Posts Tagged


What is a VPN?

Elizabeth Technology March 23, 2023

Note: this is not meant to act as a buyer’s guide. 

If you’ve been on Youtube in the past couple of years, you might have noticed an uptick in sponsorships from VPNs, making all sorts of claims. But what does a VPN do?

Location Services

Sometimes content published online is kept exclusive to certain countries. Canada, for example, has a rule that a certain percentage of their entertainment has to be made by Canadian artists, and Germany’s copyright laws are notoriously strict. VPNs can allow people to access this content as though they were from where it was made, instead of where they are actually at. American music videos and uncut Hulu channels for everyone!


VPNs are usually advertised for privacy purposes. And most work pretty well! Instead of sending the information straight through to the ISP, the VPN anonymizes the data to get it to the server. From that server, your request goes through to the content you wanted, and the content comes back to you anonymized. The ISP, which is usually responsible for restricting content, can’t see this data and therefore can’t restrict it. For privacy concerns around the ISP, that anonymizing is great.

It doesn’t stop there, either: If the VPN is encrypting the data coming to and from a coffee shop’s WiFi for your computer, it’s hiding it from anyone who has access to that network – which might be more than the ISP. If all it takes is the password on the receipt to get into the network, then in theory almost anyone who finds a receipt or buys a drink can access the network. This could become a problem if that person knows more about WiFi than the owners of the shop do.

But Branding?

How is it possible for there to be so many? Don’t they all do the same thing? Kinda. That’s also why ads for VPNs have been so incredibly choking. The barrier to entry to sell one as a service is actually pretty low. Depending on where the host buys their server space, they’re also low maintenance. Given those two conditions, the only thing that could keep someone from making money off of one is their visibility. The market’s flooded, so right now the winner of the race is the one with the most advertising dollars.

Does it do Everything?

For advertising concerns, a VPN is not the be-all end-all of privacy. There are so many devices in the average house (your phone, your WiFi enabled washer, your computer, your Smart TV, your gaming console…) that advertisers will still have an idea of who you are, which doesn’t even include things like cookies. When you’re using Google, every Google service knows what you’re interested in, unless you’re signed out and incognito – so searches you made could be used to tweak the content that appears on your Youtube’s ‘recommended’ page. Google allows you to turn off ad customization – that doesn’t mean they aren’t keeping the info.


If you have an account with, say, Amazon, they already know what you’re looking at on their site because it’s linked to the account. Or if you have a digital assistant that you regularly search or browse with, the VPN can’t help you. If you’re really interested in browsing privacy and not accessing Geo-locked content, you could download something like DuckDuckGo or Ecosia (this is not a buyer’s guide, products only used as examples). These services don’t store data on your search habits. Privacy-focused search engines aren’t foolproof, but if your main concern is privacy from advertisers and you don’t want to spend money on a subscription…

Where’s The Data?

There are also concerns about the many different VPNs themselves: you are partially anonymous to your ISP (they still know you’re using them, and for approximately how much data) but you are not anonymous to the VPN. In some cases, the website on the other end expects non-encrypted data, which means that the VPN literally cannot connect you without un-encrypting that data. To be fair, most browsers will warn you about unencrypted websites. But if you insist because you think the VPN’s keeping you safe, this is important information to know. Besides that, the VPN itself can sell your data. Or get hacked! The barrier to entry is very low, which is why this is a problem!

Long story short, when Youtubers are trying to sell this service, they don’t tell you why you might not need it. It’s not a good idea to connect to public WiFi without some sort of protection. VPNs can help. VPNs are a good service if you really want to watch the UK version of The Office. However, VPNs are not an invincible shield, and they’re not always capable of end-to-end encryption. They’re a security tool, not a comprehensive solution to your privacy woes.

As always, do your research on the brands you’re considering before jumping into it headfirst.

Remember, this is an overview of VPNs as a service, not a buyer’s guide!

Sources: (Wikipedia here serves as a full explanation of what they are without the potential bias of money)

Magnetic Storage Types

Elizabeth Technology March 16, 2023

Magnetic Tape

The most well-known version of tape-based magnetic storage is the kind used for media. When tape-based recording was first introduced, it revolutionized the talk show and DJ-ing scene of the time (mostly post WWII) because it enabled shows to be recorded and played later, rather than live. Music recording tech already existed, but it required physical interaction from the DJ, so it wasn’t as hands-off as tapes were.

The second-most well-known version is the kind used for computer memory! Data is stored on the tape in the form of little magnetic ‘dots’ that the computer can read as bits. Before each pocket of data dots is a data marker that tells the computer how long that pocket should be, so it knows when one set of data ends and the next begins. The polarity of the dot determines it’s bit value, and the computer can then read all these dots as binary code.

This method of data storage was a massive breakthrough, and other mediums continue to use the format even today! Tapes are still in use for big stuff – parts of IBM’s library rely on modern tapes, which can now store terabytes of information at a higher density than disks and flash drives alike. Other memory types relying on magnetic domains include hard disks and drums, to name a couple. All that separates them is material and know-how: the better the magnetizing material on the outside, the smaller the domains can get. The better the insulation between the domains and regular old entropy, the more stable the data is!

Carousel Memory

Carousel memory was an attempt at shrinking the space that magnetic tape took, but to the extreme. Instead of one very long piece of magnetic tape on a bobbin, the carousel memory system uses several smaller reels of tape arranged in a carousel pattern around the central read mechanism. To get to the right info is as simple as selecting the right reel! This has some issues with it, as you might imagine. Moving parts add complications and an increased risk of mechanical failure to any device, but a device carrying thin, delicate magnetic tape on it is an especially bad place to start.

However, it wasn’t all bad. Carousel memory was actually quite fast for the time because it didn’t have to rewind or fast-forward as much to get to the right area of code. It could skip feet of tape at a time! This advantage declined as tape tech improved, but it still helped companies trying to squeeze the most life from their machines. The bobbins and individual ribbons were all replaceable, so the tape wasn’t worthless if it got torn or damaged. The carousel itself was also replaceable, so the many moving parts weren’t as much of a curse as they’d be on, say, the first hard disks, which had irreplaceable heads.

Core Rope Memory

Core rope memory featured magnetic gromets, or ‘cores’ on metal ‘ropes’, and then those ropes were woven into fabric the computer could read. In ROM (read-only memory) format, if a wire went through the core, it was a ‘one’, or a ‘yes’. If it didn’t, it was a ‘zero’, or a ‘no’. In this way, the fabric is physically coded into binary that the computer can use. ROMd Core-rope memory involved quite a bit of complicated weaving and un-weaving to get the cores in the right spots.

Core rope memory was chosen over tape memory for the Apollo missions, mainly for weight purposes. Tape was great, but not nearly dense or hardy enough for the mission yet, and neither were the other similar core modules available to NASA. A read-only core-rope memory module could store as many as 192 bits per core, where erasable core memory could only manage one bit per core. Where each core on the final module depended on reading the wires to determine the bit’s state, the erasable model (core memory) read the core’s magnetic state to determine the bit state, not the threads going through it. The final module sent up to get to the moon was a total of 70-ish pounds and read fairly quickly. Tape, core memory, or hard disks available at the time couldn’t have gotten to the same weight or speed.

Core-rope memory has its place. It’s very sturdy, and since it relies on the cores to act as bits, it’s possible to visually identify bugs before the memory’s even used, unlike core memory. Both are sometimes called ‘software crystallized as hardware’ because of the core system. It isn’t seen much today, since it is still incredibly bulky, but at the time of its use it was revolutionary.

Core Memory

Core memory is the older sibling of core rope memory, and it stores less. However, the people who got to work with it call it one of the most reliable forms of memory out there! Core memory works much the same as core rope memory, where the bits are stored in cores.

However, the formats are different. If core rope memory is like a binary-encoded scarf, core memory is more like a rug. Thin threads made of conductive material are woven into a grid pattern, with cores suspended on where the threads cross each other. The computer understands these threads as address lines, so asking for a specific bit to be read is as simple as locating the X and Y address of the core. A third set of lines, the sense lines, runs through each core on the diagonal, and this is the thread that does the actual reading.

When asked to, the computer sends a current down the sense threads and sees if the cores flip their magnetic polarity or not. If it doesn’t, it was a zero. If it does, it was a one, and it has been flipped to zero by the reading process. This method is known as ‘destructive reading’ as a result, however, the computer compensates for this by flipping the bit back to where it was after the reading. Due to its magnetic nature, the core then keeps this info even after power to it is cut!

This link here is an excellent, interactive diagram of the system.

Even though this improved the bit-to-space-taken ratio, core memory still aged out of the market. With the price of bits decreasing rapidly, core memory got smaller and smaller, but the nature of its assembly means it was almost always done by hand – all competitors had to do was match the size and win out on labor. Soon, its main market was taken over by semi-conductor chips, which are still used today.

Magnetic Bubbles

Magnetic memory has had strange branches grow off the central tree of progress, and magnetic bubble memory is one of those strange shoots. One guy (who later developed other forms of memory under AT&T) developed bubble memory. Bubble memory never took off in the same way other magnetic memory styles did, although it was revolutionary for its compact size – before the next big leap in technology, people were thinking this was the big leap. It was effectively shock proof! Unfortunately, better DRAM chips took off shortly after it hit the market and crushed bubble memory with improved efficiency.

Anyway, bubble memory worked by moving the bit to-be-read to the edge of the chip via magnets. The magnetic charge itself is what’s moving the bits, much in the same way electrons move along a wire when charge is applied, so nothing is actually, physically moving within the chip! It was cool tech, and it did reduce space, it just didn’t hold up to semi-conductor memory chips. They saw a spike in use with a shortage, but they were so fiddly that as soon as DRAM chips were available again, they went out of style.

Semi-Conductor DRAM – Honorable Mention

DRAM chips are a lot like core memory, in that the device is reading  the state of a physical object to determine what the bit readout is. In Semi-conductor chips, that physical object is a tiny capacitor, hooked up to a tiny transistor, on semiconductive metal-oxide material. Instead of determining magnetic state, the device is instead checking if the capacitor’s discharged or not. No charge = 0, yes charge = 1. These chips aren’t technically magnetic, but since they’ve killed so many of the other options, here they are!

DRAM stands for Dynamic Random-Access Memory, and it means that the memory can be accessed randomly instead of linearly. As long as the computer knows where the data’s stored, it’s able to pull it without pulling other files first. They’re still being sold today!

Magnetic Disk (Hard Disk Drive)

Hard drives work more like tape than core memory. A Hard drive is a platter (or a stack of platters) with a read-write head hovering above it. When you want to save data, the hard drive head magnetizes areas in binary to represent that information. When you want to read or recover that data, the head interprets these areas as bits in binary, where the polarity of the magnetized zone is either a zero or a one.

The zones of magnetization are incredibly tiny, which makes hard drives one of the more demanding memory forms out there, both now and back then.

Early hard drives could suffer from ‘de-magnetization’, where a magnetic disk’s domains were too close and gradually drew each other out of position, slowly erasing the information on the disk. This meant that the disks had to be bigger to hold the data (like everything else at the time) until better materials for data storage came along. Even though they held more capacity at launch, they were passed over for smaller and more stable stuff like tapes and core memory. The very early drives developed by IBM were huge. Like, washing machine huge. They didn’t respond to requests for data very quickly, either, which further pushed reliance on tape and core technology.

Over time, hard disks improved dramatically. Instead of magnetic zones being arranged end-to-end, storing them vertically next to each other created even denser data storage, enough to outcompete other forms of media storage entirely. Especially small hard drives also come with a second layer of non-magnetizable material between the first layer and a third layer of reverse-magnetized ‘reinforcement’ which keeps the data aligned right. This enables even more data capacity to be crammed into the disks!

Some time in the 80s, hard drives finally became feasible to use in personal computers, and since then they’ve been the standard. SSDs, which don’t have any moving parts whatsoever, are beginning to gain ground in the market, but they can’t be truly, irrevocably erased like hard drives can due to different storage techniques. Hard drives are going to stick around a while, especially for the medical and military industries, as a result!

Sources: (all primary sources regarding carousel memory are in Swedish)

Why Does it Feel Like CGI is Getting Worse?

Elizabeth Technology March 9, 2023

CGI, or Computer-Generated Imagery, is exactly what it says on the tin. A lot more qualifies as CGI than you might think – even phone filters could be considered CGI. So why, when there’s so much of it, does so much of it look bad? Especially by theoretically multi-million-dollar movie studios? Have we passed its peak?

More of It

Firstly, there’s just more of it than there used to be. CGI was a sparing supplement, and usually pretty expensive, so painted mats, painting the film itself, and practical effects used to be the way to go. This wasn’t always ideal: practical effects are often expensive, and can be very frustrating for actors on-set! Dave Bautista’s Drax makeup (from Guardians of the Galaxy) could take two hours or more to put on. Jim Carrey’s Grinch was much the same. The process is so agonizing that it often takes special expertise to coach the actors through it until filming is done so they don’t literally go insane. To minimize the human suffering of the actors, CGI can be used in scenes where they’re not especially prominent, or where a scene may damage the makeup and they’re unwilling or unable to put in a double.

Even better, CGI allows for insane visuals that couldn’t be made with practical effects. The Mummy series features things that can’t be done with practical effects – scarab beetles, for example, don’t move as fast as the movie portrays, nor do they run in floods together. Huge sandstorms don’t exactly have human faces in them all the time either. 

Not to mention backgrounds! Where previous generations of moviemakers were forced to use painted mats and real sets, greenscreen technology has gotten so good that it’s almost difficult to tell when a movie is using a greenscreen as a background, given the background could be a real place and not outer space.

 CGI also opens the door for newer, more dangerous-looking stunts. Before, clever editing of the film would be necessary to make a larger-than-life stunt possible. Now there’s CGI! The end of John Wick 3 featured a sequence too dangerous for Keanu Reeves or a stunt double to perform, and so CGI was used to make it look like John Wick flopping around. CGI may win actors where stunt doubles don’t. While some admire Tom Cruise’s willingness to do his own stunts, others call it too risky. During the shooting for one of the more recent Mission Impossible movies, Cruise broke his ankle after landing a jump wrong. This delayed production, even though the release date wasn’t changed, and he revealed that his ankle still wasn’t quite right after the movie was completed. By saying the studio doesn’t want anyone doing a particular stunt, they may have convinced him to stop trying. Similarly, when animals are featured in movies, it’s unethical to put them in situations where they feel like they’re in danger because they don’t have the cognizance to know a stunt is just a stunt. A Dog’s Purpose rightfully got a lot of flack when it actually used the real dog actor in a simulated white-water river (simulated as in a fake river with real water) to get the shot. CGI animals may not always look the best, but it’s better than potentially traumatizing a real, living creature.

Overusing It

All of this has become faster and cheaper than doing it the ‘real’ way. Obviously filming in space would be prohibitively expensive, and a number of movies are downright impossible to make with an actor in makeup or a puppet instead of a CGI rig. The technology has improved quite a bit! However, that doesn’t make CGI a fix-all, even though studios are often treating it as such. For example, Dr. Strange: Multiverse of Madness received criticism online for it’s cheesy-looking CGI in places a quality prosthetic would have sufficed. Screenshots of the movie vary between Marvel-worthy and something out of Spy Kids. A staff member of one of the CGI teams working on Endgame reported that the studio filmed an actor in the wrong suit, and instead of refilming the scene, they were asked to CGI the right suit over it. In fact, a huge number of scenes with suits in them have the suits CGI’d over to make them look more polished! The entire movie is shot knowing there’s going to be CGI assisting difficult tricks of lighting and iffy props the actor isn’t allowed to see to prevent spoiler leakage. The final filming of Infinity War is known for how hard the studio worked to keep actors in the dark – green screens with limited direction, actors standing on their own to recite lines, key plot components shot out of order to keep said actors from piecing the story together – a common conspiracy is that by doing this, Marvel is making it impossible to tell who has a bit part and who’s carrying the movie, thus making it harder to negotiate for better pay when the contract can still be negotiated. Speaking of pay…

More of It, For Cost Savings

CGI studios are not often unionized. They make less money, so they cost less money, and because they don’t have to be physically on-set, they can be physically located anywhere, including countries with significantly lower cost of living. Hiring a CGI studio located outside of the U.S. can free up additional funding to spend on the actors themselves, or on the things the studio positively cannot outsource.

The problem with this is that it’s shorting every party and forcing them all to work for less money than they’d be paid in a fair environment. Stunt workers require insurance. Fun fireworks for explosions require insurance and a lot of specialized expertise so nobody goes deaf or dies. Do you know what costs less? CGI! CGI explosions often don’t look as good as the real thing, but they cost less. If the story is good, fans are often willing to overlook an over-reliance on CGI where it’s unnecessary, which encourages the studio to do it more. They’ll put fake dogs into spots where real dogs could have gone, safely, because it saves them money on animal handling in the long term! To protect animals from accidents and cruelty, the animal has an agent that’s meant to vouch for it. That agent makes the real animal cost more. The studio sees this as a cost to be cut, not part of doing business. When every corner is cut, it starts to affect the way the movie feels for the worse. Actors talking to empty air don’t have the same presence as actors talking to other actors, or handling real props, or wearing something real that’s going to be digitized in post.

Again – you cannot film in actual outer space, and Rocket Raccoon could not be recreated with a real raccoon, but Sebastian the Rat is so endearing in the re-make of Suicide Squad because he’s a real rat. He’s not CGI. The same goes for Marley, in Marley and Me. Even if it makes the animal’s appearance cost more, their onscreen charisma is often worth it, if only the studio can be convinced.

More of it, Faster

The studios have become so accustomed to cheap, quick CGI that they consistently give the studio less time than they really need to render something to perfection. The CGI in that new Dr. Strange movie could have looked better if the CGI professionals were given more time to polish it, but releasing in the right season for the right price kept them from doing their best work. The CGI is meant to shortcut the practical effects specialists and assorted animal or explosives handlers out of the equation, and once it’s out of slack, it starts cutting into itself. It starts looking worse!

CGI looks worse not because it’s somehow gotten worse, it looks worse because big movie studios are using it to take shortcuts where no more shortcuts can realistically be had.

Moderator Bots: Do They Work?

Elizabeth Technology February 28, 2023

In a world of ever-growing conversations and large forums, moderating manpower is in high demand. Websites turn to bots. Is that really the best idea?

Children’s MMOs And Overzealous Bots

Poorly configured bots will spot curse words in other words, so bot configuration is especially important to prevent kids from reverse-discovering a curse word. Kid’s games with open chat are notorious for this issue, even though they should have more attention and care put into their bot moderation than anywhere else. That’s the problem: they’ll go to extreme lengths to protect these children! The people programming auto-moderator bots get overaggressive and say ‘no exceptions. None.’ to their bots. Context doesn’t matter, if it sees a combination of letters that add up to a curse word, then it has to be removed before other children see it. This, however, causes problems.

If someone tries to type ‘assess the situation’ they may end up with a message that says ‘***ess the situation’. They can confirm or deny words their friends told them were actually curse words by bouncing it off the chat filter. Children may be naïve, but they aren’t stupid!

Moderator bots were also trained to spot curse words separated by spaces ‘l i k e t h i s’ later on. This isn’t a bad idea – it just has to be more delicately configured. People will do their best to worm around content filters, and if spaces work, then they’ll use spaces to curse out other players. The problem is that such machines frequently doesn’t understand the context of the letters surrounding it, and you get “Ay* **mells weird” instead of “Aya Ssmells weird” from some little kid’s typo.

The irony of all of this is that it creates a reverse censor effect – clean words seem dirty because the bot’s censored them, words like ‘Assassinate’, or “Scattered”, things kids might use in a game. Typos under this system turn into a fount of forbidden knowledge. People will worm around bot moderators, but – especially on children’s forums – it’s important that the bot understands context, at least a little. If it can’t do that, a human teammate is necessary to whitelist weird word combinations as they appear.

Paleontology and Oversized Profanity Libraries

There are many bones. And if you were going to single out a specific bone (in the context of paleontology) just to cause problems, which bone would you pick? The censor library picked the pubic bone, alongside a host of other totally normal words like ‘stream’ and ‘crack’. There were curse words in the library too, but, of course, like most normal, professional conferences, the curse words did not appear nearly as much as the other words used in completely scientific contexts.

As in the children’s MMO example, it wasn’t an innuendo to say ‘the bone was found in a stream’ until the censor library did the equivalent of adding the flirty wink emoji to the end of the statement. Since tone can’t be conveyed over text except by word choice, the computer choosing to single out a definition for ‘stream’ and apply it to all uses is what made it a dirty word. Besides the words with no connection to actual profanity, pubic bones do come up quite a lot when talking about fossils, because it provides information about how fossilized animals would walk. The pubic bone is the ‘front’ bone in the pelvis: two-legged animals have a differently shaped one than four-legged ones, and animals that walk totally upright like humans have differently shaped ones than animals that ‘lean forwards’, like birds.

Why make a moderation bot too strict to have conversations around? They didn’t make the bot! The conference organizers were using a pre-made program that included its own profanity library. Buying a software that includes censorship already baked-in sounds like a great idea! If applied correctly, it can save everyone time and prevent profanity from appearing where it shouldn’t, even anonymously. However, ask two people what profanity is, and you’ll get two different answers. Everyone has a different threshold for professional language, so it’s better to build a library of the ‘obvious’ ones and go from there based on the event. The best censoring software is the kind you don’t have to use. Professional events are better off stating their expectations, before frustrating their attendees with a software that causes more harm than good.

Weaponizing Profanity Filters

Twitter had a bit of a kerfuffle involving the city of Memphis. People using the word Memphis in a tweet got a temporary ban. Then, a rash of baiting other Twitter users into using Memphis hit once word got around. Memphis getting users banned was the result of a bug, but the incident itself highlights issues with profanity filters. It’s possible to bait people into using banned words, especially if they aren’t inherently a profane word when used out of context.

For example, some online games will filter out the very real countries of Niger and Nigeria, to prevent misspellings of a racial slur from evading a deserved ban. Why would North Americans ever be discussing African countries over a game set in Russia, after all? But, by including them, they’ve created a way to troll other players without saying anything profane (in context). Baiting another user into answering questions about the countries will result in them getting banned, not the question-asker. The person who answered now has to contact the human support line to get unbanned, or wait for their timeout to end, which is annoying and inconvenient for them. The anti-profanity filter has been weaponized!

Building a positive culture around a game takes a lot of effort, and profanity filters are an integral part of keeping arsonists and trolls out. Nobody should feel targeted in game chat for reasons outside the game. However, just like with every example mentioned here, humans should be on call to un-ban and un-block users who were genuinely attempting to answer a question. Err on the side of caution, both with the software and customer support.

Are Bots a Cure?

Short answer: no. Most good moderation teams have at least one human on them in case the bot screws up. Preferably, they’ll be able to respond to ‘deleted comment’ or ‘banned user’ complaints right away. Even better, if the bots are configured well enough, they’re not going to be jumping the gun often enough to take a team!

It’s just very difficult to make a bot that understands people well enough to understand every instance of bad language.

If you’re running a forum and you don’t want people using profanity, you will censor the profane words. A bot could do that. But then there’s things like LeetSpeek, where users will spell the colloquial name for a donkey with two fives in place of the ‘s’s. Do you ban that too? Sure, you could add that to the bot’s library. But then they change the A to a 4. Do you censor that too? If you do, people will push to figure out what is and isn’t acceptable to your bots, and they will. Not. Stop.

And then there’s things like homophones! TikTok, a popular video app, has a fairly robust profanity filter for text. Videos with curse words and sensitive topics in them are noticeably less popular than ones without those words, due to TikTok’s algorithm.  However, people making videos on sensitive topics use phrases like ‘Sewer Slide’ and ‘Home of Phobia’ to evade the bots. The bots, then, have not stopped anything. These conversations will happen no matter what TikTok’s moderators want, and banning the word ‘sewer’ is only displacing the problem. If you don’t want users discussing these things on your site, you’ll have to have human moderators at some point.

Language is dynamic, and bots simply can’t keep up. It takes real people to study languages – why wouldn’t it take real people to moderate it online?


Curb-Cutting Effect In Software

Elizabeth Technology February 23, 2023

Certain design choices make software easier to use – and there’s no reason not to use them.

What is the curb-cutting effect?

Most sidewalks have a dip in the curb, where the concrete comes down to meet the street. This is designed for accessibility: people in wheelchairs would struggle to cross the street if the curb didn’t do this. They could even be injured trying to get up and down over the curb, or rolling along in the street til the next loading ramp for a business intersected with the road. However, the dip also makes life easier for everyone on wheels – baby carriages, skateboarders, bicyclists, roller-skaters, etc. don’t have to dismount and carry their transportation over the curb. Elderly folks, able-bodied people, and people suffering from conditions like drop-foot can now aim for the dipped curb as well to make tripping less likely. The curb being carved out has benefited everyone, even though it was only put in place for the people in wheelchairs.

Accessibility features, when done right, can benefit everyone, not just the people they were made for. This is the curb-cutting effect in action!

Menu Design

Good, clean, accessible menus benefit everyone, not just sight- or mobility- impaired people. The faster and easier it is for someone to find information, the less likely they are to leave the site. How many times have you tried to find something specific on a website, only to give up and Google it again to find it, on the same website? For example, say you’re looking for a local museum’s hours. They have a drop-down menu along the top, but the options are only there when you hover.

You see information about the exhibits, you see information about the team, about the funding, about the history of the museum itself, you see where to buy tickets or make donations – but the hours are nowhere to be found. You give up, turn around, and instead of engaging with the website, you engage with Google to find the hours. This is obviously annoying for the end-user, especially since that info may be outdated! For people with dyslexia, people with cognitive delays, and sight-impaired people, it’s nearly impossible to navigate, and they end up calling instead.

If your website is really, really big, it’s better to include a table of contents menu instead of a dropdown. You can get more specific about what exactly is in each section, so users can navigate the site faster. If your website’s pretty small, a menu that just brings the user to the right point on the page may work – the user can get there either through scrolling or the menu, so they can Ctrl + F to find the museum’s hours. This also helps users in a hurry to find info!  If your website’s pretty medium, a solid, non-retreating, clickable menu is more helpful than ‘hover’ menus. All of these options also have the benefit of making the website easier to use on mobile devices!

Readable Text

Screen readers are a popular choice for blind and seeing-impaired folks, but a critical problem they face is images of text rather than plain text the reader can read. Unfortunately, a lot of information is lost when the image also contains text, like screenshots of tweets or memes with the caption built in, and text captions can give at least some of that information back. Captions help screen-readers out tremendously, and make websites like Reddit, Facebook, and Tumblr, which all use a lot of pictures, more accessible to the blind. However…

Readable text is also easier to copy-paste, easier to cite or quote, and easier to search for. If you remember part of a quote from someone on LinkedIn and want to share it elsewhere, for example, you’ll probably search for it on Google and see if the website crawlers can find it. If that quote was shared in a photo, the website crawlers won’t be able to find it – there’s no text for them to read. You’ll be forced to either plagiarize (don’t do that), drop the quote, or scroll through your feed til you find it. All of that could be avoided if the person had captioned their photo.

Closed-Captions and Transcript Options

Text captions aren’t just for the blind with screenreaders. Many deaf and hard-of-hearing people can lipread, but many more can’t, and some would just rather not if other options, like captions, are available. Besides, lipreading isn’t perfect anyway. Think about shows where someone’s saying something off-screen, or mouths are covered, like Cops, or Grey’s Anatomy. Captions make these shows watchable for people who don’t want to spend half a show guessing what the person with the surgical mask is saying.

Captions also help hearing people. If you’ve learned a language in a classroom setting, including captions, even if they’re also in that language, helps comprehension. Captions make it possible to mute a training video in the office and still gain the information, without disturbing coworkers.

Transcription options are another great example. Most adults read faster than they can speak – a transcript that takes five minutes to read may take ten or fifteen to speak out loud. When a website has no textual information about a video they’re hosting, it suddenly takes 20 minutes of video to gain information that could be read in seven minutes, without the annoying stop-start of rewinding to critical information, watching it forwards again, rewinding when you can’t figure it out, rewatching, watching further to see if they mention it again, etc. etc. It’s so much more efficient to have a transcript. Transcripts also allow readers to use Ctrl + F if the transcript is digital, so singling out specific lines of information are easy as pie.

Besides video-tutorials and learning material, choosing poorly while audio-mixing will make captions mandatory. Tenet was an entirely different movie when there were captions. I’m not joking, important information was completely incomprehensible the first time I watched it, and I’m not hard-of-hearing. Captions were only way to get all the information out of the movie!

Better Mouse-Input Technology

Part of the reason so many things behave themselves with gaming mice is because of accessible software. Not everyone has the strength or dexterity to use a mouse and keyboard, so software designers comply with the ADA by making the software take any generic input as a mouse click, if previously set by the operating system. Things like on-screen keyboards further help people with limited movement, and voice-to-text or voice-commands enable folks like Stephen Hawking to communicate and control their surroundings better.

Game designers took the idea a step further and allowed users to key-bind to any set of keys they like. Players that only have enough mobility to reach half a keyboard, or use a thirteen-button gaming mouse, alongside people going for speed records and people on small desks, can now set the buttons to be on a half-board if they so desire!

Those onscreen keyboards also help if you’re using your laptop as your media center and have it semi-permanently hooked up to a bigger screen. Are you going to get up off the couch to look up a video on Youtube? With the onscreen keyboard, all you need is a Bluetooth mouse, and you don’t have to get up anymore!

These software choices are not only good for ADA compliance – they also make your website more pleasant to use!


Could AR ever be used in an office setting?

Elizabeth Technology February 16, 2023

Home Offices

A home office is often a place of respite. Quiet. Calm. Personalized organization. Companies looking to save money on renting a space may go for work-from-home solutions, no matter their size, and even people who work in an office may still choose to make an office space in their home, whether that’s just a desk in the corner of the living room or a whole spare bedroom, because it makes paperwork and keeping important documents organized easier. In essence, the idea of a home office is incredibly customizable and flexible. If you call it your home office, and it’s not superseded by being a dining room table, it’s a home office.

So, when Zuckerburg announced plans to make ‘virtual offices’, many people were put off, but many more were intrigued. A home office is obviously not a perfect substitute for the kind a business rents out to use, for better or worse. Could Meta Company somehow improve it?

Fun and Games

What Zuckerberg presented combined the worst aspects of VR Chat, the worst aspects of Slack, and the worst aspects of the headset itself. The headset is designed to make you feel like you’re actually seeing a different environment when you move your head, and it does it so well that a percentage of people with VR headsets report headaches – the brain is receiving conflicting information that it can’t sort out, and it doesn’t like that.

The virtual office concept allowed you to look across a virtual desk with a virtual keyboard to see your virtual colleagues, who could perform gestures and small expressions to indicate some sort of feeling. The thing about this system is that it’s annoying – the benefits of being work-from-home include not being in the work office, and being in your home office physically but not in spirit pretty much cancels that out. Under this system, other users could theoretically tell when you’d stepped away – the feeling of being watched in the work office was fine, but it wasn’t in the home office, where workers expected to feel like they were in their home and not in the panopticon.

Walmart Too…?

So many of these ideas seem to think that adding a need to traverse a 3D virtual space somehow improves the idea of a virtual experience. Walmart thought that you might miss actually walking up and down the aisles when they premiered their virtual solution to online shopping, which is by far the worst part of going to a Walmart Supercenter. They added physics to items so your avatar could grab them and put them in the cart instead of just clicking buttons, which makes shopping take longer and also increases the risk of the application bugging out on you. They offered to link up to your smart fridge, so they could remind you that you already have milk in there while you’re grabbing it in the app, allowing you to confirm that you did in fact mean to grab more milk, adding a prompt to do so. The entire idea from top to bottom seemed to hope that you’d spend more money if their app made you work more.

This is not the way VR was meant to re-invent the office, or the remote shopping-experience, or any experience that’s annoying or difficult to do. When customers are shopping in person, the other people are part of the experience (especially in small towns). When they’re shopping over an app, the customer has to be able to find what they want as easily as possible, with as little friction as possible, and it doesn’t get much simpler than searching for an item in a search bar and hitting ‘add to cart’. It’s the worst of both worlds.

It’s almost as if they’re trying to retroactively come up with stuff for the headset to do that they already have easy access to, vs. actually researching and developing programs specifically for VR. VRs shine brightest in games because of the way they function, but if Facebook’s CEO doesn’t believe in the future of games as a product, then there’s going to be a lot of running around trying to make other products more game-like so they’ll fit better. Walmart’s VR demonstration felt like dozens of games, across all genres, simulating everything from stocking shelves to driving trucks. It’s bizarre to try and use it as a virtual world that’s just as boring and simple as the real one – if you’re going to have a virtual Walmart or a virtual office, surely you can do something more entertaining with the surrounding environment than one that the user can already go visit at almost any time? That’s completely the wrong feeling, but it’s the one VR sinks into most naturally, because it’s the only real justification for the product being sold.

There’s room for AR, but not like this!

The Need for Miracle Tech – and Easy Promises

Elizabeth Technology February 14, 2023

Theranos promised to revolutionize medical testing as we knew it. Entrepreneurs pedal semi-permanent Bluetooth implants to the investors on Shark Tank on a fairly regular basis. The promise of a hyperloop killed the California high speed rail, and a juicing machine that pretty much just squeezed liquid out of a bag (instead of, you know, juicing whole or cut fruit) was just barely laughed off the table. Bizarre startups litter the investing landscape.

The message is clear – if a business can simply over-promise, if it can pretend that its product is going to somehow revolutionize their market, even if it’s clear that they could not possibly meet the standards they set, they’ll make sales right up until they’re hit with fraud charges. 


In the 80s, a movie about time travel came out. It pictured an optimistic, comfortable world where flying cars were commonplace in 2015. Before that, Star Trek depicted a world in which humans had advanced so much as a society that famine and homelessness were a thing of the past, and now we traveled space as researchers and adventurers. Before 9/11, there was a real sense that peace could be permanent and progress would be a natural result.

Even outside that window between the Cold War and the Iraq war, there have always been people shooting for the stars when it comes to technological advancement. Children used to die semi-regularly of smallpox, measles, diabetes, and more, but through the steady work of people who weren’t doing it for the money, hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of lives were saved. People have always said ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’ and found ways to improve living. They’re still doing it now!

And it’s not just ‘noble’ tasks like discovering new antibiotics or ways to treat polio – when tech companies first made home computing possible, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were heralded as revolutionaries, doubly so when the iPhone came out and totally changed the way people thought of their phones. It seemed to many like we were already living in the future. With the phone in your hand, you could access the entirety of the internet and learn anything you wanted to. With Twitter, you could hear from people all over the world, and oppressive regimes were powerless to stop dissenters from talking online about the injustices they were facing.

And there were apps, apps that could do anything! Apps for banking. Apps for dog walking. Apps for games, apps for gambling, apps for hotel renting, apps for car parts, apps for shopping, apps for points – the phone enabled a new generation of convenience items to enter the market, and culture changed around it noticeably, with classes popping up to teach people of all ages how to code and make their very own apps. If you could dream it, you could make it, and if you could make it, you might be able to sell it.

The Plateau

However, not everything can be a revolution in its field – it’s just not possible. The labor and research that goes into a new vaccine or a new type of computer is back-breaking work, usually done by entire teams of people. The adoration of the masses does not come easily… or does it?

Sometimes a figurehead is owed a lot of the credit, and of course new devices are allowed to be pricey: the first iPhone was fairly expensive because it was a total revolution of the technology, and without Steve Jobs to guide the team, it might not have come about so quickly … the iPhone 14, it’s descendant, is so expensive now because of the Apple branding combined with a lack of computer parts caused by a global pandemic. That is artificial. The physical storage isn’t increasing, either, because cloud storage handles that for users, often without them asking it to. Apple is not re-revolutionizing the market because it lacks a visionary at the helm, and re-inventing a wheel with minor upgrades is a more stable source of profit than trying to make a bicycle next.

Similarly, with the benefit of hindsight, Elon Musk coming out with a flamethrower and a giant boring (as in hole-cutting) machine were cool, but… the Cybertruck hasn’t hit the market, Teslas are pricier than other EVs for a less-tested product, and he continues to self-sabotage every time he hits the ‘tweet’ button, which is screwing with stock prices across the board. If the product is so good, why are nonsense tweets affecting its stock price so much? That’s weird! It’s almost as if the stock is so hyped because Musk was talking directly to consumers as a wannabe Tony Stark, not because it was actually worth that much, and now that he’s not cool enough to wear the Iron Man suit anymore, the hype and the stock price are retreating.

Of course, snake oil has always been a thing – but the modern age gives these people a platform like no other. The result is that groups of people have once again become vulnerable to buying something because the person selling it is charming, and promises their product can fix your life and save the world. Holmes and Musk wanted to be the next Jobs and Gates, but both managed to fumble it – if they had ‘it’ at all.

The Downhill

Charisma is ruining business ventures. Messaging that supporting a cool product makes you cool and trendy means that the people who desperately want to be cool will buy it. Musk selling flamethrowers, for instance, was cool because it made him out to be a sort of libertarian Iron Man, and that messaging followed to his cool, powerful, futuristic cars. His lack of experience in manufacturing was more than made up for with his edgy, I-Did-This-All-Myself-And-I-Tweet-About-It-Too persona. Elizabeth Holmes with Theranos spun GirlBoss energy in the same way up until it came time to actually deliver, and it turned out the product was a bust.

Products can start good but screw it all up later, too! AirBnB was a revolutionary model for people who wanted to do cool stuff away from their home city without paying hotel prices. Users could rent out a spare bedroom, travelers who didn’t or couldn’t get a hotel room could crash somewhere theoretically safe(r) than their car, and the company would scoop some fees off the top for connecting the two. But now, AirBnB may be partially responsible for a lack of buyable homes on the market – for a minute there, it was stupid not to buy a house and then flip it for AirBnB users to rent out, which yielded the income of a hotel room for the price of a monthly mortgage.

In doing so, it totally flubbed up housing in areas where tourists come year-round to visit. Worse, the company itself wasn’t really making money those first few years, so now it’s jacking up fees to get a return, which means the AirBnB renter is now incentivized to nickel and dime the rentee with cleaning fees and the like. What was revolutionary is now deeply annoying and expensive for everyone involved. Hotels have returned as a cheap option, not because their prices went down, but because everyone else went up trying to save their businesses.   

The Pit

“Charming” and “Revolutionizing” are both becoming a short road to “incomplete” and “fraudulent”. On TikTok, there are multiple accounts that have sold some new cool food item to followers only for that food to turn out to be unsafe somehow. Pink Sauce, the most popular, was a condiment that was allegedly so good you could totally drench chicken with it, but when customers bought it they discovered it was just pink ranch that hadn’t shipped refrigerated. The label on the back was misleading at best and totally incorrect at worst, too – the designer had used ‘angel numbers’ in place of actually calculating the number of servings in a bottle of the stuff. Chef Pi, the mind behind it, went from GirlBoss to meme material as her confidence was revealed to be arrogance.

The Juicero, a juicing machine set to launch in the late 2010s, started as an idea for a simple, mess-free way to get fresh juice. Then the scope increased when the company said it could deliver the packets of juice-able fruits and vegetables as well. It turned out that the machine was underpowered, so the packets would have to be filled with fruit bits cut up pretty finely so the machine could still squeeze juice out, and to ensure the user wouldn’t break the machine trying to squeeze something too hard for it, the business owners added a QR code system so the Juicero would only work with fresh, Juicero brand packets. This came to a head when online folks bought packets and demonstrated that you could get the juice out of these packets by hand, meaning the machine was as good as irrelevant, and Juicero refunded it’s kickstarter supporters.

The list goes on. NFTs that don’t actually do anything. Eco-friendly products that use more plastic than their alternative. Vehicles that paywall factory features. Computers that won’t let you repair them yourself. All designed to separate you from your money more efficiently.

This is the pit: the product was expensive garbage trying to frame itself as revolutionary, and because people want to be optimistic and believe in a clean, chrome future where they can have fresh juice at the push of a button, or ranch in an appealing shade of pink, they buy it. Or, if they’re younger, they don’t get that the person selling the product is not actually their friend, and that they don’t need to buy it just to support them. There are revolutions happening in technology right now, but it’s not happening because Musk bought Twitter or because any one person is better than everyone else – these things happen as a matter of team effort, and when charismatic individuals try to make themselves out to be Iron Man, they end up embittering a lot of people when it turns out that they’re not anything close to it.

There’s always reason to be optimistic. Just don’t be so optimistic that you mistake a Roomba for a full-service robot butler.

Cartrivision – Another Attempt to Curtail Home-Viewing

Elizabeth Technology February 9, 2023

Cartrivision was the very first tape system to offer home rentals. It was introduced back in 1972, and didn’t see very much mainstream success – you had to buy an entire TV to play the tapes, and some of the tapes were not rewindable.

You may have actually seen them before, in the cliff notes of a documentary: the 1973 NBA Game 5 Finals were recorded, but somehow every other recording method except for a Cartrivision tape failed or was lost, so retrieving the information stored on the tape became the obsession of the documentarian. The documentary even won an award.

What makes Cartrivision so special that just recovering one warranted a documentary?

This Was Super Expensive

As mentioned before, the Cartrivision player came built into a TV, and TVs were already expensive. The result was a device that cost the equivalent of a decent used car (about 1,300$ in early 1970s money, or about 8,000$ today). This, understandably, meant that the market for these devices was already kind of niche. But wait, there’s more! As an added expense, most of the fictional stories available for Cartrivision devices were rental-only, and only non-fiction could be purchased to own. This meant you couldn’t build a catalogue of fictional stories for home use after you made this huge investment for the machine. Why not just ‘keep’ them, you may ask?

Because the Cartrivision tapes came with a built-in mechanism that prevented home machines from rewinding the rental tapes! Rental tapes, much like Flexplay discs, were denoted by a red cartridge. Unlike Flexplay, you could only play them once. You could pause them, but never go back. The movie studios were worried that Cartrivision could disrupt the movie theater market, and as such the Cartrivision people had to be careful not to make things too convenient to avoid spooking the people providing them their IPs. They were the very first, after all.

Perhaps You Went Too Far

The company discontinued their Cartrivision manufacturing after a little over a year, thanks to poor sales. Users generally don’t want to pay twice for something, and the red tapes were just not convenient enough to warrant buying a specific (and very expensive) TV for a lot of families. Cartrivision then liquidated their stock, but a large number of tapes were destroyed thanks to humidity in one of their warehouses, making them even harder to find today. Cartrivision TVs were suddenly cheap enough for tinkerers to buy and modify themselves, and many did – there are few or no original, mint-condition Cartrivision TVs on the market that aren’t also broken.

Additionally, Cartrivision tapes come in a strange size, even though the tape itself remains fairly standard. They were custom-made for one specific machine, so they were allowed to be weird in as many ways as they wanted, but as a result they are incredibly finicky to work with if you don’t have one of Catrivision’s proprietary watching machines. If you didn’t get a Cartrivision during their liquidation sale, you’d have no reason to buy and preserve their proprietary tapes.

Speaking of the tapes, the company started selling the red tapes, but not the machine they used to rewind them. There were less to start with, anyway. Home Cartrivision fans had to take apart the cartridge and physically rewind the tape themselves to watch their content. Magnetic tape is fragile, so this would never be a permanent fix, and it came with the disadvantage of damaging the art on the box to reach hidden screws that held the case together. Even untouched ones degrade over time in ideal conditions, getting sticky and brittle inside the case, which makes them unplayable. There are, effectively, no working Cartrivision tapes left. Not without a lot of finagling. The people who rescued the NBA game ended up trying a bunch of things from freezing the tape to baking it and scrubbing it with special cleaners, and after everything they had to do quite a bit of digital touchup with a computer even after they got it to play – anything less profitable or historic recorded to Cartrivision tapes alone may very well be lost to time.

Just like Flexplay, the red plastic left behind by Cartrivision is a warning: if it’s not better than what’s already out there, customers aren’t going to go for it.

Interactions Scams: If You Don’t Like it, Then Don’t Click the ‘Like’ Button!

Elizabeth Technology February 7, 2023

Interaction scams have been around for as long as interactions have been measureable. From early Facebook’s insistence that clicking ‘like’ will somehow magically make a picture change when you refresh the page to early chain letters demanding you forward the text to ten other people, somebody always wants your attention.

We should know this – how does it keep happening?

I Promise I’ll Hurt You If You Don’t Like This Image

The early digital chain letters were usually texts or emails that were threatening in some way. “If you don’t send this letter to 10 other people, Sawako will come get YOU!”, or things to that effect. Occasionally, one would promise something positive or lucky, but people are far more likely to spend their energy avoiding something bad than moving towards something good, so the ominous ones spread further and lasted longer.

Then it became possible to block them both on email and phones. That didn’t kill them – plenty of adults and elderly folks are still shuffling around more modern versions of the positive ones in the hopes of spreading some joy to their grandkids and friends, and meme compilations are plenty popular among the Facebook crowd – but it wasn’t the straight ticket to virality that it used to be.

Around this time in the early 2000’s, things began to change on the internet. Websites began experimenting with voting systems alongside their chronological ones, and places like MySpace and Digg sprung up among the forums and chatrooms that comprised a lot of the early ‘social networks’.

This is where those chain letters evolved – posts began insisting that if you didn’t share, like, or upvote the post, something bad would happen to you. Some posts (such as the infamous ‘my child will like this post’ Jesus vs. ‘My child will keep scrolling!’ Satan meme) would call into question the character of the person who didn’t interact, calling them all matter of ugly things to insult them into upvoting the post – thus spreading it further and insulting more people with it.

The positive engagement scammer posts became less and less common, and the good ones that did still circulate were usually something like ‘This is the immunity duck. You are now immune to posts requiring you to share them’, meant mostly for the kids who didn’t know better and the adults with anxiety or OCD who knew intellectually that the post couldn’t hurt them, but couldn’t shake the compulsion to avoid the ‘risk’. Eventually, website users stopped giving these posts the attention they wanted so badly, but accounts still produce them on Twitter and Facebook to rope in the new users who don’t know better and the people who feel compelled to share them. Thanks to websites like Facebook and Twitter using algorithms to sort posts instead of time, these posts still occasionally show up in front of ordinary accounts that don’t reward them in an effort to get traction. They’ll always be there, hovering at the edges, waiting to be let in.

New Forms

Once the negative and overly threatening ones had run their course, the format changed – there was still a demand for interaction, after all. They started suggesting that something interesting would happen if you ‘liked’ or ‘upvoted’ or otherwise interacted with the image or post. Maybe the icon would turn blue! Maybe you’d get some confetti! Maybe the image would do something weird or scary! What do you have to lose by engaging with the photo, if only to see whether or not the like icon turns blue?

 Of course, on websites run by algorithms, ‘liking’ the image means that the website knows you interacted with it even if you ‘unliked’ the image immediately after. The image is convincing you to interact with it to artificially boost its perceived popularity to a series of AIs that can’t tell what it’s doing to get that popularity. A similar phenomenon led to the most controversial, annoying, or incorrect videos getting pushed to the front of Youtube’s recommended page because of their system’s belief that any engagement is good engagement – including dozens and dozens of people correcting the contents of the video or arguing below it in the comments.

Similarly, hack channels have gotten to a point where they’re beginning to bait ‘debunking’ videos into using their videos because they’ve completely run out of new or interesting content to make. This shift towards making things ridiculous on purpose has not curtailed their views, not only because the content is still bizarre enough to entertain kids, but also because savvy viewers will run to the comments trying to keep those kids from hurting themselves. That’s what’s especially cruel about many of these hack channels: their bright colors, snappy transitions, and goofy actors appeal to children and keep them engaged… while they also showcase hacks that have injured and killed kids who didn’t recognize the danger in, say, heating oil in a soda can to make popcorn, or modifying electronics so they’ll do something funny or strange, or cooking eggs in the microwave (even outside of their shell, eggs can explode if you do that because the yolk and white cook at different speeds!).

The people engaging with the video are doing their best to stop other people from getting hurt, but because the algorithmic machine rewards engagement, their frantic screaming trying to save other people from wasting their time or money (as well as trying to save them from burns or electrocution) is only heard as cheering by the AI.

Onto the New Platforms

This version of the engagement scamming continues on in video-sharing apps like TikTok, which should be beyond it – the problem is that Gen Z did not get the same education into online matters that millennials or even Gen-Xers did. Gen Z children grew up in the world of the iPad and Windows Defender – they are not as naturally skeptical of downloads and scams as they would be if they’d grown up in the era of malicious LimeWire.EXE downloads disguised as MP3s. In general, Gen-Z is less cautious because their devices have safety rails built in, and they never have to lean on them anyway because the world has consolidated into a few streaming services and social media apps, none of which are going to download malware onto their phones. The kids younger than them may not even learn how to type in school – they’ll be given Chromebooks and be expected to figure it out themselves with experience off of whatever device they have at home, which is taken as a given.

All of this is to say that just because they grew up with the tech doesn’t mean they’ll be able to spot obvious engagement bait, and the early proliferation of videos on TikTok asking people to hit the three dots (which is where the information needed to share the video is) without giving a reason, and then later by telling the viewer that something wacky would happen, is evidence of that. In its early days, that could be taken as a result of the app itself being new and not a sign of the new generation having to re-learn these lessons: one party clearly understands how to game the system, and the other party is not certain yet that TikTok doesn’t do that. What if TikTok does shoot confetti when you like a video? What if it does turn the heart blue sometimes? What if it’s a glitch? Etc. But as time went on, and it became clear to users that TikTok was not some dinky little app that happened to make it overseas, they should have stopped. They didn’t. The userbase falling for those tricks en masse were too young to like Facebook or Reddit before those scams became obsolete.

And that’s not the only trend that carried over – videos stating that “If you see this video on (The Date They Posted It or a Day Later), it was meant for you” encourage viewers to watch the whole thing by drawing out the speed at which the slides switch. This is a simple but clever reimagining of the chain letters promising something good will happen, mixed with classic fortune telling tricks. Convince someone that they are meant to watch the entire video (which means your video is ranked more positively) and give generic advice at the same time. For the people it applies to, this reinforces the feeling that they were supposed to see this video, watch it, like it, and share it with other people – they associate the positive feelings they receive from being acknowledged (even digitally, by a stranger who couldn’t possibly know they were watching) with the video. It’s how IRL psychics work, too, and this particular trick works across the entire age spectrum so long as the person watching is receptive to that sort of spirituality. By evolving to incorporate new tricks, the engagement scam has gamed the system once again.

Will It Ever Stop?

As long as there are entities willing to beg shamelessly for votes or likes (or manipulate people into giving them those things) these chain letters/videos/images/reblogs/retweet chains will continue to evolve alongside whatever new trendy social media springs up next.

If you want to see less of them, don’t even downvote or hit the dislike button – block the accounts responsible and move on. You can only counter these accounts by not providing them their fuel – engagement.  

Can a Metaverse Manage to Be Engaging?

Elizabeth Technology February 2, 2023

Cryptocurrency and NFT communities have long tried to provide some benefit for investment. Everything from cartoons to video games to virtual parks and chatrooms are thrown up in the air as rewards for reaching investment goals, and sometimes they do actually manage to make something.

However, just because there’s a lot of money behind any one project doesn’t mean the project is going to come out well.


The company formerly known as Facebook is not the only ‘Metaverse’. Taking that name for itself was sort of like a car company calling itself “The Sedan Maker”, or a Call of Duty game calling itself “First Person Shooter Game”.

Decentraland, for example, has a metaverse of it’s own. It actually recently had an article pop up on Byte discussing the metaverse it had created – 38 individual Decentraland members had interacted with the site over the course of 24 hours. Decentraland was quick to clarify that the number the website Futurism had seen was just the number of users who’d interacted using their crypto wallets – the actual number of people who’d logged on to chat or look around was a much more respectable 8,000 or so.

Still, it showcases an opacity problem: nobody except the people in the project can really tell what’s going on. Open-multiplayer style games and places are much more fun when other people are hanging out in the game, so if potential users see that report and not the 8,000 number, they may be less likely to join. Facebook has not done a great job of advertising what you can actually do in the metaverse outside of walking around. In fact, walking around is such a big part of the virtual world that Facebook’s Metaverse has now added feet to the mix.

It Will Look Good Eventually

The metaverse that Facebook is putting together just doesn’t look very good. To be fair, a number of VR games look ‘weird’ in one way or another, if only because the technology is so new that nobody knows how to make assets for games intended to be shown entirely on curved screens. Facebook’s metaverse is very sterile and plasticky. Decentraland’s looks much the same.

Animations made for trailers for either of these things don’t tend to look very good either, Decentraland because it looks like they used in-house talent to make something with Blender and Facebook’s Metaverse because the avatars that make up most of the virtual world’s draw look like Nintendo Miis, which themselves are a reminder of the late 2000s for a number of Gen-Z, Millenials, and inbetweeners.

Foundationally, the products could be considered in ‘beta’ development. An equivalent in construction would be the stage where the outer walls are up, the floors are installed, but insulation still needs to be blown in and the roof put on. It’s a structure, and people can be inside it, but it’s not really done. If any company doing this stops developing their product right now, nobody would be especially happy with the end result. Facebook’s metaverse is aware of this, and continues to add features – Decentraland and a handful of other crypto projects seem to be pushing the line on what ‘done’ means.

The same goes for a number of projects outside the blockchain, but still tied to a final product. Video games, cartoons, art prints, and more are all in the works and in beta testing, and will eventually look good or be finished, but right now they simply serve as a placeholder for something better… in theory.

Or Maybe It Will Just Be Like That Forever

The first episode of the Bored Apes cartoon swaps between still images of the character’s faces instead of actually animating them. There is a difference – animation usually features a transition between expressions using in-between frames of each face the character makes, so it looks smooth. The Bored Apes cartoon simply went from one still to another without any interstitial frames. It’s an interesting-looking effect, but it is quite jarring – the cartoon’s creators even acknowledged how weird it ended up looking in the second episode of the cartoon, in a moment of meta-awareness. The thing is, though… they’re not going to redo that first episode. It is one of the better cartoon projects created by an NFT (this is not a recommendation to watch it) which is a low bar to cross because other cartoons in that same family end up coming across as edutainment videos for crypto currencies. The trailer for the Decentraland project is not all that different from the cartoon made as a project reward. This is because those groups said they’d produce a cartoon before they had any ideas for a story to tell, and we get these weird half-baked creations instead of something somebody wanted to make.

They have the potential to make something good, but they can’t make something good, cheap, and fast to produce, so they settled for fast and cheap. In the crypto industry, with it’s many rugpull schemes and thefts, projects cannot leave their customers waiting for too long before they start to get antsy about getting their money back. Constant insecurity means constant vigilance for the first hint the project’s creators are abandoning ship. The cartoon better be done before people stop buying!

The Inherent Desire To Save The Money

These websites only being measurable by client wallet interaction is a more perfect metaphor than one I could ever create. The wallet is the only measure other people see because the wallet is ultimately what determines ‘success’ in these rings. It’s the ultimate pay-to-win game. Token holders are expected to shell out on virtual real estate and funny pictures of animals as a matter of clout.

There is a concept in ‘free market’ enthusiasts – if you just let companies and customers wheedle away, eventually, they will make the best possible product that they can for the lowest possible price they can. Ignoring things like inelastic demand, the problem with that concept is that ‘the best product’ is sort of meaningless when it’s A) something artistic, like cartoons and NFTs themselves, or B) something so breathtakingly new on the market that nobody else is there to provide competition yet. These projects get away with producing ugly or bad cartoons and poorly made video games because they have, essentially, a monopoly on the product.

And why would an NFT project want to spend money to make something of quality? When an NFT project offers up a cartoon for hitting participation goals, what is entailed in that? They never said they’d hire writers. They never said the animation was going to be smooth. They haven’t deceived anyone, but they’re monetarily motivated to cut corners and push something cheap and easy out the door. Other crypto products have somewhat tainted the reputation of such technology, and so they have to produce something to avoid looking like a scam, as well.

Essentially, the market is incentivizing guaranteed poor rewards over potentially good rewards, because the timeframe to produce something good can make it look like nothing is coming. Customers are getting burned over and over again.