Beating Children at Mastermind [Video]

This video accompanies a blog post of the same title. The content is basically the same – if you prefer videos, watch this video. If you prefer blog posts, go read the blog post. You might also like to play with my Mastermind solver or view the source code.

Also available on YouTube and Facebook.

Do What You’re Bad At [Video]

This video accompanies a blog post of the same title. The content is basically the same – if you prefer videos, watch this video. If you prefer blog posts, go read the blog post. If you’re a superfan, try both and spot the differences. You weirdo.

Also available on YouTube or on Facebook.

Say… “Cheese?”

For lunch today I taste-tested five different plant-based vegan “cheeses” from Honestly Tasty. Let’s see if they’re any good.

Prefer video?

This blog post is available as a video (here or on YouTube), for those who like that sort of thing. The content’s slightly different, but you do get to see my face when I eat the one that doesn’t agree with me.

Background

I’ve been vegetarian or mostly-vegetarian to some degree or another for a little over ten years (for those who have trouble keeping up: I currently eat meat only on weekends, and not including beef or lamb), principally for the environmental benefits of a reduced-meat lifestyle. But if I’m really committed to reducing the environmental impact of my diet, the next “big” thing I still consume is dairy products.

My milk consumption is very low nowadays, but – like many people who might aspire towards dropping dairy – it’s quitting cheese that poses the biggest challenge. I’m not even the biggest fan of cheese, and I don’t know how I’d do without it: there’s just, it seems, no satisfactory substitute.

It’s possible, though, that my thinking on this is outdated. Especially in recent years, we’re getting better and better at making convincing (or, at least, tasty!) plant-based substitutes to animal based foods. And so, inspired by a conversation with some friends, I thought I’d try a handful of new-generation plant-based cheeses and see how I got on. I ordered a variety pack from Honestly Tasty (who’ll give you 20% off your first order if you subscribe your favourite throwaway email address to their newsletter) and gave it a go.

Bree

Dan eats some Bree.
It’s supposed to taste like Brie, I guess, but it’s not convincing. The texture of the rind is surprisingly good, but the inside is somewhat homogeneous and flat. They’ve tried to use mustard powder to provide Brie’s pepperiness and acetic acid for its subtle sourness, but it feels like there might be too much of the former (or perhaps I’m just a little oversensitive to mustard) and too little of the latter. It’s okay, but I wouldn’t buy it again.

Ched Spread

Dan eats Ched Spread.
This was surprisingly flavoursome and really quite enjoyable. It spreads with about the consistency of pâté and has a sharp tang that really stands out. You wouldn’t mistake it for cheese, but you might mistake it for a cheese spread: there’s a real “cheddary” flavour buried in there.

Blue

Dan eats 'Blue' Veganzola.
This is supposed to be modelled after Gorgonzola, and it might as well be because I don’t like either it or the cheese it’s based on. I might loathe Blue slightly less than most blue cheeses, but that doesn’t mean I’d willingly subject myself to this again in a hurry. It’s matured with real Penicillium Roqueforti, apparently, along with seaweed, and it tastes like both of these things are true. So yeah: I hated this one, but you shouldn’t take that as a condemnation of its quality as a cheese substitute because I’d still rather eat it than the cheese that it’s based on. Try for yourself, I guess.

Herbi

Dan eating Herbi.
This was probably my favourite of the bunch. It’s reminiscent of garlic & herb Boursin, and feels like somebody in the kitchen where they cooked it up said to themselves, “how about we do the Ched Spread, but with less onion and a whole load of herbs mixed-through”. It seems that it must be easier to make convincingly-cheesy soft cheeses than hard cheeses, but I’m not complaining: this would be great on toast.

Shamembert

Dan serves a Shamembert.
If you’d served me this and told me it was a baked Camembert… I wouldn’t be fooled. But I wouldn’t be disappointed either. It moves a lot like Camembert and it tastes… somewhat like it. But whether or not that’s “enough” for you, it’s perfectly delicious and I’d be more than happy to eat it or serve it to others.

In summary…

Honestly Tasty’s Ched Spread, Herbi, and Shamembert are perfectly acceptable (vegan!) substitutes for cheese. Even where they don’t accurately reflect the cheese they attempt to model, they’re still pretty good if you take them on their own merits: instead of comparing them to their counterparts, consider each as if it were a cheese spread or soft cheese in its own right and enjoy accordingly. I’d buy them again.

Their Bree failed to capture the essence of a good ripe Brie and its flavour profile wasn’t for me something to enjoy outside of its attempts at emulation. And their “Veganzola” Blue cheese… was pretty grim, but then that’s what I think of Gorgonzola too, so maybe it’s perfect and I just haven’t the palate for it.

Gutenberg versus Elementor – the beginners challenge

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

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.

“DOONT” — A Bad Lip Reading of Dune

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

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.

Xday Dinner on a Yday???

For most of 2013/2014 and intermittently thereafter my sister ran a weekly-ish “Family Vlog” on YouTube, and I (even more-intermittently) did an ocasional tonge-in-cheek review and analysis of them.

Today, a friend reported that they had eaten “Sunday dinner on a Wednesday”, and I found myself reminded of a running gag in this old, old vlog… and threw together a quick compilation reel of some of its instances.

Get Lost on the Web

Get lost

I got lost on the Web this week, but it was harder than I’d have liked.

The Ypsilanti Water Tower, at the intersection of Washtenaw Avenue and Cross Street, Ypsilanti, Michigan. The tower is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. An American flag and a Greek flag are flying, and a bust of the Greek general, Demetrios Ypsilantis (also commonly spelled "Demetrius Ypsilanti"), for whom the city is named, is in the foreground. Photo by Dwight Burdette, used under a Creative Commons license.
Now that’s a suggestive erection. Photo by Dwight Burdette.

There was a discussion this week in the Abnib WhatsApp group about whether a particular illustration of a farm was full of phallic imagery (it was). This left me wondering if anybody had ever tried to identify the most-priapic buildings in the world. Of course towers often look at least a little bit like their architects were compensating for something, but some – like the Ypsilanti Water Tower in Michigan pictured above – go further than others.

I quickly found the Wikipedia article for the Most Phallic Building Contest in 2003, so that was my jumping-off point. It’s easy enough to get lost on Wikipedia alone, but sometimes you feel the need for a primary source. I was delighted to discover that the web pages for the Most Phallic Building Contest are still online 18 years after the competition ended!

1969 shot tower at Tower Wharf, Bristol. Photo by Anthony O'Neil, used under a Creative Commons license.
The Cheese Lane Shot Tower in Bristol – politely described as a “Q-tip” shape – was built in 1969 to replace the world’s first shot tower elsewhere in the city. Photo by Anthony O’Neil.

Link rot is a serious problem on the Web, to such an extent that it’s pleasing when it isn’t present. The other year, for example, I revisited a post I wrote in 2004 and was pleased to find that a linked 2003 article by Nicholas ‘Aquarion’ Avenell is still alive at its original address! Contrast Jonathan Ames, the author/columnist/screenwriter who created the Most Phallic Building Contest until as late as 2011 before eventually letting his  site and blog lapse and fall off the Internet. It takes effort to keep Web content alive, but it’s worth more effort than it’s sometimes given.

Anyway: a shot tower in Bristol – a part of the UK with a long history of leadworking – was among the latecomer entrants to the competition, and seeing this curious building reminded me about something I’d read, once, about the manufacture of lead shot. The idea (invented in Bristol by a plumber called William Watts) is that you pour molten lead through a sieve at the top of a tower, let surface tension pull it into spherical drops as it falls, and eventually catch it in a cold water bath to finish solidifying it. I’d seen an animation of the process, but I’d never seen a video of it, so I went about finding one.

Cross-section animation showing lead shot being poured into a sieve, separating into pellets, and falling into a water bath.
The animation I saw might have been this one, or perhaps one that wasn’t so obviously-made-in-MS-Paint.

British Pathé‘s YouTube Channel provided me with this 1950 film, and if you follow only one hyperlink from this article, let it be this one! It’s a well-shot (pun intended, but there’s a worse pun in the video!), and while I needed to translate all of the references to “hundredweights” and “Fahrenheit” to measurements that I can actually understand, it’s thoroughly informative.

But there’s a problem with that video: it’s been badly cut from whatever reel it was originally found on, and from about 1 minute and 38 seconds in it switches to what is clearly a very different film! A mother is seen shepherding her young daughter off to bed, and a voiceover says:

Bedtime has a habit of coming round regularly every night. But for all good parents responsibility doesn’t end there. It’s just the beginning of an evening vigil, ears attuned to cries and moans and things that go bump in the night. But there’s no reason why those ears shouldn’t be your neighbours ears, on occasion.

Black & white framegrab showing a woman following her child, wearing pyjamas, towards a staircase up.
“Off to bed, you little monster. And no watching TikTok when you should be trying to sleep!”

Now my interest’s piqued. What was this short film going to be about, and where could I find it? There’s no obvious link; YouTube doesn’t even make it easy to find the video uploaded “next” by a given channel. I manipulated some search filters on British Pathé’s site until I eventually hit upon the right combination of magic words and found a clip called Radio Baby Sitter. It starts off exactly where the misplaced prior clip cut out, and tells the story of “Mr. and Mrs. David Hurst, Green Lane, Coventry”, who put a microphone by their daughter’s bed and ran a wire through the wall to their neighbours’ radio’s speaker so they can babysit without coming over for the whole evening.

It’s a baby monitor, although not strictly a radio one as the title implies (it uses a signal wire!), nor is it groundbreakingly innovative: the first baby monitor predates it by over a decade, and it actually did use radiowaves! Still, it’s a fun watch, complete with its contemporary fashion, technology, and social structures. Here’s the full thing, re-merged for your convenience:

Wait, what was I trying to do when I started, again? What was I even talking about…

It’s harder than it used to be

It used to be easier than this to get lost on the Web, and sometimes I miss that.

Obviously if you go back far enough this is true. Back when search engines were much weaker and Internet content was much less homogeneous and more distributed, we used to engage in this kind of meandering walk all the time: we called it “surfing” the Web. Second-generation Web browsers even had names, pretty often, evocative of this kind of experience: Mosaic, WebExplorer, Navigator, Internet Explorer, IBrowse. As people started to engage in the noble pursuit of creating content for the Web they cross-linked their sources, their friends, their affiliations (remember webrings? here’s a reminder; they’re not quite as dead as you think!), your favourite sites etc. You’d follow links to other pages, then follow their links to others still, and so on in that fashion. If you went round the circles enough times you’d start seeing all those invariably-blue hyperlinks turn purple and know you’d found your way home.

Screenshot showing Netscape Communicator running on Windows 98, showing Dan's vanity page circa 1999.
Some parts of the Web are perhaps best forgotten, though?

But even after that era, as search engines started to become a reliable and powerful way to navigate the wealth of content on the growing Web, links still dominated our exploration. Following a link from a resource that was linked to by somebody you know carried the weight of a “web of trust”, and you’d quickly come to learn whose links were consistently valuable and on what subjects. They also provided a sense of community and interconnectivity that paralleled the organic, chaotic networks of acquaintances people form out in the real world.

In recent times, that interpersonal connectivity has, for many, been filled by social networks (let’s ignore their failings in this regard for now). But linking to resources “outside” of the big social media silos is hard. These advertisement-funded services work hard to discourage or monetise activity that takes you off their platform, even at the expense of their users. Instagram limits the number of external links by profile; many social networks push for resharing of summaries of content or embedding content from other sources, discouraging engagement with the wider Web,  Facebook and Twitter both run external links through a linkwrapper (which sometimes breaks); most large social networks make linking to the profiles of other users of the same social network much easier than to users anywhere else; and so on.

The net result is that Internet users use fewer different websites today than they did 20 years ago, and spend most of their “Web” time in app versions of websites (which often provide a better experience only because site owners strategically make it so to increase their lock-in and data harvesting potential). Truly exploring the Web now requires extra effort, like exercising an underused muscle. And if you begin and end your Web experience on just one to three services, that just feels kind of… sad, to me. Wasted potential.

A woman reading a map. Photo by Leah Kelly.
I suppose nowadays we don’t get lost as often outside of the Internet, either. Photo by Leah Kelly.

It sounds like I’m being nostalgic for a less-sophisticated time on the Web (that would certainly be in character!). A time before we’d fully-refined the technology that would come to connect us in an instant to the answers we wanted. But that’s not exactly what I’m pining for. Instead, what I miss is something we lost along the way, on that journey: a Web that was more fun-and-weird, more interpersonal, more diverse. More Geocities, less Facebook; there’s a surprising thing to find myself saying.

Somewhere along the way, we ended up with the Web we asked for, but it wasn’t the Web we wanted.

“Perfect Fit” cheap & easy post topper geocache

For GC9EXXX Church Micro 14129…Sutton, a geocache I recently set up, I wanted to use a “pole topper” style cache. I’ve always felt slightly let down by finding yet another magnetic nano stuck inside a pipe, so I wanted to do something better. You can watch the video here or on YouTube, or scroll down for written instructions.

You will need:

Steps:

  1. Sand down the lid and the inside of the pole topper so the glue adheres to it better.
  2. Mix up your 2-part epoxy in the pole topper. Don’t use too much or it’ll overflow and block the lid from closing.
  3. Put the lid into the pole topper and press down firmly and evenly to squeeze out any air bubbles.
  4. While you’re waiting for the epoxy to set, file off the flange around the edge of the tub. It’s there to catch drips but you’re not going to be storing food anyway! The lid is easier to take on and off with the flange filed away.
  5. Finally, roughen the bottom edge of the tub with some sandpaper to make it easier to grip when opening and closing the container.

Music:

For Lorilyn by Casey LaLonde, used under a CC-NC Creative Commons License.

How to beat Skyrim without walking

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

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.