COVID Ipsum

So I made a COVID conspiracy theory-themed lorem ipsum generator:

I blame my friend Bryn, who put the idea into my head while he was coming up with fake COVID conspiracy theories (I realise this sentence makes it sound like there are real COVID conspiracy theories) on a WhatsApp group we’re both in:

WhatsApp conversation: Bryn says that it's easy to come up with COVID conspiracy theories, Dan says somebody should make a Lorem Ipsum generator based on them.
This is about the minimum level of encouragement I need to do just about anything in tech.

It’s implemented using perchance, a platform for creating random text generators that I’ve been playing with – sometimes with the kids – lately. It’s really easy to use and provides a kind of instant-satisfaction that I think is important if you want to inspire the next generation of software engineers. This means, among other things, that you can clone, edit, and mashup my tool: perhaps you can make it better! Or perhaps you’ll use perchance to write some fiction, or poetry, or something else entirely. But regardless, I’d encourage you to have a play.

Mostly my generator comes up with meaningless gibberish, nonsense, and laughable claims. So it’s marginally more-trustworthy than your typical COVID conspiracy theorist.

Endpoint Encabulator

(This video is also available on YouTube.)

I’ve been working as part of the team working on the new application framework called the Endpoint Encabulator and wanted to share with you what I think makes our project so exciting: I promise it’ll make for two minutes of your time you won’t seen forget!

Naturally, this project wouldn’t have been possible without the pioneering work that preceded it by John Hellins Quick, Bud Haggart, and others. Nothing’s invented in a vacuum. However, my fellow developers and I think that our work is the first viable encabulator implementation to provide inverse reactive data binding suitable for deployment in front of a blockchain-driven backend cache. I’m not saying that all digital content will one day be delivered through Endpoint Encabulator, but… well; maybe it will.

If the technical aspects go over your head, pass it on to a geeky friend who might be able to make use of my work. Sharing is caring!

To the future occupants of my office at the MIT Media Lab

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Hi. My name is Ethan Zuckerman. From 2011-2020, I enjoyed working in this office. I led a research group at the Media Lab called the Center for Civic Media, and I taught here and in Comparative Media Studies and Writing. I resigned in the summer of 2019, but stayed at the lab to help my students graduate and find jobs and to wind down our grants. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, I left campus and came back on August 14 to clean out my office and to leave you this note.

I’m leaving the note because the previous occupant left me a note of sorts. I was working here late one night. I looked up above my desk and saw a visegrip pliers attached to part of the HVAC system. I climbed up to investigate and found a brief note telling the MIT facilities department that the air conditioning had been disabled (using the vice grips, I presume) as part of a research project and that one should contact him with any questions.

That helped explain one of the peculiarities of the office. When I moved in, attached to the window was a contraption that swallowed the window handle and could be operated with red or green buttons attached to a small circuitboard. Press the green button and the window would open very, very slowly. Red would close it equally slowly. I wondered whether the mysterious researcher might be able to remove it and reattach the window handle. So I emailed him.

I’m reminded of that time eleven years ago that I looked up the person who’d gotten my (recycled) university username and emailed them. Except Ethan’s note, passed on to the next person to occupy his former office at MIT, is much cooler. And not just because it speaks so eloquently to the quirky and bizarre culture of the place (Aber’s got its own weird culture too, y’know!) but because it passes on a slice of engineering history that its previous owner lived with, but perhaps never truly understood. A fun read.

7 things we know about the nun reading ‘Boys’ Life’ in ‘Airplane!’

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A nun reading Boy's Life and a boy reading Nun's Life

It’s one of the best visual gags in a movie filled with them.

In the classic 1980 comedy Airplane!, two passengers are seen reading magazines. First, we see a nun reading Boys’ Life. Moments later, there’s a boy reading Nuns’ Life.

The scene is over in seconds, but the memory of this joke lives on. That’s especially true for those of us who have been reading Boys’ Life since we were kids.

Here are seven things you might not know about this bit of visual humor.

Of the many things I love, here are two of them:

  • The Airplane series of movies.
  • People who, like me, get carried away researching something trivial and accidentally become an expert in a miniscule field.

This fantastic piece takes a deep dive into a tiny scene in Airplane. What issue of Boys’ Life was the nun reading? What page was she looking at? What actual magazine was the boy reading within the Nuns’ Life cover? These and more questions you never thought about before are answered!

My 1:1 with the Queen

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Americans often ask what our relationship is with the Queen. I thought I’d upload my most recent 1:1 so you could see how the regular yearly 1:1 progress chats go.

As a Brit who does software engineering alongside a team from all over the rest of the world… I wish I’d thought of making this video first.

Man makes money buying his own pizza on DoorDash app

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The owner of a pizza restaurant in the US has discovered the DoorDash delivery app has been selling his food cheaper than he does – while still paying him full price for orders.

A pizza for which he charged $24 (£20) was being advertised for $16 on DoorDash – and when he secretly ordered it himself, the app paid his restaurant the full $24 while charging him $16.

He had not asked to be put on the app.

This entire news story is comedy gold.

So it looks like food delivery network DoorDash try to demonstrate demand for their services by providing them even if you didn’t ask, then show you how popular they were. So if you run a pizza restaurant, they might start selling your pizzas as “deliveries” to customers, then come and pick them up as “collections” and deliver them. Because they’re trying to drum up support and show how invaluable they would be to you, they might even resell your product at a loss in order to get customers on-board early. It’s all pretty slimy, but I’m sure that wherever they’re operating (New York, in this case) they’ve had the common sense to make all the legal language line up.

(If you can’t see the problem with this model, remember that the customers will be reasonably assuming that the restaurant is involved, so when their pizza turns up cold they’ll phone the restaurant and complain and ask for their money back [or slate them in reviews online]. Plus, let’s not forget that this is a strongarm tactic: once a restaurant has been seen to be offering delivery, customers will be upset if you take the option away… even if you never actually offered it in the first place.)

Anyway: this guy noticed that his restaurant was on DoorDash without his consent, and that they were selling his pizzas for less than he did. So he ordered them from himself: he paid DoorDash $160 for the pizzas, DoorDash paid him $240 for the pizzas, DoorDash sent somebody around to pick them up from him and deliver them to his neighbour. Free money.

Pizza made of money

Next time he did it, the restaurateur didn’t even bother to put toppings on the pizzas. After all, he didn’t need to be eating them anyway! He was just paying DoorDash to pay him (more) to move them from place to place. The restaurateur and his friend pulled off several off these trades and DoorDash never seemed to catch on. With some investigation, they discovered that it was probably an imperfect scraper that had resulted in the price DoorDash advertised being lower than the price they would pay the pizzeria, which immediately makes me wonder whether you could honeypot it with deliberate scraper-traps… (Owing to various bits of work I’ve done in the past, I’m pretty well-versed in offensive and defensive screen scraper techniques.)

And to finish the news article off, we’re reminded about the attitude of Mosayoshi Son, the CEO of DoorDash’s parent company (which incidentally also tried to buy, and then got sued by, WeWork, demonstrating his financially-savvy). Recently, defending his company’s general trend to attract venture capital and then lose it very quickly, he compared himself first to Jesus, who was also a “high-profile visionary who was initially misunderstood”, and then to the Beatles, who “did not become a success overnight”.

Comedy gold I tell you. And now I want pizza. (Especially if I can persuade a stupid startup to pay me to make and then eat it myself.)

Scunthorpe Sans

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 A s*** font that f***ing censors bad language automatically.

This is pretty beautiful, in a sick-and-wrong way. It’s a font which contains ligatures that can be automatically used by supported software. But instead of ligatures for things like æ and œ, this font replaces the letters of common swear words with a glyph that looks like a censor bar. So it’s an automatically-self-censoring font.

Better yet, the authors were aware of the Scunthorpe problem and attempted to mitigate it; this also provides the font’s name. Unfortunately it’s not possible to do so perfectly without adding ligatures for just about every dictionary word individually (now that would be a font) so words like shitake and cockerel still get censored. And even where the mitigation works, it produces other problems: e.g. the use of the ligature Scunthorpe means that the word cannot be broken e.g. hyphenated across two lines. Nor will letter counters work properly.

But I don’t think anybody’s suggesting that this font should actually see mainstream use. Right?

Why $FAMOUS_COMPANY switched to $HYPED_TECHNOLOGY

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As we’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, the $FAMOUS_COMPANY backend has historically been developed in $UNREMARKABLE_LANGUAGE and architected on top of $PRACTICAL_OPEN_SOURCE_FRAMEWORK. To suit our unique needs, we designed and open-sourced $AN_ENGINEER_TOOK_A_MYTHOLOGY_CLASS, a highly-available, just-in-time compiler for $UNREMARKABLE_LANGUAGE.

Saagar Jha tells the now-familiar story of how a bunch of techbros solved their scaling problems by reinventing the wheel. And then, when that didn’t work out, moved the goalposts of success. It’s a story as old as time; or at least as old as the modern Web.

(Should’a strangled the code. Or better yet, just refactored what they had.)

Thursday

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Today is Thursday. YOU MUST NOT GO OUTSIDE!

  1. Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency for Great Britain, is set to publish revised maps for the whole of the British isles in the wake of social distancing measures. The new 1:50,000 scale maps are simply a revision of the older 1:25,000 scale map but all geographical features have been moved further apart.

Gareth’s providing a daily briefing including all the important things that the government wants you to know about the coronavirus crisis… and a few things that they didn’t think to tell you, but perhaps they should’ve. Significantly more light-hearted than wherever you’re getting your news from right now.

The next time we want to import a horse to Russia it will be a doddle

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This is the best diplomatic report I’ve read in a long time. A real gem. Recounts the story of the horses gifted by Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) to the British government. A fantastic snapshot of life in the FSU in the early 1990s. Posting the whole thing – enjoy the read.

Telegram page 1.Telegram page 2Telegram page 3Telegram page 4

Also worth seeing: (then Prime Minister) John Major’s official response.

Pass The Pepper: Social Distancing is Nothing to Sneeze At

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You’ve seen a few Rube Goldberg-style machines before. You watched that OK Go music video twice. But this… this is something else.

(Everything else on his channel is gold, of course, too: if you’re looking for a jumping-off point, try his dinner-productivity machine.)

Fox In Sox

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This is the best rap music-related thing to happen to Dr. Seuss since Wubble Down, over 10 years ago. And understand that there have been a lot of strong candidates.

(I maintain that I’m not that “into” rap music. But somehow I keep proving myself wrong. Loving this song right now, for example.)