Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How to Bypass the Wikipedia Blackout

The short answer:

Add "?banner=none" onto the end of the URL, like this:

The long answer (explains how the blackout works and the manual removal):
The Wikipedia blackout brings up a message about Internet censorship over every article you search on the site (except the article for "censorship", of course). This is to draw attention to the SOPA bill that is working its way through the U.S. Congress right now.

Visiting an article, such as "irony":

Causes this blackout message to appear after a quick moment, showing you what you're missing:

The mechanism behind this blackout is a trifecta of changes to the source code after a few seconds:

  1. A style ID is added to the <head> called "mw-sopa-blackout"
  2. All visible content on the page has an inline style applied called "display:none" which renders the content invisible
  3. The blackout message is overlayed on the page using a <div> with the ID "mw-sopaOverlay"

Getting Rid of the Wikipedia Blackout Message

You can reverse all of these changes manually by using a code editing browser plugin such as Firebug. Here's what you need to do:

  1. Open Firebug and look at the very bottom of the <head> section. Click the <style id="mw-sopa-blackout"> code and press the Delete key.
  1. Look near the top of the <body> section for <div id="content" style="display:none;">. Click the "style" part of this line and press the Delete key.

Note: The overlay text from the blackout message still exists, so step 3 is still necessary to truly remove the blackout.
  1. Go to the very bottom of the <body> section. Click the <div id="mw-sopaOverlay"> code and press the Delete key.

That's all there is to it. You can go through and remove all the "display: none;" code if you like, but the article's content should now be visible.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Death to QWERTY

Ever wonder why your keyboard is laid out in such a strange pattern? The letters seem to be randomly arranged, and the rows are placed at strange, off-center intervals instead of being on a neat grid. Even a cell phone’s virtual keyboard has rows that aren’t always arranged neatly. Well, there’s a good terrible reason for that.

How QWERTY Became King

Remington No. 2
Most likely, you’re using a QWERTY keyboard. You’ll know if you look in the top-left corner of your keyboard and see that the first six keys spell out this strange word. The layout has been around since 1878 when Remington released their groundbreaking No. 2 typewriter—which was also the first device of its kind to allow the use of both upper- and lower-case letters.

At this point, QWERTY was the natural evolution of eleven years of typewriter development. The earliest machines used the logical approach of arranging the keys in alphabetical order; unfortunately, many keys that are used in succession were placed next to each other. You may be asking yourself “Why is this a problem?” The answer is something that anyone born after 1980 has never experienced: typebar jams.

Jammed typebars
Back then, being an era in which horses still provided the main means of transportation, each key was connected to a long bar with a reverse cast of the letter being depressed on the end of it. When two keys immediately next to each were depressed at the same time or repeatedly in succession, the arms could get tangled up in each other. Since each key is firing its arm at the same spot on the page, collisions were inevitable. It was a fact of life in the typewriter era, and the only way to reduce jams was to move commonly used pairs of letters apart on the keyboard.

So we ended up with QWERTY, in which common pairs of letters are somewhat spaced out, and very little of the natural alphabet exists (except for DFGHJKL on the home row—a whole string of the alphabet, sans vowels).

These type arms are also the culprit behind the staggered arrangement of the keyboard’s rows. In a grid, type arms would have to go above or below each other. By shifting the rows slightly to one side, type arms could move past the upper rows easily.

The Dvorak Layout

Eleven years is not a particularly long time to perfect a technology—especially not during the heart of the Industrial Revolution. It was inevitable that someone would develop a new keyboard arrangement that made more sense. August Dvorak rearranged the keys in 1936 to create a more simplified keyboard that aimed to put commonly used letters together again. Improved technology ensured that jams were less frequent, so splitting up common letter pairs wasn’t as much of a concern; typing fast and accurately while reducing repetitive strain injuries was the main focus.

Dvorak’s layout allowed a typist to alternate hands and fingers more often, put typical combinations close together, and placed the most common letters in the home row, right in the middle of the keyboard. It was an all-around more efficient layout—when typing in English.

This new layout still used staggered rows, however, to accommodate the typebars.

So why do we still use QWERTY?

A whole mess of reasons have blocked Dvorak’s layout—and any other attempt—from acceptance. When it was revealed, the country was deep into the Great Depression, and few manufacturers wanted to invest in a new standard and change their designs and parts casting. Since no one else cared, no one ever learned about it. Dvorak remained largely anonymous for half a century.

Then in 1985, Barbara Blackburn set a world record by typing an amazing 212 words per minute on a Dvorak keyboard. For a brief moment, the world was intrigued by this unheard-of keyboard layout. It seemed to be the way of the future.

Unfortunately, support fizzled out. Everyone was too used to the QWERTY keyboard and the muscle memories they’d developed over a lifetime of typing on it to take the time to learn a new layout, which brings us to the current state of keyboards.

In America, we tend to adhere to many illogical standards based on antiquity. We measure long distances in miles, miles in feet (5,280 of them), and feet in inches (12 per). These seemingly random numbers contrast starkly with the meter (100 of which equal a kilometer, and they split neatly into 100 millimeters). We don’t make the switch because we’re too conditioned to the system we’re already using. The same can be said about gallons and liters.

But why the staggered rows? Again, it’s the muscle memories responsible for this. Because we are encouraged to learn to type without looking at the keyboard, the keys need to be in precise locations. If we pushed the keys into a neat grid, it would screw up typists everywhere. They’d be hitting the edges of keys, hitting the wrong keys, probably hitting the person sitting next to them out of frustration.

By the time computers overtook the typewriter market, just about everyone in the world was typing, and doing so with QWERTY. Blackburn’s publicity could have been a big push for the more efficient Dvorak layout, but the opportunity was missed.

Software standards began to be developed with QWERTY in mind. Many program shortcuts use the Alt, Cmd, or Ctrl keys paired with a letter in the lower left corner of this layout. (Ctrl+Z, +X, +C, and +V perform the main clipboard functions in nearly every Windows program.) Changing to a different layout would require a major upset in software standards just as much as it would require everyone in the world to re-learn to type. It’d be very much like everyone learning to write with the opposite hand.

This doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice. You can absolutely buy a Dvorak keyboard, and many operating systems allow key mapping that rearranges inputs to adhere to this layout. Virtual keyboards can do whatever they want, so a quick app install on your mobile phone can provide a new layout in minutes.

But hey, those virtual keyboards: Are they even necessary anymore? Since it’s impossible to type with all your fingers on a tiny screen, and a bit of a chore on a tablet, couldn’t we re-imagine text input altogether?

That’s exactly what Snapkeys aims to do. By using a unique layout that fits into four different invisible panels, users can actually input text faster than using a keyboard—and do it with just two thumbs.

If we ditch QWERTY, we’ll be doing ourselves a favor, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Eventually, we’ll need to start doing what’s logical, instead of simply accepting outdated standards.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Incredible True Story of Gilligan's Island

In the Fall of 1964, CBS television had a problem: An open time slot and nothing to go in it. The gap occurred during prime time, and the network was reluctant to simply show reruns of an existing program. They knew that they’d have to show something original if they wanted to hold the attention of the viewing public.

CBS’ executives called a meeting to determine how best to solve the problem. They piled into the board room, holding their scotches and dry martinis. One man stood in the front of the room, casually swinging a golf club and looking at no one in particular.

“What are we going to do, boys?” he asked of no one in particular. Grumbling filled the room as each avoided sticking out his own neck. Finally, someone spoke up.

“Well... we do have that stupid island show. What was it called? 'Mulligan Island'?”

The suggestion sparked the interest of the golf-happy exec, who stopped swinging his club and looked the suggester dead in the eye. “Yeeees… let’s take a look at the pilot for that one,” he slyly suggested. “Have my secretary bring in the reel.”

In a matter of minutes, the group was subjected to a calypso-style theme song describing an inane premise. “Holy geez, screw this!” one of them yelled.

“Who composed this?” asked the boss as he walked over to the reel’s case, reading a name off of the side of it. He turned to his secretary. “Get me Johnny Williams. Now! And get me some vomit bags for the boys!”

Small groans evolved into full-on wailing as they continued to watch the pilot. Sweat poured down their faces and stained their white collars. A few begged for mercy; one passed out from the pain.

“This is terrible!” someone shouted.

“But we don’t have anything else to put in its place!” another countered. “Aaaaraaaaauughhh!

The film ended, its terminus flapping around on the receiving reel. Everyone sat in shock. Finally, the boss hit the stop button. The secretary knocked on the door.

“A Mr. Williams, sir,” she said, cracking open the door.

“Ah, great. Have this reel destroyed,” he ordered. “Actually… hold on to that. Just bury it somewhere.” He greeted the composer with a warm handshake.

“So, Mr. Williams,” he said, looking him straight in the eye, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Johnny didn’t know how to respond. “What do you mean, sir?”

“It’s just that you’ve written the stupidest song of all time,” he countered in a booming voice. “How do you explain yourself?”

Johnny looked down into his hands, cowering slightly. He looked up into the executive’s eyes. “I was contracted by a Mr. Sherwood Schwartz, sir,” he said. “I was to give a quick back story on all the characters in this show to explain the premise so that they could get to the episode with no delay.”

“Ah, so I suppose that’s why these castaways just immediately started building huts and all kinds of silly rubbish, eh?”

“Yes, sir. They hired Bob Denver, that guy from ‘The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.’ You know, the one with the goatee? Well, he’s supposed to play the title character, a dimwitted sidekick.”

“Ah, that makes perfect sense. To be juxtaposed with a dimwitted boat captain, a dimwitted millionaire couple, and some dimwitted secretaries?”

“And the professor!” someone yelled from the back of the room.

“Uh, I suppose so. Yes, sir,” Johnny sheepishly answered.

“I knew I recognized the guy,” the executive said. “We cancelled that piece of junk, and now we’re going to be filling the same slot with the same moron?” He lit a match and puffed on his cigar, looking up at the ceiling.

“Well, you tell this Mr. Schwartz, whoever he is, that we want his crummy show. There’s just going to be some changes.” Someone accidentally emitted a terrified shriek.

“Oh, Mr. Schwartz is highly respected!” the composer responded. “He’s written for Bob Hope, Ozzie and Harriet, Red Skelton—”

Apes could write for Red Skelton!” the executive angrily shouted. “And we want a new theme song. Something that’ll be mercilessly stuck in your head for decades, not some calypso garbage like the thing you’ve composed. That’s how you sell a TV show!”

“Yes sir. I’ll have him contact you.”

A few weeks later, Schwartz had retooled his program, replaced some of the actors, and written a new theme song. Several introductory episodes were shot and edited just in time for his meeting with the hardened board of executives.

He took his first steps into the goliath CBS building and walked up to the secretary’s desk holding a stack of reels. “I’m here for the ‘Gilligan’s Island’ meeting,” he told her.

“Right this way!” she said, standing up and leading him to an elevator. “They’ve been expecting you,” she said, then turned and snorted a bit. Arriving at the top floor, she cracked open a large oak door and stuck her head in.

“Mr. Schwartz is here,” she announced. “You can go right in,” she said, and pulled the door wide open. He walked into a hazy room full of grizzled men staring at him with amusement and contempt. The executive set down his golf club and snuffed out his cigar.

“I hope this is good, Schwartzy,” the executive threatened. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Sherwood queued up the first reel and flipped the switch. Instantly, a completely new theme song filled the room. Its lyrics were punctuated by the sounds of someone gagging.

The executive stopped the reel at the end of the introductory credits. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “Why do we need to fit the entire backstory into this silly theme song?”

Sherwood became defensive. “I don’t believe in exposition,” he said with confidence. “I would like each episode to begin with the viewer understanding the castaways’ predicament. We can accomplish this in just one minute at the beginning of the show.”

“Who wrote this?”

“I did.”

“Oh,” said the executive, caught off guard. “I thought you… looking at you, I would have expected that you’d have better taste.”

Sherwood gave him an angry scowl.

“I like this ‘And the rest’ thing at the end, though. Viewers want to watch this Denver guy, the captain guy, the cranky millionaires, and that hot bimbo. No one’s going to care about the rest of those jerks. Good job.”

He flipped the switch to start up the reel again. The episode played for hardly more than five minutes before a board member fled the room, shouting “I can’t take it!” Several utilized their barf bags.

As the reel ended, the executive looked at Sherwood and flipped the room lights back on. He clapped once. Then again. Then again, slowly increasing the tempo of his clapping. Everyone else joined him until the room erupted into all-out applause.

As it ended, Sherwood couldn’t hide his confusion. “Hey, I thought you hated it? One guy ran out of the room crying, and some of you threw up. This guy was stabbing into the table between his fingers with a pocketknife.”

“Let me tell you something, Schwartz,” the executive began. “In all my years in television, I’ve never seen someone create a program so bad and still win a prime-time slot. Congratulations.”

Sherwood didn’t know what to make of this.

“You see, we’re screwed, my boy. It’s either run your program or air something old and stale. We’d rather keep the time slot warm until next season when we can show something that isn’t more irritating than a cold toilet seat in the middle of a hurricane.”

“Uh… thanks?” Sherwood said. “So you want the whole season, then?”

“Don’t have any other choice. But we’re filming it all on low-quality stock, black and white. None of this fancy color crap. If it’s going to be a stupid empty island, might as well not be modern. But you only get one season!”

Sherwood shook some hands and left the room, off to tell his staff the great news. One season meant 36 episodes! They were going to make a lot of money.

The knock on the executive’s door nearly caused his golf club to go flying out the window. “What is it?” he angrily shouted while biting down on his cigar.

“A Mr. Denver is here to see you,” the secretary said.

“Denver… Denver… where have I heard that name before?” he pondered. “Send him in.”

Bob Denver walked into the room.

“Mulligan!” the executive shouted. “Nice to see you. Here to resign?”

Bob didn’t seem too amused. “No, I’m here to talk to you about the theme song. Have you guys got a few minutes?”

“Yes, yes, it’s terrible. Sit down,” the executive offered. “I told that no good Schwartz not to write that dumb song himself. I mean, it’s catchy. Gets stuck in your head. Drills itself way down in there and makes a nest. But geez-o-pete, could it be any stupider?”

“Oh, it’s not that. I quite like the song,” Bob replied, “It’s just that Dawn and Russell’s characters aren’t in the lyrics.”

“What do you mean? Oh, you’re talking about the rest of those jerks,” he replied. “Who cares?”

“It’s just that it’s only two names. I feel like we can make this work. Instead of saying ‘And the rest,’ why don’t we say ‘Professor and Mary Ann’?” he suggested, singing the notes.

Everyone in the room burst into laughter. Their screaming cackles drowned out Bob’s voice as he angrily looked around the room and tried to further defend his case. After a few minutes, the hysterics died down enough for Bob to continue.

“I’m serious, you guys. Dawn and Russell deserve the respect.”

“Well, that’s not going to happen,” the executive shot back at him. “We’d have to reshoot the entire introduction, which would cost way too much. And the season’s about to end, anyway. Yep, your little show is about to be cancelled.”

“Why would you do that?” Bob cried.

“Because it’s a turd on television,” he said, giving him a big thumbs-down and making a loud flatulence noise with his mouth. “It’s only there to keep the night’s programming moving along.”

“Even though it’s hugely popular?”

Again, the room burst into incredible laughter. “It’s hugely popular!” someone mocked in a high-pitched voice over the roar of shrieking and chortling.

“No, really!” Bob shouted. “Check the ratings.”

The secretary was called in with the week’s ratings. “Yep,” she confirmed, “It looks like this show’s a hit—in all demographics.”

Everyone in the room sat in stunned silence, motionless, their jaws hanging open. Someone suddenly puked under the table.

“So this thing’s bringing in some money, eh?” the executive said. “Well, we’re not going to waste more of it by re-shooting a scene just to add in the names of two fictitious dingbats.”

“Oh, yes you are!” Bob replied.

The executive walked up to Bob and stood right in his face, any trace of amusement completely vacant. “And why’s that, buddy?”

Bob opened up the envelope he was carrying and pulled out a stack of papers, spreading them on the table. His finger landed on a specific line. “See that?” he asked.

Everyone crowded around to look. It was his contract with the show, and it stated that Denver could choose to have his named placed anywhere he liked in the credits.

“That’s right. I can force you to re-shoot the credits,” he threatened. “So you might as well do what I’m asking and add in their characters’ names.”

The executive stepped back and looked at the scrawny actor. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. “Did that no good farm girl put you up to this?”

“No, actually,” Bob replied. “And I don’t plan on ever telling them.”

And so a new season began—in color—with the new theme song.

For two entire seasons, the castaways endured hardships and experienced great adventures. Another 62 episodes made their way to television. The entire production crew hated it. The critics hated it. But for some reason, the general public just fell in love with Gilligan and his band of hopeless acquaintances.

Then, in the summer of ’67, Sherwood Schwartz made his way back to the CBS building, clutching a briefcase and stacks of loose papers falling to the ground. “Here for the ‘Gilligan’s Island’ meeting!” he shouted, bursting through the front door of the CBS building.

He ran into the meeting room and slammed his briefcase down on the table. “Glad to see you all, glad to see you. I’ve got some great ideas for the upcoming season,” he said. “A Skipper lookalike appears on the island in this episode, and in these two we have elaborate dream sequences that involve—”

Not gonna happen!” the executive screamed in his face in a sing-song voice. He then strolled back to the front of the room and lit up his cigar, puffing it and blowing smoke up into the ceiling of the room.

“What do you mean?” Sherwood asked. “Ok, if you don’t like those ideas, I’ve got a great one where the gang builds a cannon out of—”

“Stop, stop, stop,” the executive said. “We’re canceling your show.”

“What? Right now?”

“Yeah. It’s done, buddy. We’re moving ‘Gunsmoke’ to your time slot. So deal with it.”

“What? Why would you do that?” a shocked Sherwood inquired.

“‘Cause President Paley and his wife Babe want it that way. The show’s getting terrible ratings running so late on a Monday night, so we’re pushing it back to your 7:30 slot.”

“Couldn’t you put ‘Gillilgan’s Island’ on later? I mean, they haven’t even been rescued yet!”

“Nah, screw those idiots. No one likes them anyway.” He picked up his golf club and began to swing it, looking several hundred yards through the wall. “We’ll just send out a press release saying they all died or something.”

“They starved to death!” someone shouted.

“They were murdered by natives!”

“They all got really bad syphilis!”

“Yes, yes, any of those would do. Draft that up, Schwartzy.”

Sherwood looked around the room in horror. “No!” he screamed. “No!!!”

He shoved his way out of the large oak door. “No!!!” he shouted, running to the stair well and bursting through the door, stumbling down the steps. He wailed in horror as he descended floor after floor, screaming in disbelief.

NOOOO!!!!!” he shrieked as he ran through the lobby, shocking everyone that watched him screaming and running at full speed, ramming into the front door of the building. The sounds of squealing tires echoed from outside the doors as the maddened writer ran off into the distance.

Sherwood Schwartz went on to produce and write the theme song for The Brady Bunch.

Johnny Williams dropped the “ny” and composed for film, writing the scores for E.T., Jurassic Park, and dozens of other movies.

Bob Denver was arrested for marijuana possession in 1998 after Dawn Wells allegedly mailed a large box of the contraband to his home.

This story is factual to the best of my knowledge and is therefore proclaimed as “true.” Any embellishments are added purely for satirical purposes. This story used the following references with the purpose of being as accurate as possible:

"Gilligan's Isle"
Shales, Tom. "Hey, little buddy! 'Gilligan' DVD drifts into port". The Washington Post, February 8, 2004, page N1.
Stevens, Dana. "Gilligan's Dreams"
Stoddard, Sylvia. "TV Treasures – A Companion Guide to Gilligan's Island". St Martin's Paperbacks, 1996.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Have It Your Way, You Masochist

I'm not generally a big fan of fast food. I like it, and think it tastes good, but there's no denying that it's low quality (unless of course, you're a PR firm representing a fast food empire, in which case it’s perfectly normal to be in complete denial).

Common sense tells us that low quality food should not taste good, but Americans continue to jam the drive-thru every morning and stop in on their lunch breaks. Much of this can be attributed to the “fast” aspect, but people actually claim that they really think the food tastes good. Why?

Flavor enhancers. They’re cheap, effective ways to make food taste better; unfortunately, they generally carry health risks when used to excess. Fortunately for fast food restaurants, your health is not a concern to them.

The mechanism behind flavor enhancers is the activation of the salty, sweet, and umami taste receptors. Everyone is familiar with the bitter, sour, salty, and sweet taste receptors, but umami is a more recently discovered taste that senses and sends a “savory” signal to the brain. Those three tastes stimulate the reward center of the brain, while bitter and sour tastes often carry a negative association.

To make terrible food taste good, fast food restaurants douse their products in flavor enhancers that tickle that happy part of your brain. Here are a few widely used enhancers:

  • Salt: One of the oldest known flavor additives. It’s so cheap that a pound of table salt costs something like 59 cents. I honestly have no idea how Morton’s stays in business when i give them two quarters and a dime once every five years. Unfortunately, salt has also been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. Activates the “salty” taste.
  • High fructose corn syrup: Refining sugar from sugar cane and then bleaching it to make it white costs a lot more than you’d expect, and it takes a lot of sugar to override bitter tastes, such as those found in tea. Major players in the food industry turned to this substitute because of corn subsidies provided by the U.S. government. It has been suggested that it contributes to habits that keep the body permanently hungry, leading to obesity. Activates the “sweet” taste, of course.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG): This white powder tastes bad by itself, but can make just about anything taste more “savory.” As a result, it is widely used in many fast-food-style products. Health consequences have been suspected but never proven. Activates the “savory” taste.

And then there are the fats: Cooking oils, butter and butter substitutes, and all those high-energy (high-calorie) ingredients that combine to make your face explode with happiness. Fast food has always been criticized for its high caloric levels, and as a PR strategy, many companies have decided to go transparent, shifting the obesity blame to the consumer (where it probably belongs). Most of these companies list nutrition values clearly on their websites.

Burger King goes one step further and makes it into a BurgerTime-style game of sorts, supporting their “Have It Your Way” slogan with a meal-making gizmo on their website that lets you create just about anything. I created everything from a hamburger with no buns to a pile of condiments before deciding it would be funny to add everything available, just to see what kind of health nightmare I might face.

I love the way the meat tower blocks the word "nutrition."

The food generator encourages you to “Share Your Meal” with others, or print it out and take it to the nearest Burger King to have them create it, ensuring that you can Have It Your Way. Presumably, they have some way to calculate the cost of your Frankenburger. I decided to print out my thoroughly unrealistic monstrosity and find out how much a 13,670 calorie burger with 876 grams of fat might cost.

“Hello, welcome to Burger King. Can I have your order?”

“Yes, I printed out this burger I made on the website. I was wondering if you could give me a quote on this.” The cashier stared at the printout, then politely asked me what the hell it was. “It’s a burger-maker thing on your website. You build your own thing, then bring it here to have it made, right?”

She had never heard of such a thing, and called over a manager.

“Sir, is this a coupon? I’m not sure what to do with this.”

“You’ve never heard of the burger-maker thing on the website?” I asked. They confirmed that they had not. I was still determined to have it my way, anyway.

“I’ll take a veggie burger—with bacon,” I said, completely ruining the purpose of the meatless patty. I hadn’t done any research ahead of time to see how the caloric content compared, but considering that MSG and salt are entirely flesh-free, I presumed it would be loaded with flavor enhancers.

I went home and built my confused sandwich using the website’s tool; without bacon, I had still broken 1000 mg of sodium and 16 grams of fat. I had truly believed that I was eating healthier, but as it turns out, you can’t even Go Veg at a fast food restaurant and get something healthy. (Note: 1000 mg of sodium in the sandwich alone is roughly half the recommended daily allowance.)

So I guess I can’t really have it my way, assuming “my way” doesn’t involve exacting a slow and destructive toll on my body. Well, you could always go for a salad. Just don’t use any dressing.