Zachary Robinson

I’m a software developer, system administrator, maker, and writer. Read more about me here. Look at my projects here. Read my code here, or my writing here. Connect with me on LinkedIn here, or email me at z [at] robinsonz [dot] me.

Latest Posts

  • How To Talk To Strangers Where No One Can See You

    Today, I’m writing about something that was first used by the Ancient Mesopotamians. It used to be illegal to export under weapons trafficking treaties, and it is frequently bemoaned by law enforcement. It’s also a critical component of almost every electronic device, and without it, the global economy would come to a screeching halt. I’m talking, of course, about encryption algorithms.

  • Facebook’s Outage: The Worst Typo in the History of Typos

    So, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp all went down for about five hours starting at around noon Eastern Time on Monday. Online services have outages sometimes, usually due to a cascading system failure of the type that brought down AWS back in 2017. That outage, which I’ve covered previously, only brought down the storage system in one of 22 AWS geographic regions—which caused plenty of other issues, especially since said region was Amazon’s biggest and oldest—but was still fundamentally localized. Companies like Netflix, which hosts everything on AWS but plans around possible partial outages, stayed fully operational. Monday’s outage, meanwhile, brought Facebook’s apps (the Facebook social network as well as Instagram and WhatsApp) crashing completely to the ground, worldwide. Soon after the dust settled, we had a culprit: the worst typo in the history of typos.

  • Getting to the Bottom of Subway's Tuna Sandwich

    Back in January, you may have noticed articles floating around the web with headlines like “Subway’s Tuna Is Not Tuna” or something else along those lines. These all stemmed from the initial filing of a lawsuit against Subway in federal court with a shocking claim: Subway tuna sandwiches allegedly “lack tuna and are completely bereft of tuna as an ingredient.” The story died down for some time as the plaintiffs waited for their day in court, then blew up again in June after The New York Times sent samples of Subway tuna to a lab for genetic testing and found that they contained no identifiable tuna DNA. The article itself was cautious in drawing conclusions, noting that such a result could have simply been due to the high level of processing inherent in canned tuna (nevertheless, it caused another round of clickbait to ricochet around the internet). There’s a lot more to the story, however. As I discovered while writing this, the rabbit hole goes pretty deep. Before we get to that, though, let’s first dive into those lab results and how they work.

  • What Happened to Nuclear Power?

    Modern society runs on electricity. It lights our cities, runs our factories, and powers the computer that I’m typing this on right now. And it will only become more necessary as we electrify various parts of society that still use oil and gas (cars and trucks, obviously, but also stoves, furnaces, and so on). Power plants, however, are also a huge contributor to climate change, not to mention miscellaneous pollution that is harmful in other ways. But it turns out there’s a power source that doesn’t release any greenhouse gases or pollutants, generates loads of power, and has been in use since the 1960s. That power source is, of course, nuclear power. If the world switched to nuclear (or, more accurately, if we hadn’t stopped switching to nuclear in the 1980s), we would be able to solve a pretty big chunk of climate change. But for some reason, we didn’t.

  • The Linguistics of Texting: Because Internet

    Why do grandparents always text…kind of like this…with the dots…and use them to separate phrases? Why does everyone feel the need to type “lol” even when they’re not laughing? And why does a period at the end of a text message feel so passive-aggressive? I’ve wondered about the answers to these and many other questions, which is why a while ago I picked up Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch.

  • Spend Three Racks on a New Blockchain

    If you’ve been paying attention to the news any time in these past few years, Bitcoin seems like a big deal. A whole lot of people seem to be investing in it, that’s for sure, and the price is going up like crazy with no signs of stopping. Furthermore, the blockchain technology behind Bitcoin has had its own craze, becoming a tech industry buzzword on par with “machine learning” and “big data.” So, should you invest in Bitcoin? I have no idea! But I do know how it works (more or less), and if you read this article, you’ll hopefully also know how it works. Or, more accurately, how it doesn’t.

  • The Phone Numbers of the Internet

    In the scant logic of “hacking” in movies or TV shows, IP addresses seemingly play a big role. Finding an IP address is the key to figuring out exactly who the mysterious hacker is, or how to break into the top-secret computer system, or whatever. This is…mostly false, at least in the way it’s presented in most media, but there are some kernels of truth in there. Let’s start from the top, though: what are IP addresses? Why are they useful? And why would you care, or not care, about hiding yours?

  • Why is Section 230 a Big Deal?

    In the wake of the January 6 attack at the Capitol and the subsequent banning of Donald Trump from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and (apparently) Pinterest, there has been a renewed national focus on the powers various platforms have to control the conversation. Should Twitter be able to ban the now-former president? Should we re-institute a new Fairness Doctrine, the regulation from the 1950s to the 1980s that required TV broadcasters to provide unbiased and honest coverage? The answers are complicated. But politics aside (or at least as much to the side as they can be in a column about laws), what is Section 230, why is it important, and why are some people (from many portions of the political spectrum) calling for its repeal or modification? And what does the Fairness Doctrine have to do with anything?

  • When Jeff Bezos Literally Broke the Internet

    February 28th, 2017. A day that will live in infamy—or not. You probably remember it even if you don’t know the exact date, as it was one of the few days in the past decade that a big chunk of the internet went down for about six hours. Victims included but were certainly not limited to Slack, Twitch, JSTOR, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Kickstarter, Codeacademy, VSCO, Imgur, Vermont Public Radio, Expedia, and—ironically—“isitdownrightnow.com,” a website for figuring out whether other websites are down. Was this the fault of a massive North Korean cyberattack? A distraction so the Illuminati could start rounding up the U.S. population and ushering in the new world order? Actually, it’s all Jeff Bezos’ fault. Kind of.

  • OneCard To Rule Them All: A Very Brief Introduction To NFC

    The Swarthmore campus is full of sounds: the bell tower, the rumble of a train, the crickets at night…and the beep of a OneCard lock on your residence hall door. But how do OneCards and their contactless brethren actually work? The answer lies in a little bit of technical wizardry known as NFC.

  • Hashing It Out: What You Need to Know About Passwords

    In my last article, I mentioned that the best way to protect yourself online is to use a good password manager and unique passwords for all your websites. However, I didn’t elaborate much on exactly why that’s the case. As such, this time on I Promise I’ll Come Up With a Name for This Column Eventually, I’ll be covering the good, the bad, and the ugly of how we log in to websites.

  • Do You Actually Need a VPN?

    “This video is sponsored by NordVPN.”

    After watching several YouTube videos, it’s hard not to have seen ads for different companies (NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Tunnelbear or a million others) full of ominous warnings that unless you pay for their service, your private internet data is not safe on public wifi and that your internet provider can track your every move. But is that actually the case?