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.)

Happy Birthday, You’re Fired

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I walked the dog, bought myself a wax jacket from a local garden centre – so I could feel more ‘Country’ – and in the late afternoon my boss called me to say… you’re fired.

So begins Robin‘s latest blog (you may remember I’ve shared, talked about, and contributed to the success of his previous blogging adventure, 52 Reflect). This time around, it sort-of reads like a contemporaneously-written “what I did on my holidays” report, except that it’s pretty-much about the opposite of a holiday: it chronicles Robin’s adventures in the North of England during these strange times.

I’ve no doubt that this represents the start of another riotous series of posts and perhaps exactly what you need to lift your spirits in these trying times. A second chapter is already online.

The 7 Types Of StackOverflow Answers

StackOverflow‘s one of the most-popular and widely-used resources for software developers. It dominates the search results when you’re looking for answers to techy questions. If you know how to read it, it can be invaluable.

But… I’m not sure what it is about the platform or the culture surrounding it that creates a certain… pattern to the answers that you can expect to receive on StackOverflow. To illustrate, let’s suppose we have a question:

SnackOverflow question: Let's say I'm camping and I need to make toast. I have a loaf of bread and a campfire. What's the best way to make toast?

Here are the answers you might see:

The Golden Hammer

The top answer is often somebody answering not the question you asked, but the question they’d like to think you asked.

Answer: Just plug a toaster in. You can do this with: npm install toaster

Never mind that you specifically said that you were using a campfire, the answer suggests that you use a toaster. Look back a few years and you’ll see countless examples of people asking for solutions using “vanilla” JavaScript and being told to use some heavyweight, everything-but-the-kitchen sink jQuery plugin. Now we’re in a more enlightened time, those same people are being told to use some heavyweight, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink npm module. How far we’ve come.

The Belligerent

Far often than you might expect, a perfectly reasonable “how do I do this?” question is met with an aggressive response of “why would you want to do that?”

Answer: Why would you want to make toast on a campfire? When you're camping you should be eating beans, soup, and spit-roasted meats and fish. Every time I've tried to toast bread over a campfire I've ended up unsatisfied. Uneven toasting, burnt bits, even the whole slice catching fire. I can't imagine why anybody would ever want toast like that! If you want toast you should stay at home. It's still pretty pointless, though: toast isn't a very good meal. It's basically empty calories with no protein, no vitamins, no minerals. I mean, it'd be okay as a snack but that's clearly not what you're asking about. There's a reason that the Chef's Guide To Camping doesn't include a recipe for toast. Just don't do it!

These are particularly infuriating to read when you come to a closed thread and you know that you do want to be doing the “forbidden” thing. You’ve considered the other options, you’ve assessed the situation… and now some arrogant bugger’s telling you that you’re wrong!

This kind of response is among the most annoying, second only to…

The Kindred Spirit

You’re getting a strange and inexplicable error message. You search for it and get exactly one result. Reading the thread, after hours of tearing your hair out, you suddenly feel a sense of relief: you’ve found another soul in this crazy world that’s suffering in precisely the same way as you are. Every word you read reconfirms for you that you and they have the same issue. At last, a solution is in reach!

Answer: I'm having almost exactly the same issue. I've brought bagels to my campfire, though. If anybody knows how to toast either bread or bagels on a campfire please let me know how! Edit: NM, I've worked it out.Nope.

Not only have you not got a solution, but the saviour you thought you’d found? They do have a solution, but they were thinking only about themselves when they got it, so they didn’t share it.

I get it: when you’re deep in focus on a problem you forget that the forum you’re on will receive search traffic indefinitely. But “NM, I’ve worked it out” is the most infuriating sentence on the Internet. When you solve a tough problem that you’d talked about online, for the love of God put the solution online too.

The Expert

There’s always somebody who answers the question but in a way you’d need a PhD to comprehend.

Answer: What you're looking to do is increase the ratio of 6-Acetyl-2,3,4,5-tetrahydropyridine on the surface of the bread, as described by Louis-Camille Maillard. Aim to maximise the surface area exposed to heat to accelerate the reaction of the carbonyls with the nucleophilic amino acids, without increasing the temperature enough to produce significant amounts of benzopyrene nor acrylamide.

StackOverflow is often used by beginners. Make your answer beginner-friendly if possible.

The Hero We Don’t Need

Like the Golden Hammer, the Hero We Don’t Need answers the question that they know the answer to rather than the question you actually asked. Unlike the Golden Hammer, the question they answer isn’t even remotely related to the question you asked.

Answer: Place the loaf down on a broad flat surface. Use a serrated blade in a moderately-rapid back-and-forth motion to cut through it. Now the bread will be sliced and ready to use. Don't cut any more than you need at once: sliced bread goes stale much faster.

Perhaps some future site visitor who chose their search terms badly might benefit from this out-of-the-box look at a completely different problem. But I wouldn’t count on it.

The Correct Answer

Eventually, if you’re lucky, somebody will provide the actual answer to the question. You’ll often have to scroll about this far down the page to find it.

Answer: There are two approaches. Both are equally valid - choose the one that's right for you. Method #1: place flat rocks near to your campfire and allow them to heat up. Slice your bread, and lay each slice on a hot rock, being careful not to touch the rock. Turn it over when it's done on one side. Method #2: use a long fork, skewer, or stick to impale a slice of bread lengthways (here's a diagram) and suspend it over the fire either by holding the utensil or by poking the other end into the ground. If holding it, be sure to keep your hand lower than the bread as heat will travel up metal implements. Happy camping!Still, at least there’s an answer. And it only took four hours between posting the question and it appearing. Sometimes that’s what it takes, and at least the answer will be there for the next person, assuming that they, too, scroll down far enough.

Unfortunately hundreds of novice developers will have no way to tell that this alone is the correct answer amongst the endless stream of bullshit in which it resides.

The Echo

And finally, there’s always some idiot who repeats one of the same (useless) answers from before. Just to keep the noise-to-signal ratio up, I guess.

Answer: Just install toaster from NPM. Comment 1: @KISS DRY already said this. This is the correct answer. Comment 2: Can toaster slice bread, too?

StackOverflow’s given me so many useful answers to so many questions, over the years. But it’s also been a great source of frustration for me at the hands of six of these seven archetypes. Did I miss any?