-it’s funny action mess Carnosaur 3: Primal Species.

Troma Night XXI, captured on the Troma Night Webcam
Troma Night XXI was among those captured by the Troma Night Webcam, streamed out to the Internet in 1-megapixel, 4 frames per second glory (when it worked).

And what did we watch on this day 13 years ago? The Stendhal Syndrome, which turned out to be remarkably good, Beavis And Butthead Do America, which turned out to be remarkably unremarkable, and horror/sci-fi classic The Thing. But not until after a greater-than-usual amount of tidying up The Flat, I gather.

Looking Forward

In addition to running for over 300 weeks, Troma Night became, for many of us, a central facet of our social lives. The original attendees were all volunteers at Aberystwyth Nightline, but we were later joined by their friends, lovers, housemates… and by Liz‘s dates (who after meeting all of her friends, we usually never saw again). We quickly developed our own traditions and ideas, such as:

  • Our own “drinking game” with rules relating to particular tropes of the films we were watching (an early version can be found here),
  • Pizzas like the Alec Special – a Hollywood Special (ham, pepperoni, beef, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, sweetcorn) but without the onions and with pineapple substituted in instead – and the Pepperoni Feast particularly enjoyed by our resident vegetarian,
Bryn, Paul, Claire, Liz, and Kit enjoy Hollywood Pizza at Troma Night VI.5.
For those who – like me – insist that our regular Hollywood Pizza got greasier over this years, these photos from Troma Night VI.5 are pretty damning. Maybe it’s just that our tastes changed.
  • Paul spontaneously throwing a sponge out of the window to mark the beginning of the evening’s activities,
  • Alec bringing exactly one more can of Grolsch than he’s capable of drinking and leaving the remainder in the fridge to be consumed by Kit at the start of the subsequent event,
  • A fight over the best (or in some cases only) seats in Claire and I’s various small (and cluttered) homes: we once got 21 people into the living room at The Flat, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant,
  • Becoming such a regular customer to Hollywood Pizza that they once phoned us when we hadn’t placed an order in a timely fashion, on another ocassion turned up with somebody else’s order because it “looked like the kind of thing we usually ordered”, and at least one time were persuaded to deliver the pizza directly up to the living room and to each recipient’s lap (you can’t get much better delivery service than that).
Troma Night 4, back when The Flat was in its original furniture configuration.
Decisions about how Claire and I would lay out our furniture were eventually influenced directly by maximising the efficiency of our seating plan. This picture, from Troma Night IV, makes it seem quite spacious and relaxed compared to later nights.

Perhaps the apogee of Troma Night’s success, for me at least, was when some of us got to meet Lloyd Kaufman himself, over a beer and a bowl of nachos, in 2007: prior to the UK premiere of the fabulous return-to-form Troma masterpiece Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. This resulted in much fangirling on the part of Claire and, let’s be honest, by pretty much all of us who got the be there.

And I still enjoy the occasional awful film. I finally got around to watching Sharknado the other month, and my RiffTrax account’s library grows year on year. One of my reward card accounts is still under the name of Mr. Troma Knight. So I suppose that Troma Night lives on in some the regulars, even if we don’t make ourselves suffer of a weekend in quite the same ways as we once did.

How I Became A Brony

To pre-empt any gatekeeping bronies in their generally-quite-nice society who want to tell me that I’m no “true” fan: save your breath, I already know. I’m not actually claiming any kinship with the brony community. But what’s certainly true is that I’ve gained a level of appreciation for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that certainly goes beyond that of most people who aren’t fans of the show (or else have children who are), and I thought I’d share it with you. (I can’t promise that it’s not just Stockholm syndrome, though…)

Dan and Annabel wearing My Little Pony headbands. Dan is also wearing a T-shirt that reads "Masculine as fuck", written in flowers, although he hadn't thought about that at the time.
Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash. Their friendship is magic, and yours can be too.

Ignoring the fact that I owned, at some point in the early 1980s, a “G1” pony toy (possibly Seashell) from the original, old-school My Little Pony, my first introduction to the modern series came in around 2010 when, hearing about the surprise pop culture appeal of the rebooted franchise, I watched the first two episodes, Friendship is Magic parts one and two: I’m aware that after I mentioned it to Claire, she went on to watch most of the first season (a pegasister in the making, perhaps?). Cool, I thought: this is way better than most of the crap cartoons that were on when I was a kid.

Pinkie Pie's friends learn about the Element of Laughter.
🎵 Chortle at the kooky… snortle at the spooky… 🎵

And then… I paid no mind whatsoever to the franchise until our little preschooler came home from the library, early in 2017, with a copy of an early reader/board book called Fluttershy and the Perfect Pet. This turns out to be a re-telling of the season 2 episode May The Best Pet Win!, although of course I only know that with hindsight. I casually mentioned to her that there was a TV series with these characters, too, and she seemed interested in giving it a go. Up until that point her favourite TV shows were probably PAW Patrol and Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, but these quickly gave way to a new-found fandom of all things MLP.

A common sight on any flat surface around our house.
No ponies were harmed in the staging of this apparent massacre.

The bobbin’s now watched all seven seasons of Friendship is Magic plus the movie and so, by proxy – with a few exceptions where for example JTA was watching an episode with her – have I. And it’s these exceptions where I’d “missed” a few episodes that first lead to the discovery that I am, perhaps, a “closet Brony”. It came to me one night at the local pub that JTA and I favour that when we ended up, over our beers, “swapping notes” about the episodes that we’d each seen in order to try to make sense of it all. We’re each routinely roped into playing games for which we’re expected to adopt the role of particular ponies (and dragons, and changelings, and at least one centaur…), but we’d both ended up getting confused as to what we were supposed to be doing at some point or another on account of the episodes of the TV show we’d each “missed”. I’m not sure how we looked to the regulars – two 30-something men sitting by the dartboard discussing the internal politics and friendship dramas of a group of fictional ponies and working out how the plots were interconnected – but if anybody thought anything of it, they didn’t say so.

The Kings Arms in Kidligton. Photo courtesy of User:Motacilla on Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons (attribution, sharealike) license.
JTA and I’s local is among the most distinctly “village pub”-like pubs I’ve ever visited.

By the time the movie was due to come out, I was actually a little excited about it, and not even just in a vicarious way (I would soon be disappointed, mind: the movie’s mediocre at best, but at the three-year-old I took to the cinema was impressed, at least, and the “proper” bronies – who brought cupcakes and costumes and sat at the back of the cinema – seemed to enjoy themselves, so maybe I just set my expectations too high). Clearly something in the TV show had sunk its hooks into me, at least in a minor way. It’s not that I’d ever watch an episode without the excuse of looking after a child who wanted to do so… but I also won’t deny that by the end of The Cutie Remark, Part One I wanted to make sure that I was the one to be around when the little ‘un watched the second part! How would Starlight Glimmer be defeated?

Box of cinema popcorn with My Little Pony advertising/branding on the side.
🎵 My little popcorn, my little popcorn… 🎵

At least part of the appeal is probably that the show is better than most other contemporary kids’ entertainment, and as anybody with young children knows, you end up exposed to plenty of it. Compare to PAW Patrol (the previous obsession in our household), for example. Here we have two shows that each use six animated animals to promote an ever-expanding toy line. But in Friendship is Magic the ponies are all distinct and (mostly) internally-consistent characters with their own individual identity, history, ambitions, likes and dislikes that build a coherent whole (and that uniquely contributes to the overall identity of the group). In PAW Patrol, the pups are almost-interchangeable in identity (and sometimes purpose), each with personality quirks that conveniently disappear when the plot demands it (Marshall suddenly and without announcement stops being afraid of heights when episodes are released to promote the new “air pup” toys, and Chase’s allergy to cats somehow only manifests itself some of the time and with some cats) and other characteristics that feel decidedly… forced. MLP‘s writing isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but compared to the other things I could be watching with the kids it’s spectacular!

PAW Patrol's Zuma
Seriously, Zuma: what are you FOR?

And compare the morality of the two shows. Friendship is Magic teaches us the values of friendship (duh), loyalty, trust, kindness, and respect, as well as carrying a strong feminist message that young women can grow up to be whatever the hell they want to be. Conversely, the most-lasting lesson I’ve taken from watching PAW Patrol (and I’ve seen a lot of that, too) is that police and spy agencies are functionally-interchangeable which very-much isn’t the message I want our children to take away from their screen time.

Rarity cries on the floor, from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic S01E19
Not all lessons are good lessons. I’m talking to you, Rarity.

It’s not perfect, of course. The season one episode A Dog And Pony Show‘s enduring moral, in which unicorn pony Rarity is kidnapped by subterranean dogs and made to mine gemstones (she has a magical talent for divining for seams of them), seems to be that the best way for a woman to get her way over men is to make a show of whining incessantly until they submit, and to win arguments by deliberately misunderstanding their statements as something that she can take offence to. That’s not just a bad ethical message, it also reinforces a terrible stereotype and thoroughly undermines Rarity’s character! Thankfully, such issues are few and far between and on the whole the overwhelming message of My Little Pony is one of empowerment, equality, and fairness.

Mr. Labrador tells Mummy Pig that women are useless at archery.
If Mr. Labrador had a Twitter account, this episode of Peppa Pig would have put him at the receiving end of a whole Internetload of feminist complaints.

For the most part, Equestria is painted as a place where gender doesn’t and shouldn’t matter, which is fantastic! Compare to the Peppa Pig episode (and accompanying book) called Funfair in which Mummy Pig is goaded into participating in an archery competition by being told that “women are useless” at it, because it’s a “game of skill”. And while Mummy Pig does surprise the stallholder by winning, that’s the only rebuff: it’s still presented as absolutely acceptable to make skill judgements based on gender – all that is taught is that Mummy Pig is an outlier (which is stressed again when she wins at a hammer swing competition, later); no effort is made to show that it’s wrong to express prejudice over stereotypes. Peppa Pig is full of terrible lessons for children even if you choose to ignore the time the show told Australian kids to pick up and play with spiders.

Toy Princess Luna with a book on IT Governance
Princess Luna knows what I should have been doing instead of writing this post.

I probably know the words to most of the songs that’ve had album releases (we listen to them in the car a lot; unfortunately a voice from the backseat seems to request the detestable Christmas album more than any of the far-better ones). I’m probably the second-best person in my house at being able to identify characters, episodes, and plotlines from the series. I have… opinions on the portrayal of Twilight Sparkle’s character in the script of the movie.

Dan in Not Dogs wearing a Dune/MLP crossover t-shirt.
Also, it might be the case that I own more than one article of geeky My Little Pony-themed clothing.

I don’t describe myself as a Brony (not that there’d be anything wrong if I did!), but I can see how others might. I think I get an exemption for not having been to a convention or read any fanfiction or, y’know, watched any of it without a child present. I think that’s the key.

Right?

This Is Not What Juggling Looks Like

Do you remember how earlier this year, half of the Internet went nuts about the fact that – based on the emoji they’d drawn – Google didn’t know how to make a cheeseburger? It was a fun distraction from all the terrible stuff happening in the world, which was nice, but it also got me to thinking: how many other emoji are arguably “wrong” in their depiction of whatever-it-is they’re supposed to be showing.

Until recently, Google's depiction of a burger in their emoji for that purpose.
I was never so offended by the fact that the cheese was underneath the burger as I was by the fact that the cheese was depicted as having somehow been melted… by the bun.

I’ve got a special kind of relationship with emoji to begin with. I wouldn’t even call it love-hate, because that would imply that there’s something about them that I love. But I certainly think that they’re culturally-fascinating, and I wonder how future anthropologists will look back on this period of our history: the time that we went back to heiroglyphics for a while! It’s great to have a convenient, universal, lazy icon set that anybody can use… but it’s unfortunate that people use them for literal rather than figurative meaning (such as sharing the [🎗️ | reminder ribbon] icon with somebody because it’s pink and you’re doing a breast cancer awareness fun run… without realising that the ribbon is only pink on your model of phone), or for figurative meanings that depend on specific iconography (such as sending the [🍆 | aubergine/eggplant] emoji to somebody to tell them that you’ve got an erection… which is apparently a thing – I’m out of touch with youth culture… without knowing that their LG phone is going to render it as super-bent).

Microsoft and Samsung's "ATM" emoji
These two are both emoji for “ATM”: the former, by Microsoft, shows a cash machine. The latter looks like a corporate headquarters for a company called “ATM”. If you’re using a picture because it has a specific meaning, you perhaps ought not to use emoji!

Emoji can be a way to accentuate a message, but they aren’t and shouldn’t be the message themselves because the specifics of their display are not so much a standard as a loose collection of standards implemented by some… imaginative… graphic artists… And some cases are particularly bad:

Apple's "juggling" emoji.
This isn’t what juggling looks like, Apple.

Apple seem to think that three-ball juggling involves all three balls being in the air at the same time. And also, for some reason, wearing a bowler hat and a bow tie.

Animated GIF showing three-ball juggling
The most-common three-ball juggling technique is to throw from the inside, catch on the outside.

The idea that three-ball juggling routinely involves multiple balls in the air at once is a common one, but it’s (mostly) false. As the animated GIF above shows, there are two stages to juggling. The first is the stage where one ball is held in each hand and a third ball is in the air. The second is the stage where the juggler throws a ball from their hand in order to free up space to catch the descending ball. This latter one is the only point when there are multiple balls in the air, and even then it’s only two of them (specifically, for conventional N-ball juggling, the number of balls in the air is usually N-2 and occasionally N-1).

Apple’s emoji also places the balls in very unlikely places: consider the two lowest-down balls: they’re both further out than the centre of the juggler’s hands! This means that the juggler is throwing the balls away from himself (presumably out of panic that he’s somehow been hired as a juggler despite not knowing how to juggle).

Speed camera sign
Who’s even seen a camera like this, let alone tried to use one to capture a speeding vehicle?

Yes, yes, I get it: icons should be symbolic rather than representative, and with that in mind Apple’s icon isn’t too bad. Especially not when you compare it to some of the other options.

Google and Samsung's emoji for "juggling".
This is what Google (left) and Samsung (right) think that juggling looks like.

Both Google and Samsung’s emoji have the same problem: that all the balls are bunched up in the same path, like they’re being fired from a shotgun at an unsuspecting children’s entertainer. They form an arch over the juggler’s head like a rainbow of mistake, all rocketing from the juggler’s right hand to their left which is clearly going to be incapable of catching them all at once. What we’re seeing, then, is a split second before the moment of photographic perfection: the point at which all the balls are in the air and you don’t have to wait and see what a disaster happens when they all come down at once.

Also, Google: you too? What’s with the bowler hat and bow tie? Is this what jugglers are supposed to wear? Have I been doing it wrong my whole life?

Facebook's "juggling" emoji
Facebook has a picture of… disembodied hands spinning a three-coloured ring with balls on it?

Facebook’s “juggler” emoji is even worse. For a start, it doesn’t actually show a juggler, it shows juggling (and this isn’t a consistent style choice: Facebook’s emoji for e.g. snowboarder, mechanic, farmer, teacher etc. all show a whole person or at least a person from the waist upwards). Secondly, the motion of the balls most-closely represents circle-juggling, which is a way to juggle but isn’t what you normally see jugglers doing: compared to conventional juggling patterns, circle juggling is both harder to do and looks less-impressive!

But even then, it’s confusing: why is the blue ball turning a corner of its own accord to try to avoid the hand? Perhaps this is some kind of magic available only to people who are missing a finger from each hand, as this unusual “juggler” seems to be.

Twitter's "juggler" emoji, before and after September 2016
Twitter changed their “juggler” emoji in September 2016 from the one on the left to the one on the right.

Twitter used to have many of the same problems – circle juggling, balls that randomly change direction in flight, no juggler – until they revamped their emoji collection last year. Now they’ve still got most of those, plus the “all the balls in the air” problem and the most disinterested-looking juggler I’ve ever seen. As he stands there, shrugging, it feels like it needs a speech bubble that says “I have no feelings about what I’m doing whatsoever.” At least he’s not wearing a bowler hat and bow tie, I suppose.

Also: why do we have an emoji for juggler, but not for magician?

The short of it is: emoji have a lot to answer for.

Christmas Cheer with Bytemark

For the last eight winters, we at Three Rings have sent out Christmas cards – and sometimes mugs! – to our clients (and to special friends of the project). The first of these was something I knocked up in Photoshop in under an hour, but we’ve since expanded into having an official “company artist” in the form of our friend Ele who each year takes the ideas that the Three Rings volunteer team have come up with and adapts them into a stunning original design that we’re proud to show off to our clients.

Three Rings' 2009 Christmas card
Our first Christmas card, in 2009, was knocked-up quickly and printed only a couple of days before the Christmas posting deadline, but it kicked-off a tradition that’s grown every year since.

This year’s card is still winging its way to some of our more-distant customers, as Three Rings is used in six countries, and so it doesn’t yet appear on our gallery of previous cards. But here’s a sneak peek:

Three Rings' 2017 Christmas card
Last week, I helped stuff a little under 400 of these into envelopes and put stamps on them all for delivery to our UK customers. (Our international customers needed slightly more-careful attention.)

For most of Three Rings life, our server’s been hosted by the awesome folks at Bytemark. We had a brief dalliance with Amazon Web Services for a while but had a seriously unsatisfying experience and we eventually came crawling back to Bytemark (complete with a conveniently-timed Valentines’ Day message expressing our love for them and our apologies for our mistake). What I’m saying is that we’ve made a habit of sending seasonal greetings to our buddies at Bytemark – and this Christmas was no different – but what surprised us was what we received from them this year:

Christmas card - and cake! - from Bytemark.
Bytemark sent us not only a Christmas card but a fancy-looking fruitcake! Thanks, Bytemark!

Not only did Bytemark send us a delightful Christmas card (with a pixel-art picture of Sana literally burning the logs) but they included a fabulous-looking fruitcake. Thanks for bringing a little bit of extra cheer to our Christmas, Bytemark!

When One Library Steals From Another

When I first started working at the Bodleian Libraries in 2011, their websites were looking… a little dated. I’d soon spend some time working with a vendor (whose premises mysteriously caught fire while I was there, freeing me up to spend my birthday in a bar) to develop a fresh, modern interface for our websites that, while not the be-all and end-all, was a huge leap forwards and has served us well for the last five years or so.

The Bodleian Libraries website as it appeared in 2011.
The colour scheme, the layout, the fact that it didn’t remotely work on mobiles… there was a lot wrong with the old design of the Bodleian Libraries’ websites.

Fast-forward a little: in about 2015 we noticed a few strange anomalies in our Google Analytics data. For some reason, web addresses were appearing that didn’t exist anywhere on our site! Most of these resulted from web visitors in Turkey, so we figured that some Turkish website had probably accidentally put our Google Analytics user ID number into their code rather than their own. We filtered out the erroneous data – there wasn’t much of it; the other website was clearly significantly less-popular than ours – and carried on. Sometimes we’d speculate about the identity of the other site, but mostly we didn’t even think about it.

Bodleian Library & Radcliffe Camera website
How a Bodleian Libraries’ website might appear today. Pay attention, now: there’ll be a spot-the-difference competition in a moment.

Earlier this year, there was a spike in the volume of the traffic we were having to filter-out, so I took the time to investigate more-thoroughly. I determined that the offending website belonged to the Library of Bilkent University, Turkey. I figured that some junior web developer there must have copy-pasted the Bodleian’s Google Analytics code and forgotten to change the user ID, so I went to the website to take a look… but I was in for an even bigger surprise.

Bilkent University Library website, as it appears today.
Hey, that looks… basically identical!

Whoah! The web design of a British university was completely ripped-off by a Turkish university! Mouth agape at the audacity, I clicked my way through several of their pages to try to understand what had happened. It seemed inconceivable that it could be a coincidence, but perhaps it was supposed to be more of an homage than a copy-paste job? Or perhaps they were ripped-off by an unscrupulous web designer? Or maybe it was somebody on the “inside”, like our vendor, acting unethically by re-selling the same custom design? I didn’t believe it could be any of those things, but I had to be sure. So I started digging…

Bodleian and Bilkent search boxes, side-by-side.
Our user research did indicate that putting the site and catalogue search tools like this was smart. Maybe they did the same research?

 

Bodleian and Bilkent menus side-by-side.
Menus are pretty common on many websites. They probably just had a similar idea.

 

Bodleian and Bilkent opening hours, side-by-side.
Tabs are a great way to show opening hours. Everybody knows that. And this is obviously just the a popular font.

 

Bodleian and Bilkent sliders, side-by-side.
Oh, you’ve got a slider too. With circles? And you’ve got an identical Javascript bug? Okay… now that’s a bit of a coincidence…

 

Bodleian and Bilkent content boxes, side-by-side.
Okay, I’m getting a mite suspicious now. Surely we didn’t independently come up with this particular bit of design?

 

Bodleian and Bilkent footers, side-by-side.
Well these are clearly different. Ours has a copyright notice, for example…

 

Copyright notice on Bilkent University Library's website.
Oh, you DO have a copyright notice. Hang on, wait: you’ve not only stolen our design but you’ve declared it to be open-source???

I was almost flattered as I played this spot-the-difference competition, until I saw the copyright notice: stealing our design was galling enough, but then relicensing it in such a way that they specifically encourage others to steal it too was another step entirely. Remember that we’re talking about an academic library, here: if anybody ought to have a handle on copyright law then it’s a library!

I took a dive into the source code to see if this really was, as it appeared to be, a copy-paste-and-change-the-name job (rather than “merely” a rip-off of the entire graphic design), and, sure enough…

HTML source code from Bilkent University Library.
In their HTML source code, you can see both the Bodleian’s Google Analytics code (which they failed to remove) but also their own. And a data- attribute related to a project I wrote and that means nothing to their site.

It looks like they’d just mirrored the site and done a search-and-replace for “Bodleian”, replacing it with “Bilkent”. Even the code’s spelling errors, comments, and indentation were intact. The CSS was especially telling (as well as being chock-full of redundant code relating to things that appear on our website but not on theirs)…

CSS code from Bilkent University.
The search-replace resulted in some icky grammar, like “the Bilkent” appearing in their code. And what’s this? That’s MY NAME in the middle of their source code!

So I reached out to them with a tweet:

Tweet: Hey @KutphaneBilkent (Bilkent University Library): couldn't help but notice your website looks suspiciously like those of @bodleianlibs...?
My first tweet to Bilkent University Library contained a “spot the difference” competition.

I didn’t get any response, although I did attract a handful of Turkish followers on Twitter. Later, they changed their Twitter handle and I thought I’d take advantage of the then-new capability for longer tweets to have another go at getting their attention:

Tweet: I see you've changed your Twitter handle, @librarybilkent! Your site still looks like you've #stolen the #webdesign from @bodleianlibs, though (and changed the license to a #CreativeCommons one, although the fact you forgot to change the #GoogleAnalytics ID is a giveaway...).
This time, I was a little less-sarcastic and a little more-aggressive. Turns out that’s all that was needed.

Clearly this was what it took to make the difference. I received an email from the personal email account of somebody claiming to be Taner Korkmaz, Systems Librarian with Bilkent’s Technical Services team. He wrote (emphasis mine):

Dear Mr. Dan Q,

My name is Taner Korkmaz and I am the systems librarian at Bilkent. I am writing on behalf of Bilkent University Library, regarding your share about Bilkent on your Twitter account.

Firstly, I would like to explain that there is no any relation between your tweet and our library Twitter handle change. The librarian who is Twitter admin at Bilkent did not notice your first tweet. Another librarian took this job and decided to change the twitter handle because of the Turkish letters, abbreviations, English name requirement etc. The first name was @KutphaneBilkent (kutuphane means library in Turkish) which is not clear and not easy to understand. Now, it is @LibraryBilkent.

About 4 years ago, we decided to change our library website, (and therefore) we reviewed the appearance and utility of the web pages.

We appreciated the simplicity and clarity of the user interface of University of Oxford Bodlien Library & Radcliffe Camera, as an academic pioneer in many fields. As a not profit institution, we took advantage of your template by using CSS and HTML, and added our own original content.

We thought it would not create a problem the idea of using CSS codes since on the web page there isn’t any license notice or any restriction related to the content of the template, and since the licenses on the web pages are mainly more about content rather than templates.

The Library has its own Google Analytics and Search Console accounts and the related integrations for the web site statistical data tracking. We would like to point out that there is a misunderstanding regarding this issue.

In 2017, we started to work on creating a new web page and we will renew our current web page very soon.

Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter and apologies for possible inconveniences.

Yours sincerely,

Or to put it another way: they decided that our copyright notice only applied to our content and not our design and took a copy of the latter.

Do you remember when I pointed out earlier that librarians should be expected to know their way around copyright law? Sigh.

They’ve now started removing evidence of their copy-pasting such as the duplicate Google Analytics code fragment and the references to LibraryData, but you can still find the unmodified code via archive.org, if you like.

That probably ends my part in this little adventure, but I’ve passed everything on to the University of Oxford’s legal team in case any of them have anything to say about it. And now I’ve got a new story to tell where web developers get together over a pint: the story of the time that I made a website for a university… and a different university stole it!

Bread Winner

Yesterday, Ruth and I attended a Festive Breads Workshop at the Oxford Brookes Restaurant Cookery and Wine School, where we had a hands-on lesson in making a variety of different (semi-)seasonal bread products. It was a fantastic experience and gave us both skills and confidence that we’d have struggled to attain so-readily in any other way.

Dan wins a certificate for being a Star Baker
I am the Master Baker! The Bread Winner! (Okay, so everybody got one of these certificates…)

The Oxford Brookes Restaurant is a working restaurant which doubles as a place for Brookes’ students to work and practice roles as chefs, sommeliers, and hospitality managers as part of their courses. In addition, the restaurant runs a handful of shorter or day-long courses for adults and children on regional and cuisine-based cookery, knife skills, breadmaking, and wine tasting. Even from the prep room off the main working kitchen (and occasionally traipsing through it on the way to and from the ovens), it was easy to be captivated the buzz of activity as the lunchtime rush began outside: a large commercial kitchen is an awesome thing to behold.

Prep room at the Oxford Brookes Restaurant
Working in our kitchen at home I often have less space than my entire work area in this, the smallest room of the Brookes’ kitchens.

By early afternoon we’d each made five different breads: a stollen, a plaitted wreath, rum babas, a seeded flatbread, and a four-strand woven challah. That’s plenty to do (and a good amount of standing up and kneading!), but it was made possible by the number of things we didn’t have to do. There was no weighing and measuring, no washing-up: this was done for us, and it’s amazingly efficiency-enhancing to be able to go directly from each recipe to the next without having to think about these little tasks. We didn’t even have to run our breads in and out of the proofing cupboard and the ovens: as we’d be starting on mixing the next dough, the last would be loaded onto trays and carried around the kitchens.

Bread making class at Oxford Brookes Restaurant.
Start from the right and weave to the left: over, under, over. Repeat.

The tuition itself was excellent, too. The tutors, Amanda and Jan, were friendly and laid-back (except if anybody tried to short-cut their kneading of a wet dough by adding more flour than was necessary, in which case they’d enter “flour police” mode and start slapping wrists) and clearly very knowledgeable and experienced. When I struggled at one point with getting a dough ball to the consistency that was required, Jan stepped in and within seconds identified that the problem was that my hands were too warm. The pair complemented one another very well, too, for example with Amanda being more-inclined than Jan towards the laissez-faire approach to ingredient measurement that I prefer when I make bread, for example.

Ruth shapes her woven challah loaf.
It looked a little lopsided at this point, but Ruth’s challah looked among the best of all of them among the final products.

The pace was fast and Ruth in particular struggled early on to keep up, but by the end the entire group – despite many hours on our feet, much of it kneading stiff doughs – were hammering through each activity, even though there was a clear gradient in the technical complexity of what we were working on. And – perhaps again thanks to the fantastic tuition – even the things that seemed intimidating upon first glance (like weaving four strands of dough together without them sticking to one another or the surface) weren’t problematic once we got rolling.

Glazing and seeding bread before it goes into the oven.
Having great equipment like large hot ovens, a proofing cupboard, and an endless supply of highly-active live (not dried) yeast might have helped too.

Our hosts, apparently somehow not having enough to do while teaching and supervising us, simultaneously baked a selection of absolutely delicious bread to be served with our lunch, which by that point was just showing-off. Meanwhile, we put the finishing touches on our various baked goods with glazes, seeds, ribbons, and sugar.

Dan and Ruth's challah, between two others.
Dan and Ruth’s challah. Ruth’s is the one with white sesame seeds; Dan’s is the one with poppy seeds to the left of it.

And so we find ourselves with a house completely full of amazingly-tasty fresh bread – the downside perhaps of having two of us from the same household on the same course! – and a whole new appreciation of the versatility of bread. As somebody who makes pizza bases and, once in a blue moon, bread rolls, I feel like there’s so much more I could be doing and I’m looking forward to getting more adventurous with my bread-making sometime soon.

Ruth among the challah, stollen, and wreaths.
Tired-but-proud would be a pretty good description of Ruth here, I think.

I’d really highly recommend the Brookes Restaurant courses; they’re well worth a look if you’re interested in gaining a point or two of Cooking skill.

Carry Fire

I’ve just listened to Robert Plant’s new album, Carry Fire. It’s pretty good.

A long while after my dad’s death five years ago, I’d meant to write a blog post about the experience of grief in a digital age. As I’ve clearly become increasingly terrible at ever getting draft posts complete, the short of it was this: my dad’s mobile phone was never recovered and soon after its battery went flat any calls to his number would go straight to voicemail. He’d recently switched to a pay-as-you-go phone for his personal mobile, and so the number (and its voicemail) outlived him for many months. I know I’m not the only one that, in those months, called it a few times, just to hear his voice in the outgoing message. I’m fully aware that there are recordings of his voice elsewhere, but I guess there was something ritualistic about “trying to call him”, just as I would have before his accident.

The blog post would have started with this anecdote, perhaps spun out a little better, and then gone on to muse about how we “live on” in our abandoned Inboxes, social media accounts, and other digital footprints in a way we never did before, and what that might mean for the idea of grief in the modern world. (Getting too caught up in thinking about exactly what it does mean is probably why I never finished writing that particular article.) I remember that it took me a year or two until I was able to delete my dad from my phone/email address book, because it like prematurely letting go to do so. See what I mean? New aspects of grief for a new era.

Rob Plant's "Carry Fire"
Thanks, Rob.

Another thing that I used to get, early on, was that moment of forgetting. I’d read something and I’d think “Gotta tell my dad about that!” And then only a second later remember why I couldn’t! I think that’s a pretty common experience of bereavement: certainly for me at least – I remember distinctly experiencing the same thing after my gran’s death, about 11 years ago. I’m pretty sure it’s been almost a year since I last had such a forgetting moment for my father… until today! Half way into the opening track of Carry Fire, a mellow folk-rocky-sounding piece called The May Queen (clearly a nod to Stairway there), I found myself thinking “my dad’d love this…” and took almost a quarter-second before my brain kicked in and added “…damn; shame he missed out on it, then.”

If you came here for a music review, you’re not going to get one. But if you like some Robert Plant and haven’t heard Carry Fire yet, you might like to. It’s like he set out to make a prog rock album but accidentally smoked too much pot and then tripped over his sitar. And if you knew my dad well enough to agree (or disagree) that he would have dug it, let me know.

Jokes That Aged Badly

I’ve lately taken an interest in collecting jokes that haven’t aged well. By which I mean: jokes that no longer work, or require explanation, because they’re conceptually ‘dated’. Typically, these jokes aren’t funny any more, or are only funny to people who were around at the time that they were first conceived, and I imagine that we, as a civilisation, are necessarily relegating more and more jokes into this particular category as time goes on.

A man used to make his wife go to bed first in the winter-time, caller her his warming-pan; which she not well relishing, one night left something smoaking in his place. Finding himself in a stinking pickle: Wife, said he, I am beshit: No, husband, said she, it is only coal dropt out of your warming-pan!
I don’t mean outdated like this joke, published in 1803, but ones that require explanation because a listener is no longer likely to recognise the concepts or people referenced. For example, if it were the case that warming pans were now such an alien concept that nobody knew what they were any more, then the above would certainly qualify (that’s not true yet… right?).

My favourite joke of this category is the following classic student joke, which was relevant when I first heard it in the 1990s:

What’s pink and takes an hour to drink?

Grant cheque

By way of explanation: the grant cheque was how British students used to receive their government aid to support them during their studies. It had become gradually smaller (relative to the value of the pound) over time by failing to rise in value in line with inflation, and was printed on pink paper, hence the joke. There was an effort to revive it in the late 1990s/early 2000s as follows:

What’s green and takes an hour to drink?

Loan cheque

By this point, the grant had been replaced by the student loan, whose payments came printed on green paper instead. This is, of course, simply an example of adapting an old joke for a new audience, as we’ve all seen time and again with the inevitable string of recycled gags that get rolled-out every time a celebrity is accused of a sex crime. Incidentally, the revised form of the grant cheque/loan cheque joke has itself become dated as students now typically receive all of their loan payments directly to their bank accounts for convenient immediate spending rather than what my generation had to do which was to make the beans-and-rice stretch another few days until the cheque cleared.

An idiot asks a silversmith to make him a lamp. 'How big do you want me to make it?' the silversmith asks. 'Big enough for eight people to see by.'
This 4th/5th century joke (presented with a contemporary translation) doesn’t count, because it’s still flipping hilarious.

Here’s another example:

Bill and Ben the flower pot men are in the garden.

“Flobalobalobalob,” says Bill

Ben replies: “You’re drunk, Bill.”

Now those of you who are about my age, or older, are unlikely to see why this joke has dated badly. But it is dated, because the 2001 reboot of The Flower Pot Men (now called simply Bill and Ben) features the titular characters speaking in reasonably-normal English! The idea that they were only speaking Oddle Poddle because they were too pissed to speak English is no longer a point of humour, and increasingly the population won’t remember the original stilted dialect of the flower pot men. If we assume that anybody under the age of 24 is more-likely to have come across the newer incarnation then that’s a third of the population!

Let’s try another, which became dated at about the same time:

Why are hurricanes names after women?

Because when they come they’re wet and wild and when they go they take your house and your car.

The history of how we’ve named hurricanes over the centuries is really quite interesting, and its certainly true that for the majority of the period during which both meteorologists and the general public have shared the same names for tropical storms they’ve been named after women. Depending on where you are in the world, though, it’s not been true for some time: Australia began using a mixture of masculine and feminine names during the 1970s, but other regions took until the millennium before they followed suit. However, the point still remains that this joke has been dated for a long while.

Eye of a storm.
Why is a topical joke like a tropical storm?
When it comes, you’ve never seen anything like it. By the time it goes, you’re sick of it.

Here’s a very highly-charged joke from the 1960s which I think we can all be glad doesn’t make much sense any more:

What’s all black and comes in an all white box?

Sammy Davis Jr.

For those needing the context: Sammy Davis Jr. was a black American singer, comedian, and variety show host who triggered significant controversy when he married white Swedish actress May Britt. Interracial marriage was at the time still illegal across much of the United States (such prohibition wouldn’t be ruled unconstitutional until the amazingly-named “Loving Day” in 1967) and relationships between whites and “coloureds” were highly taboo even where they weren’t forbidden by law.

Topical jokes like that are often too easy, like this one – even shorter-lived – from the summer of 1995, presented here with no further interpretation:

Q: What’s the difference between O. J. Simpson and Christopher Reeve?

A: O. J.’s gonna walk!

Perhaps my favourite strictly-topical joke of this variety, though, comes from 1989:

Q: Why is Margaret Thatcher like a pound coin?

A: She’s thick, brassy, and she thinks she’s a sovereign.

It’s at least two-thirds funny even if you don’t have the full context, and that’s what’s most-interesting about it: it’ll take until the new £1 becomes ubiquitous and the old one mostly-forgotten before it will lose all of its meaning. But as you’ve probably forgotten why the third part of the punchline – “…and she thinks she’s a sovereign” – comes from, I’ll illuminate you. The joke is wordplay: there are two meanings to “sovereign” in this sentence. The first, of course, is that a sovereign is the bullion coin representing the same value as a conventional pound coin.

To understand the second, we must first remind ourselves of the majestic plural, better known as the “royal ‘we'”. In 1989, following the birth of her grandson Michael, Thatcher made a statement saying “we have become a grandmother”, resulting in much disdain and mockery by the press at the time. The Prime Minister’s relationship with the Queen had always been a frosty one, and Thatcher’s (mis)use of a manner of speech that was typically reserved for the use of royalty did nothing to make her look any more-respectful of the monarch.

1952 advertisement for Prince Albert pipe tobacco.
And you thought it was just something to put in your penis. Turns out it’s something to put in your lungs, too.

The final example I’ve got died out as a joke as a result of changing brand identities, more cost-effective packaging materials, and the gradual decline of tobacco smoking. But for a long while, while Prince Albert Pipe Tobacco was still sold in larger quantities as it always had been, in a can, a popular prank perpetrated by radio stations that went in for such things was to call a tobacconist and ask, “Have you got Prince Albert in can?”. The tobacconist would invariably answer in the affirmative, at which point the prankster would response “Well let him out then!” This joke may well predate the “Is your refrigerator running?” prank call that might be more-familiar to today’s audiences.

If you’ve got any jokes that have aged badly, I’d love to hear them. And then, I suppose, have them explained to me.