GB number plate sticker no longer valid abroad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’?”

What’s wrong with what3words?

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In his latest video, Andrew provides a highly-accessible and slick explanation of all of the arguments against what3words that I’ve been making for years, plus a couple more besides.

Arguments that he makes that closely parallel my own include that what3words addresses are (a) often semantically-ambiguous, (b) potentially offensive, (c) untranslatable (and their English words, used by non-English speakers, exaggerates problem (a)), and (d) based on an aggressively-guarded proprietary algorithm. We’re of the same mind, there. I’ll absolutely be using this video to concisely explain my stance in future.

Andrew goes on to point out two further faults with the system, which don’t often appear among my arguments against it:

The first is that its lack of a vertical component and of a mechanism for narrowing-down location more-specifically makes it unsuitable for one of its stated purposes of improving addressing in parts of the developing world. While I do agree that what3words is a bad choice for use as this kind of addressing system, my reasoning is different, and I don’t entirely agree with his. I don’t believe that what3words are actually arguing that their system should be used alone to address a letter. Even in those cases where a given 3m × 3m square can be used to point to a single building’s entryway, a single building rarely contains one person! At a minimum, a “what3words”-powered postal address is likely to specify the name of the addressee who’s expected to be found there. It also may require additional data impossible to encode in any standardisable format, and adding a vertical component doesn’t solve this either: e.g. care-of addresses, numbered letterboxes, unconventional floor numbers (e.g. in tunnels or skybridges), door colours, or even maps drawn from memory onto envelopes have been used in addressed mail in some parts of the world and at some times. I’m not sure it’s fair to claim that what3words fails here because every other attempt at a universal system would too.

Similarly, I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant for him to make his observation that geological movements result in impermanence in what3words addresses. Not only is this a limitation of global positioning in general, it’s also a fundamentally unsolvable problem: any addressable “thing” is capable or movement both with and independent of the part of the Earth to which it’s considered attached. If a building is extended in one direction and the other end demolished, or remodelling moves its front door, or a shipwreck is split into two by erosion against the seafloor, or two office buildings become joined by a central new lobby between them, these all result in changes to the positional “address” of that thing! Even systems designed specifically to improve the addressability of these kinds of items fail us: e.g. conventional postal addresses change as streets are renamed, properties renamed or renumbered, or the boundaries of settlements and postcode areas shift. So again: while changes to the world underlying an addressing model are a problem… they’re not a problem unique to what3words, nor one that they claim to solve.

One of what3words’ claimed strengths is that it’s unambiguous because sequential geographic areas do not use sequential words, so ///happy.adults.hand is nowhere near ///happy.adults.face. That kind of feature is theoretically great for rescue operations because it means that you’re likely to spot if I’m giving you a location that’s in completely the wrong country, whereas the difference between 51.385, -1.6745 and 51.335, -1.6745, which could easily result from a transcription error, are an awkward 4 miles away. Unfortunately, as Andrew demonstrates, what3words introduces a different kind of ambiguity instead, so it doesn’t really do a great job of solving the problem.

And sequential or at least localised areas are actually good for some things, such as e.g. addressing mail! If I’ve just delivered mail to 123 East Street and my next stop is 256 East Street then (depending on a variety of factors) I probably know which direction to go in, approximately how far, and possibly even what side of the road it’ll be on!

That’s one of the reasons I’m far more of a fan of the Open Location Code, popularised by Google as Plus Codes. It’s got many great features, including variable resolution (you can give a short code, or just the beginning of a code, to specify a larger area, or increase the length of the code to specify any arbitrary level of two-dimensional precision), sequential locality (similar-looking codes are geographically-closer), and it’s based on an open standard so it’s at lower risk of abuse and exploitation and likely has greater longevity than what3words. That’s probably why it’s in use for addresses in Kolkata, India and rural Utah. Because they don’t use English-language words, Open Location Codes are dramatically more-accessible to people all over the world.

If you want to reduce ambiguity in Open Location Codes (to meet the needs of rescue services, for example), it’d be simple to extend the standard with a check digit. Open Location Codes use a base-20 alphabet selected to reduce written ambiguity (e.g. there’s no letter O nor number 0), so if you really wanted to add this feature you could just use a base-20 modification of the Luhn algorithm (now unencumbered by patents) to add a check digit, after a predetermined character at the end of the code (e.g. a slash). Check digits are a well-established way to ensure that an identifier was correctly received e.g. over a bad telephone connection, which is exactly why we use them for things like credit card numbers already.

Basically: anything but what3words would be great.

Chrome is the new Safari. And so are Edge and Firefox.

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I am not saying Apple’s approach is wrong. What Apple is doing is important too, and I applaud the work Apple has been doing in improving privacy on the web.

But it can’t be the only priority. Just imagine what the web would look like if every browser would have taken that approach 20 years ago.

Actually, no, don’t imagine it all. Just think back at Internet Explorer 6; that is what the web looked like 20 years ago.

There can only be one proper solution: Apple needs to open up their App Store to browsers with other rendering engines. Scrap rule 2.5.6 and allow other browsers on iOS and let them genuinely compete.

As a reminder, Safari is the only web browser on iOS. You might have been fooled to think otherwise by the appearance of other browsers in the App Store or perhaps by last year’s update that made it possible at long last to change the default browser, but it’s all an illusion. Beneath the mask, all browsers on iOS are powered by Safari’s WebKit, or else they’re booted from the App Store.

Comic showing Scooby-Doo character Fred removing the mask from the ghosts of different iOS web browsers to find Safari's WebKit beneath all of them.

Neils’ comparison to Internet Explorer 6 is a good one, but as I’ve long pointed out, there’s a big and important difference between Microsoft’s story during the First Browser War and Apple’s today:

  • Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with Windows, raising the barrier to using a different web browser, which a court ruled as monopolistic and recommended that Microsoft be broken into smaller companies (this recommendation was scaled back on appeal).
  • Apple bundle Safari with iOS and prohibit the use of any other browser’s rendering engine on that platform, preventing the use of a different web browser. Third-party applications have been available for iOS – except, specifically, other browser rendering engines and a handful of other things – for 13 years now, but it still seems unlikely we’ll see an antitrust case anytime soon.

Apple are holding the Web back… and getting away with it.

London civil servant’s bus odyssey sparks Twitter storm

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When Jo Kibble, a 39-year-old civil servant from Greenwich, set out to travel as far as he could from London in one day only using public bus routes it was supposed to be a personal project. But he ended up sparking a Twitter storm, causing a debate about how to build a fairer country along the way.

“I like travelling by public transport and by bus; I think it’s a great way to see the country,” Mr Kibble explains.

..

Mr Kibble figured the furthest he could get in one day would be Morecambe in Lancashire – some 260 miles from Charing Cross, the geographical centre of London.

I’m sure that many of you, like me, really enjoyed The Political Travelling Animal‘s Twitter adventure up the country, last week. If you missed it (and you should really go read it if you did): Jo decided to see how far he could get from London within 24 hours via local bus routes only, and live-tweeted the entire experience for the world to enjoy too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I particularly enjoyed that fact that he gave a nod to Preston’s unusual and iconic bus station.

Reading it, though, I found myself reminded of a time, long ago, that I planned (although never took) a similar journey. In 1999 I moved away from my family in Preston to Aberystwyth to go to university.

Before he became a bus my father was a bus industry professional and at a rest stop during the journey to Aberystwyth as he dropped me off, he and I perused the (paper) timetables to explore a hypothesis that the pair of us had come up with.

Our question: Is it possible to travel from Aberystwyth to Preston, in a single day, using local bus routes only?

After much consideration, we determined that yes, it was possible, but better than that: it was possible to do so (at the time) entirely on Arriva buses. This presented an unexploited opportunity: for the price of an “all day” Arriva ticket (£2.20, IIRC), an enterprising and poor student could, in a pinch, find their way back from Aberystwyth to Preston over the course of about 16 hours for only a fraction more than the price of a pint of beer.

This was utterly academic: in the years that followed, I would almost invariably leave Aberystwyth by train. Sometimes I’d do this to go to London: a route for which, I discovered, I could catch the 6am train, hide aboard it as it was vacated at its Birmingham New Street terminus and take a nap, safe in the knowledge that the same rolling stock would subsequently become a train to London Euston! Other times I’d return to Preston; a journey for which not even floods could stop me.

But regardless, for my first full term at university I kept on the corner of the desk in my study room the sum of £2.20, as an “insurance policy”. No matter what happened in this new phase of my life, that small pile of coins could, at a stretch, get me back “home”.

By Christmas 1999 I’d re-purposed the coins to do my laundry (the washing machines in the halls’ laundrette took pound coins and the dryers 20p pieces, so this was a far more-valuable use of spare change in those denominations). By this point I’d settled in and had become confident that Aberystwyth was likely to be my home almost year-around, and indeed I’d go on to live there another decade before saying goodbye for Oxfordshire.

But we answered the question, at least in theory: a hypothetical but symbolic question about the versatility and utility of an interconnected network of local bus routes. And that’s just great.

Using every car parking space in a supermarket car park

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For the last six years I’ve kept a spreadsheet listing every parking spot I’ve used at the local supermarket in a bid to park in them all. This week I completed my Magnum Opus! A thread.

I live in Bromley and almost always shop at the same Sainsbury’s in the centre of town, here’s a satellite view of their car park. It’s a great car park because you can always get a space and it is laid out really well. Comfortably in my top 5 Bromley car parks.

After quite a few years of going each week I started thinking about how many of the different spots I’d parked in and how long it would take to park in them all. My life is one long roller coaster.

A glorious story from a man with the kind of dedication that would have gotten him far in CNPS back in the day (I wonder if Claire ever got past 13 points…).

This is the kind of thing that I occasionally consider adding to the list of mundane shit I track about my life. But then I start thinking about the tracking infrastructure and I end up adding far more future-proofing than I intend: I start thinking about tracking how often my hayfever causes me problems so I can correlate it to the time and the location data I already record to work out which tree species’ pollen affects me the most. Or tracking a variety of mood metrics so I can see if, as I’ve long suspected, the number of unread emails in my inboxen negatively correlates to my general happiness.

Measure all the things!

Exploiting vulnerabilities in Cellebrite UFED and Physical Analyzer from an app’s perspective

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Cellebrite makes software to automate physically extracting and indexing data from mobile devices. They exist within the grey – where enterprise branding joins together with the larcenous to be called “digital intelligence.” Their customer list has included authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Russia, Venezuela, and China; death squads in Bangladesh; military juntas in Myanmar; and those seeking to abuse and oppress in Turkey, UAE, and elsewhere. A few months ago, they announced that they added Signal support to their software.

Their products have often been linked to the persecution of imprisoned journalists and activists around the world, but less has been written about what their software actually does or how it works. Let’s take a closer look. In particular, their software is often associated with bypassing security, so let’s take some time to examine the security of their own software.

Moxie Marlinspike (Signal)

Recently Moxie, co-author of the Signal Protocol, came into possession of a Cellebrite Extraction Device (phone cracking kit used by law enforcement as well as by oppressive regimes who need to clamp down on dissidents) which “fell off a truck” near him. What an amazing coincidence! He went on to report, this week, that he’d partially reverse-engineered the system, discovering copyrighted code from Apple – that’ll go down well! – and, more-interestingly, unpatched vulnerabilities. In a demonstration video, he goes on to show that a carefully crafted file placed on a phone could, if attacked using a Cellebrite device, exploit these vulnerabilities to take over the forensics equipment.

Obviously this is a Bad Thing if you’re depending on that forensics kit! Not only are you now unable to demonstrate that the evidence you’re collecting is complete and accurate, because it potentially isn’t, but you’ve also got to treat your equipment as untrustworthy. This basically makes any evidence you’ve collected inadmissible in many courts.

Moxie goes on to announce a completely unrelated upcoming feature for Signal: a minority of functionally-random installations will create carefully-crafted files on their devices’ filesystem. You know, just to sit there and look pretty. No other reason:

In completely unrelated news, upcoming versions of Signal will be periodically fetching files to place in app storage. These files are never used for anything inside Signal and never interact with Signal software or data, but they look nice, and aesthetics are important in software. Files will only be returned for accounts that have been active installs for some time already, and only probabilistically in low percentages based on phone number sharding. We have a few different versions of files that we think are aesthetically pleasing, and will iterate through those slowly over time. There is no other significance to these files.

That’s just beautiful.

Tips for Text-based Interviews

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Since joining the hiring team at Automattic in the fall of 2019, I’ve noticed different patterns and preferences on text-based interviews. Some of these are also general interviewing tips.

  1. Send shorter messages
  2. Avoid Threads if possible
  3. Show your thought process
  4. Don’t bother name dropping
  5. Tell the story
  6. It’s not that different

Fellow Automattician Jerry Jones, whose work on accessibility was very useful in spearheading some research by my team, earlier this year, has written a great post about interviewing at Automattic or, indeed, any company that’s opted for text-based interviews. My favourite hosting company uses these too, and I’ve written about my experience of interviewing at Automattic, but Jerry’s post – which goes into much more detail than just the six highlight points above, is well worth a look if you ever expect to be on either side of a text-based interview.

Big List of Naughty Strings

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# Reserved Strings
#
# Strings which may be used elsewhere in code
undefined
undef
null
NULL

then
constructor
\
\\

# Numeric Strings
#
# Strings which can be interpreted as numeric
0
1
1.00
$1.00
1/2
1E2

Max Woolf

Max has produced a list of “naughty strings”: things you might try injecting into your systems along with any fuzz testing you’re doing to check for common errors in escaping, processing, casting, interpreting, parsing, etc. The copy above is heavily truncated: the list is long!

It’s got a lot of the things in it that you’d expect to find: reserved keywords and filenames, unusual or invalid unicode codepoints, tests for the Scunthorpe Problem, and so on. But perhaps my favourite entry is this one, a test for “human injection”:

# Human injection
#
# Strings which may cause human to reinterpret worldview
If you're reading this, you've been in a coma for almost 20 years now. We're trying a new technique. We don't know where this message will end up in your dream, but we hope it works. Please wake up, we miss you.

Beautiful.

OpenAI-powered Linux shell uses AI to Do What You Mean

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It’s like Alexa/Siri/Cortana for your terminal!

This is a basic Python shell (really, it’s a fancy wrapper over the system shell) that takes a task and asks OpenAI for what Linux bash command to run based on your description. For safety reasons, you can look at the command and cancel before actually running it.

Of all the stupid uses of OpenAI’s GPT-3, this might be the most-amusing. It’s really interesting to see how close – sometimes spot-on – the algorithm comes to writing the right command when you “say what you mean”. Also, how terribly, terribly ill-advised it would be to actually use this for real.

The Cursed Computer Iceberg Meme

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More awesome from Blackle Mori, whose praises I sung recently over The Basilisk Collection. This time we’re treated to a curated list of 182 articles demonstrating the “peculiarities and weirdness” of computers. Starting from relatively well-known memes like little Bobby Tables, the year 2038 problem, and how all web browsers pretend to be each other, we descend through the fast inverse square root (made famous by Quake III), falsehoods programmers believe about time (personally I’m more of a fan of …names, but then you might expect that), the EICAR test file, the “thank you for playing Wing Commander” EMM386 in-memory hack, The Basilisk Collection itself, and the GIF MD5 hashquine (which I’ve shared previously) before eventually reaching the esoteric depths of posuto and the nightmare that is Japanese postcodes

Plus many, many things that were new to me and that I’ve loved learning about these last few days.

It’s definitely not a competition; it’s a learning opportunity wrapped up in the weirdest bits of the field. Have an explore and feed your inner computer science geek.

Wix and Their Dirty Tricks

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Wix, the website builder company you may remember from stealing WordPress code and lying about it, has now decided the best way to gain relevance is attacking the open source WordPress community in a bizarre set of ads. They can’t even come up with original concepts for attack ads, and have tried to rip-off of Apple’s Mac vs PC ads, but tastelessly personify the WordPress community as an absent, drunken father in a therapy session. 🤔

I have a lot of empathy for whoever was forced to work on these ads, including the actors, it must have felt bad working on something that’s like Encyclopedia Britannica attacking Wikipedia. WordPress is a global movement of hundreds of thousands of volunteers and community members, coming together to make the web a better place. The code, and everything you put into it, belongs to you, and its open source license ensures that you’re in complete control, now and forever. WordPress is free, and also gives you freedom.

For those that haven’t been following the relevant bits of tech social media this last week, here’s the insanity you’ve missed:

  1. Wix start their new marketing campaign by posting headphones and a secret video link to people they clearly think are WordPress “influencers”. But the video is so confusing that people thought it was a WordPress marketing campaign against Wix, not the other way around.
  2. Next, Wix launch their “You Deserve Better” website, attempting to riff off the old “Mac vs. PC” ads. It’s been perhaps most-charitably described as a “bewildering” attack ad, more-critically described as being insensitive and distasteful.
  3. Wix’s Twitter and YouTube responses suddenly swing from their usual “why is your customer service so slow to respond to me?” level of negative to outright hostile. LOL.

Sure, I’m not the target audience. I’ve been a WordPress user for 15 years, and every time I visit a Wix site it annoys me when I have to permit a stack of third-party JavaScript just to load images like they’ve never heard of the <img>tag or something. Hell, I like WordPress enough that I used it as a vehicle to get a job with Automattic, a company most-famous for its WordPress hosting provision. But even putting all of that aside: this advertising campaign stinks.

How to beat Skyrim without walking

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I don’t normally watch videos of other people playing video games. I’m even less inclined to watch “walkthroughs”.

This, though, isn’t a walkthrough. It’s basically the opposite of a walkthrough: this is somebody (slowly, painstakingly) playing through Skyrim: Special Edition without using any of the movement controls (WASD/left stick) whatsoever. Wait, what? How is such a thing possible?

That’s what makes the video so compelling. The creator used so many bizarre quirks and exploits to even make this crazy stupid idea work at all. Like (among many, many more):

  • Dragging a bucket towards yourself to “push” yourself backwards (although not upstairs unless you do some very careful pushing “under” your feet).
  • Doing an unarmed heavy attack to “stumble” forward a little at a time, avoiding the stamina loss by eating vegetable soup or by cancelling the attack (e.g. by switching quickselected arrows), which apparently works better if you’re overencumbered.
  • Mid-stumble, consuming a reagent that paralyses yourself to glitch through thin doors. Exploit a bug in dropping gear for your companion near an area-change doorway to get all of the reagent you’ll ever need.
  • Rush-grinding your way to the Whirlwind Sprint shout and Vampire Lord “Bats” ability so you’ve got a way to move forward quickly, then pairing them with paralysis to catapult yourself across the map.
  • When things get desperate, exploiting the fact that you can glitch-teleport yourself places by commanding your companion to go somewhere, quicksaving before they get there, then quickloading to appear there yourself.

This video’s just beautiful: the cumulation of what must be hundreds or thousands of person-hours of probing the “edges” of Skyrim‘s engine to discover all of the potentially exploitable bugs that make it possible.

Tribute to Peter Huntley

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While I was traipsing off around the countryside to commemorate the anniversary of the death of my dad, one of his former colleagues uploaded to YouTube a video that he originally produced for the UK Bus Awards Presentation Ceremony 2012.

As his son, it felt a little weird for me to be marking the occasion on what: the ninth anniversary of his death? It’s not even a nice round number. But clearly I’m not the only one whose mind drifted to my father on 19 February.

Fun fact: this photo – extracted from the video – was originally taken by me:

Peter Huntley, circa 1985, in a bus depot.
My dad’s crouching to make sure he’s in the frame, because I was less than half his height at this point. The horizon is wonky because I’m crouching too, in order to imitate him, and I’ve lost my balance. Altogether, I rate this piece of photographic art… umm: not bad for a preschooler?

Maybe I should be asking for royalties! Or at least, using the video as an excuse to springboard my career as a professional photographer.

YouTube ID badge showing that Chris Cheek has only one subscriber.
What kind of exposure could I get? Oh.

Well, maybe not then.