Transferring to a new phone network, 2022 edition

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…removing a SIM tray is harder than it looks when you don’t wear earrings. I had to search everywhere to find one of those little SIM tools…

Stuart writes a fun article about his experience of changing mobile network. It’s worth a read, and there’s only one “Dan pro tip” I’d add:

If you have a case on your mobile phone, tuck one of those SIM extractor tools into the case, behind your phone. It’s exactly where you need it to be, if you need one yourself (you probably need to remove the case to access the SIM tray anyway), but beyond that: it means you’re always carrying one for when a friend needs one. They’re also useful for pressing those tiny “factory reset” buttons you see sometimes.

A SIM extractor has been sneakily part of my “everyday carry” for about a decade and it’s proven its value time and time again.

When Twitter Loses, WordPress Wins

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You know who’s having a killer month? Automattic. Everyone who’s leaving Twitter seem to fall in at least one of these three camps:

  1. They have gone back to the blogosphere. (using WordPress, or WordPress.com)
  2. They have gone to Tumblr
  3. They have gone to the fediverse (of which a fairly large percentage are WordPress installs)

In all of these cases, Automattic wins.

Some smart observations here by Alex. A fourth point worth noting is that Matt has openly suggested that former Twitter engineers might like to come join us in Automattic and help make the web a better place. We’ve changed our careers pages a little lately but we’re still the same awesome company!

Alex went on to say:

I’ll be downright shocked if Matt isn’t working very hard to get Tumblr on the fediverse ASAP. He has so much to gain in supporting this movement, and very little to lose.

That’s definitely on his mind too, which I can safely say without leaking anything because he’s hinted at it himself. Exciting times.

Debugging Mysteries

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Just wanted to share with you something I found ages ago but only just got around to mentioning – Julia Evans‘ (of Wizard Zines fame) Debugging Mysteries:

There are five mysteries here right now:

The Case of the Slow Websites
The Case of the Connection Timeout
The Case of the DNS Update that Didn’t Work
The Case of the 50ms Request
The Case of the Failed Docker Connection

Go back to wizardzines.com

GitHub repository: jvns/twine-stories
Blog post about this project: Notes on building debugging puzzles

Each mystery is a Twine-powered “choose your own adventure” game in which you must diagnose the kind of issue that a software developer might, for real. I think these are potentially excellent tools for beginner programmers, not just because they provide some information about the topic of each, but because they encourage cultivating a mindset of the kind of thinking that’s required to get to the bottom of gnarly problems.

Better yet, she’s open-sourced the entire thing (and I was excited to see she wrote in Twee, which is very dear to my heart).

How Chinese citizens use puns to get past internet censors

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A few months ago, people were posting a lot about the Netherlands on Chinese social media platform Weibo. “Wake up, sleeping people of the Netherlands!” said one post. Others lamented that the people of Amsterdam wanted their tulips back.

These Chinese social media users aren’t expressing a nascent interest in all things Dutch. They’re talking about recent protests over frozen bank deposits in the province of Henan. Ordinarily, discussions about a controversial topic like this would be censored on Chinese social media, and posts containing the word “Henan” could be blocked or deleted. But “Henan” (河南) sounds a lot like “Helan” (荷兰), the Mandarin word for the Netherlands. By swapping the names around, people were able to get past the censors and keep the conversation going.

I love this article. The use of homonyms and puns to work around online censorship by Chinese citizens is as innovative and heartwarming as its necessity is horrifying and tragic. If you’re wondering exactly how similar 河南 (“Henan”, the name of the Chinese province in which authorities abused social distancing laws and used violence to prevent rural bank customers from withdrawing their own money) and 荷兰 (“Helan”, The Netherlands) sound, have a listen for yourself:

Unless you speak Mandarin already, you’ll might struggle to even pinpoint which is which in that recording.

This clever and imaginative use of language to try to sidestep surviellance feels like a modern adaptation of cryptolects like Polari or rhyming slang as used in the UK for the same purpose. But writing in Han characters online seems to provide an amazingly diverse way to encode meaning that an in-the-know human can parse, but an automated machine or an uninformed human censor can not. The story about the use of the word for “paratrooper” on Chinese social media, touched upon in the article linked above and expanded elsewhere, is particularly enjoyable.

Anyway, after you’ve read the article and you’re ready for a whole new rabbit whole to explore, I’d like to kickstart you by introducing you to Totoiana, a Pig Latin-like (second-syllable onwards, then first syllable) dialect spoken with fluency exclusively in a single Romanian village, and nobody knows why.

All the game descriptions from the sale

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Video game poster for "It's Probably Fine", showing a woman driving with red and blue lights behind her.

You’ve got 37 unpaid parking tickets. You just got pulled over for speeding. In your defense, you were texting your sister about how drunk you are. Plus there’s all that blood on your windshield. Obviously you know it’s deer blood, but the police officers walking toward your vehicle don’t. Still, in the time it takes them to figure that out, maybe you’ll sober up. Or escape on foot! Either way, it’ll probably be fine.

User Tags: Poor Choices / Story Rich / Multiple Endings / Parkour

Video game poster for Dead Seagull Zoo Magnate, showing dead seagulls in a cartoony style.

Collect dead seagulls and build a zoo to house them all. Beautify the zoo with artistic flair and deodorizing sprays. Design creative group promotions to stir up interest! Is that a customer? You’d better hope it’s not the owner of the live seagull zoo down the street, because he’s probably got some questions.

User Tags: Hard Work / Supply / Demand / Diseases & Parasites

Claire Hummel produced fake video game art for the Steam Summer Sale, which was already excellent, but when @g-a-y-g-o-y-l-e reblogged, asking for more context, Claire delivered and then some. Every single one of these “game descriptions” is a special kind of comedy gold… and yet somehow believable from the store that sells us Dream Daddy, IKEA VR Pancake Kitchen, Organ Trail, Oh… Sir!! The Insult Simulator, and Goat Simulator (all of which I own copies of). Go read the full list.

Bree-Yark!

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JTA tweeted a brilliant thread about something he discovered while digging through old D&D texts, and it’s awesome so – as I imagine he wouldn’t mind – I’ve reproduced it in full here:

I don’t really Twitter so much these days because like most social media it makes me either gloomy or extremely grumpy with the state of the world, but since I also lack the time to bother blogging anywhere, here’s a ludicrously nerdy thread about a Dungeons & Dragons rumour.So, back in the days of AD&D 1st Edition your printed modules would often come with a table of Rumours. The idea was hearing rumours increased the depth of the world, so players didn’t feel like NPCs just winked into existence when they entered the Hydra’s Den tavern & said “hi”.

But sometimes the rumours would be false, or exaggerated. That also added depth and had the bonus of ensuring that players didn’t take it for granted. OK, this guy in the red robe *says* Kobolds are poisoning the iron ore, but is that at all plausible, or is it just a bad seam?

(Those of us without any friends, or at least without friends equally into D&D in the 80s & 90s, also got this experience because it was well-replicated in the TSR Gold Box series of games, either in-game, or more-commonly through supplementary material in the boxes.

The supplementary materials often came in a separate “Journal” supplied in the box, & were a sort of additional layer of copy-protection because if the Game says “read Entry 19”, your choice is either do so, or wait 25 years for the abandonware PDFs to hit archive.org.

e.g., here’s the Traveller’s Tales from ‘Curse of the Azure Bonds’: note the subtlety of entries 1 and 8, about the Princess, sounding corroborative – maybe encouraging the party to more deference around someone with purple in their clothes, though either or both might be false.)

A selection of Tavern Tales...

Anyway, this only really existed in the TSR/SSI games because it was in the standard modules.

I was reminded of the rumour system when I was digging back into AD&D Module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands to borrow a bunch of content for a campaign I’ve just inherited (as you do)

‘Keep on the Borderlands’ was by Gary Gygax himself, and suffers a bunch from the typical issues 1e had, none of which I’ll address here because I would please nobody. But the rumours table is a really good example of the type – it gives players depth but not unfair advantages.

The Rumour Table from the A...

Now Keep on the Borderlands was a pretty big deal of a module back in the day. It was module B2, of the Basic Set, & it did some stuff really well, especially for new players – sort of a 1980 equivalent of ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ today. Lots of players cut their teeth on it.

Rumour 10 – ‘”Bree-Yark” is goblin-language for “we surrender”!’ – is a false rumour, though the party doesn’t know that: whatever ‘Bree-yark’ means, it’s not “We Surrender”.

In fact, the module tells the DM it means “Hey, rube!!” and is used by goblins to sound the alarm.

(Spoilers here for the Goblin Lair in Location D of the Caves of Chaos, but when goblins on watch call out “Bree-yark!”, more goblins at #18 will bribe an ogre to come help attack the party. (1e often imposed dynamic worlds by fiat, back when the world was young, the DMs green)

The DM's description for Lo...

So lots of early DMs got to imagine the potential hilarity of the party arriving in the cave, hearing goblins apparently surrendering, & dropping their guard, never realising life just got harder!

(It isn’t much hilarity, but in the 80s, as now, there was limited scope for joy)

Still – it’s a decent joke. Everyone believes “Bree-yark” is Goblin for surrender, but it isn’t really, that’s just a false rumour, spread by boastful drunks who’ve never seen a goblin in real life anyway.

So much for 1st Edition AD&D, I guess.

…except:

It’s 2014. The wheel of time turns, ages come and pass, and Grapple rules don’t so much become legend as “remain completely incomprehensible”. Now every new adventurer carries a Field Marshall’s baton in their knapsack, ‘cos tracking encumbrance is for chumps, & D&D 5e launches.

(While I’m doing archaeology, take a moment in this fast-forward to enjoy the glorious madness of the Grimtooth’s Traps series, which popped up in ’81 & features brilliantly inventive nastiness to spring on players who aren’t too attached to their character sheets. Or friends.)

A page from 1981's Grimtoot...

So, 5e launches, to a lot of stick in some circles (I never knew a version of D&D that didn’t: probably some wazzock in 1971 ranted that the codified Fantasy Supplement rules in ‘Chainmail’ “beTraYs rEaL FaNs!” and sold out the hobby, but at least they couldn’t whinge on Reddit)

…but someone involved in 5e is has conjured the most obscurely brilliant bit of ultra-specific nerd humour I have seen in years.

Y’see, 5e modules don’t really do Rumour Tables or “If the party X, then Y, else Z” – DMs create dynamic worlds on the fly. (Hopefully).

So you’d think there’s no more chance of hilarious moments where the Goblins start yelling “Bree-Yark!” and Magnus Rushes In only to be shocked to find a well-bribed and high-Challenge Rating ogre running obediently up from Location E.22.

But you would think (slightly) wrong.

Because although 5e modules don’t do rumours the like 1e did, the Monster Manual does do flavour text – it’s usually a snippet of lore, or a word from a famous scholar, or advice from an adventurer who encountered the monster but lived to tell the tale. It provides fluffy depth.

A section of the D&D 5th Ed...

And, actually, I say “it’s usually” but I’ve just checked and every bit of flavourtext I can find in the Monster Manual is either By A Scholar, From a Book, An Adventurer’s Tale, or a Monster Describing Itself…

A section of the D&D 5th Ed...

…with one single exception: the flavourtext on the entry for Goblins, which isn’t attributed to anybody or anything, but is just the claim that “Bree-Yark!” means “we surrender!”

A section of the D&D 5th Ed...

This isn’t attributed to any source. Nobody in-lore has a citation for this. It’s just something “they say”. A genuine 1st Edition rumour just chilling out in the 5th edition Monster Manual three decades after B2 landed.

Glorious. Well played, @Wizards. Very well played.

Zoomed in view of the flavo...

Will swapping out electric car batteries catch on?

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Without even a touch of the steering wheel, the electric car reverses autonomously into the recharging station

Underside of a car with a removable battery.

I won’t be plugging it in though, instead, the battery will be swapped for a fresh one, at this facility in Norway belonging to Chinese electric carmaker, Nio.

The technology is already widespread in China, but the new Power Swap Station, just south of Oslo, is Europe’s first.

This is what I’ve been saying for years would be a better strategy for electric vehicles. Instead of charging them (the time needed to charge is their single biggest weakness compared to fuelled vehicles) we should be doing battery swaps. A decade or two ago I spoke hopefully for some kind of standardised connector and removal interface, probably below the vehicle, through which battery cells could be swapped-out by robots operating in a pit. Recovered batteries could be recharged and reconditioned by the robots at their own pace. People could still charge their cars in a plug-in manner at their homes or elsewhere.

You’d pay for the difference in charge between the old and replacement battery, plus a service charge for being part of the battery-swap network, and you’d be set. Car manufacturers could standardise on battery designs, much like the shipping industry long-ago standardised on container dimensions and whatnot, to take advantage of compatibility with the wider network.

Rather than having different sizes of battery, vehicles could be differentiated by the number of serial battery units installed. A lorry might need four or five units; a large car two; a small car one, etc. If the interface is standardised then all the robots need to be able to do is install and remove them, however many there are.

This is far from an unprecedented concept: the centuries-old idea of stagecoaches (and, later, mail coaches) used the same idea, but with the horses being changed at coaching inns rather. Did you know that the “stage” in stagecoach refers to the fact that their journey would be broken into stages by these quick stops?

Anyway: I dismayed a little when I saw every EV manufacturer come up with their own battery standards, co=operating only as far as the plug-in charging interfaces (and then, only gradually and not completely!). But I’m given fresh hope by this discovery that China’s trying to make it work, and Nio‘s movement in Norway is exciting too. Maybe we’ll get there someday.

Incidentally: here’s a great video about how AC charging works (with a US/type-1 centric focus), which briefly touches upon why battery swaps aren’t necessarily an easy problem to solve.

How WordPress and Tumblr are keeping the internet weird

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[Nilay:] It is fashionable to run around saying the web is dead and that apps shape the world, but in my mind, the web’s pretty healthy for at least two things: news and shopping.

[Matt:] I think that’s your bubble, if I’m totally honest. That’s what’s cool about the web: We can live in a bubble and that can seem like the whole thing. One thing I would explicitly try to do in 2022 is make the web weirder.

The Verge interviewed Matt Mullenweg, and – as both an Automattician and a fan of the Web as a place for fun and weirdness – I really appreciated the direction the interview went in. I maintain that open web standards and platforms (as opposed to closed social media silos) are inspirational and innovative.

Emilie Reed‘s Anything a Maze lives on itch.io, and (outside of selfhosting) that’s clearly the best place for it: you couldn’t tell that story the same way on Medium; even less-so on Facebook or Twitter.

The Revenge of the Hot Water Bottle

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Imagine a personal heating system that works indoors as well as outdoors, can be taken anywhere, requires little energy, and is independent of any infrastructure. It exists – and is hundreds of years old.

A hot water bottle is a sealable container filled with hot water, often enclosed in a textile cover, which is directly placed against a part of the body for thermal comfort. The hot water bottle is still a common household item in some places – such as the UK and Japan – but it is largely forgotten or disregarded in most of the industrialised world. If people know of it, they usually associate it with pain relief rather than thermal comfort, or they consider its use an outdated practice for the poor and the elderly.

Imagine my surprise to discover that not only are hot water bottles confined almost-entirely to the UK and Japan (more-strictly, I suppose the article should say “the British Isles”; friends in Ireland tell me that they’re popular there too), but that they’re so distinctly confined to these isles that English speakers elsewhere in the world need this article to explain to them what a hot water bottle is and why they’d want one!

I’m a fan of hot water bottles; I’ll sometimes take one – or even two, during a cold snap – to bed. But reading this article feels like reading a guide for aliens living on Earth: explaining everyday things as if you’d never come across them before.

STAR T/W R/A E/R K/S

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Fun little trick in the Sunday New York Times crossword yesterday: the central theme clue was “The better of two sci-fi franchises”, and regardless of whether you put Star Wars or Star Trek, the crossing clues worked

Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in which the answer to 70 across can be answered in two different ways.

Matt Tomic

This is a (snippet of an) excellent New York Times crossword puzzle, but the true genius of it in my mind is that 71 down can be answered using iconic Star Wars line “It’s a trap!” only if the player puts Star Trek, rather than Star Wars, as the answer to 70 across (“The better of two sci-fi franchises”). If they answer with Star Wars, they instead must answer “It’s a wrap!”.

Matt goes on to try to make his own which pairs 1954 novel Lord of the Rings against Lord of the Flies, which is pretty good but I’m not convinced he can get away with the crosswise “ulne” as a word (contrast e.g. “rise” in the example above).

Of course, neither are quite as clever as the New York Timespuzzle on the eve of the 1996 presidential election whose clue “Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper(!)” could be answered either “Clinton elected” or “Bob Dole elected” and the words crossing each of “Clinton” or “Bob Dole” would still fit the clues (despite being modified by only a single letter).

If you’re looking to lose some time, here’s some further reading on so-called “Schrödinger puzzles”, and several  more crosswords that achieve the same feat.

Gutenberg versus Elementor – the beginners challenge

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What happens when you give Gutenberg and Elementor to complete Beginners? In this challenge, Meg and Lily (two of my daughters) are tasked with re-creating a webpage. They’ve never used Elementor or Gutenberg before, and I only gave them 30 minutes each.

Jamie of Pootlepress challenged his daughters – who are presumably both digital natives, but have no WordPress experience – to build a page to a specific design using both Gutenberg and Elementor. In 30 minutes.

Regardless of what you think about the products under test or the competitors in the challenge (Lily + Gutenberg clearly seems to be the fan favourite, which I’d sort-of expect because IMO Gutenberg’s learning curve is much flatter that Elementor’s), this is a fantastic example of “thinking aloud” (“talkalong”) UX testing. And with (only) a £20 prize on offer, it’s possibly the best-value testing of its type I’ve ever seen too! Both the participants do an excellent job of expressing their praise of and frustration with different parts of the interface of their assigned editing platform, and the developers of both – and other systems besides – could learn a lot from watching this video.

Specifically, this video shows how enormous the gulf is between how developers try to express concepts that are essential to web design and how beginner users assume things will work. Concepts like thinking in terms of “blocks” that can resize or reposition dynamically, breakpoints, assets as cross-references rather than strictly embedded within documents, style as an overarching concept by preference to something applied to individual elements, etc… some as second nature once you’re sixteen levels deep into the DOM and you’ve been doing it for years! But they’re rarely intuitive… or, perhaps, not expressed in a way that makes them intuitive… to new users.

Emma GoldCoin

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EGX fixes all the problems with all the existing cryptocurrencies once and for all. In particular it fixes the problems around security, environmental impact and ease of use that beset all other known blockchain-based cryptocurrency offerings.

  • Security

Due to the unique way in which the EGX blockchain is constructed, EGX cannot be hacked and will never be hacked. Period. There are and never will be any security issues with EGX. No other cryptocurrency on or off the planet can claim this.

  • Environment

Whether based on Proof Of Work or Proof of Stake, all other blockchains have a non-negligible and non-zero environmental impact. EGX however is based on neither of these. Instead it is based on Proof Of Existence, described below. PoE has a minimum environmental impact that is provably zero. Individual EGX implementations may have greater environmental impact than this, but that is entirely on the implementor. EGX PoE can be as low as zero if you wish, and we can prove this.

  • Ease Of Implementation

Due to its unique properties, no other cryptocurrency is or ever will be easier to implement and work with as EGX. This is not an empty claim – again, we can prove this.

Now here’s a cryptocurrency I can get behind. Shut up and take my money!

“DOONT” — A Bad Lip Reading of Dune

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You may remember that I was excited to hear about the upcoming release of Dune (which I suppose should be called Dune: Part One). It turns out to be excellent and I’d recommend it to anybody.

But once you’ve seen it and while you’re in the two-year wait for Dune: Part Two (argh!), can I suggest you also enjoy this wonderful creation by the folks at Bad Lip Reading, whose work I’ve plugged before. Note: minor spoilers (amazingly) if you haven’t seen Dune yet.

GB number plate sticker no longer valid abroad

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GB sticker being affixed to a car.

British motorists driving outside the UK must now remove old-style GB stickers or cover them up.

Instead they should display a UK sticker or have the UK identifier on their number plate.

The UK government guidance has been in place since Tuesday 28 September.

With the replacement of “GB” stickers with “UK” ones, I’ll soon be able to add another joke to my list of jokes that aged badly. I first read this in a joke book when I was a kid:

A young man gets his first car and his younger sister comes to look at it. “What’s this ‘L’ sticker for?” she asks.

“It stands for ‘Learning’,” replies man, “Because I’m still having driving lessons.”

Some time later, after he’s passed his test, the man is preparing to take a trip to France with his friends. His sister points to a sticker on his car. “Does this ‘GB’ mean you’re ‘Getting Better’?”