Ironic Sans

Beginning in 2006, this was the home of my blog Ironic Sans. It was popular for a while, mentioned in lots of media, and was a creative space for me to share my thoughts and ideas. But over time, blogs became less popular and my thoughts and ideas moved to other places.

But now, I’ve relaunched Ironic Sans as both a newsletter and a video series. You can watch the series for free on YouTube, or join Nebula to see my work plus videos by lots of other smart people all without ads or sponsors, and support some hard-working creators while you’re at it.

Here is the most recent episode of the series:

For posterity, I’ve left a static archive of my original blog below.

The Ironic Sans Newsletter

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April 2, 2022

This is now a static archive of Ironic Sans

Please subscribe to the Ironic Sans Newsletter

In early 2022, Ironic Sans was hacked and completely wiped out. I had been running on an old platform so it's not surprising it was vulnerable to attack.

I thought about converting it to a more modern platform. However, over the past couple years I relaunched Ironic Sans as a newsletter, which is where I do most of my public writing now and which many of you already subscribe to. And if you don't, you should subscribe to the newsletter here.

So I decided that instead of rebuilding the website from scratch with a modern platform, I would restore it as a static website, in order to maintain an archive of what was here and no break any inbound links from other sites that have linked to me over the years.

At some point I may revive the website again. But in the meantime, I leave this here for posterity. Please join me over at the newsletter!

January 20, 2019

How to Join a Social Network in 1998

In 1998, I got an invite to what many consider the first online social network: (deceptively, that link will take you to the Wikipedia article about the website and not the website itself; I have no excuse). The invite came in the form of a lengthy email with instructions on how to join. I could either use the website or actually do the entire process via email, adding my friends using a peculiar and precise format in the body of the email. The subject of the email was simply the name of the person who had added me as a friend.

I came across the invite recently so I figured I’d share it here as a curious bit of internet history. It’s interesting that in 1998 they had to actually explain why someone would want to join such a thing. Here is the full text of the email with light redactions:

Name: David Friedman
E-Mail Address: [my old email redacted]
sixdegrees Password: stopsock

Hi. You’ve been sponsored as “Friend” by Rachel [last name redacted] as part of something called sixdegrees, one of the fastest growing phenomena on the Web, located at

You may have already heard of the six degrees of separation concept - where everyone on the planet is connected to each other through fewer than 6 people. Well, we haven’t quite connected the whole world yet, but there are over a million people participating, and over 900,000 of them are connected in one giant chain.

And, just by confirming your relationship with Rachel, you can instantly tap into this interconnected community of interesting people from all over the world.

So what? Well, by getting connected, you can come to the Web site (which is completely FREE) and use a whole variety of valuable, fun and intriguing services that make use of this massive chain of connections.

You can come see who’s logged on the site right now and when you find someone interesting, we’ll show you exactly how you’re connected no matter how many degrees it takes, and then you can instant message them.

You can also find out how you’re connected to that head of personnel at the big firm where you’ve been trying to get your foot in the door.

You can chat with people from around the globe and then see who you know in common.

You can post burning questions on your own personalized bulletin board and get valuable answers from your “circle” (your friends and friends of friends).

You can even get Movie recommendations from the people you’re connected to.

So, stop by the site at to learn more and give it a try. (You can log in with this password: stopsock).


You can also get things started and get yourself connected right from this e-mail:

** To confirm your relationship with Rachel, just send a reply that says only CONFIRM on the first line of the message body

* To deny this particular relationship (but keep open the possibility of joining sixdegrees if the concept intrigues you) send a reply that says only DENY

* And, if you’d like to make sure you don’t hear from us again (even if somebody else you know lists you as a contact) then simply send a reply which says REMOVE in the SUBJECT LINE so we can process your request right away

Thanks, and we look forward to seeing you at sixdegrees.


And, if you’re really ambitious, you can get your network of connections growing right away. Just list the people you think might be interested in participating in sixdegrees and we’ll contact them with an e-mail like this one which mentions your name and invites them to join.

Just follow these directions:

* Click your mail program’s REPLY button.

* On the FIRST line of the message body of the reply e-mail that opens, type only the word CONFIRM to let us know that you are in fact Rachel’s Friend.

* On the next line of the message body list the first and last names and e-mail addresses of the people you’d like to invite (you can list as many as you’d like - but we recommend you list at least two), and the relationship numbers that correspond with how those people are related to you.


* That the first name, last name, e-mail address and relationship number are separated by SEMI-COLONS.

* You follow the format of these examples:

John; Smith;; 12
Jane; Doe;; 3

* And that you define each relationship by choosing a number from this list:

1=wife 2=husband 3=life partner
4=significant other 5=mother 6=father
7=sister 8=brother 9=daughter
10=son 11=other family member 12=friend
13=employer 14=employee 15=co-worker
16=client 17=service provider 18=business contact
19=fellow alum 20=acquaintance

We look forward to hearing from you!


PLEASE NOTE: All replies to this address are processed by a computer. If you have any problems, questions or requests send an e-mail to and you’ll receive a prompt and courteous response.

And, if you’d like to review our privacy statement just visit


sixdegrees is Registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.


The website sent out weekly emails with your stats and some ideas for making the most of the network. I opted out after receiving five of these “member updates”. In the last one, these were my stats:

Total 1st degree contacts: 4
Total 2nd degree contacts: 13
Total 3rd degree contacts: 22
Total 4th degree contacts: 93
Total 5th degree contacts: 281
Total 6th degree contacts: 2368
Total 1st-6th degree contacts: 2781

Messages posted by you: 0
Responses to your postings: 0

August 31, 2017

The Mystery of Why Uber Gave Me 77 Free Rides (or, How I Accidentally Gamed The System)

For about two and a half years, Uber kept sending me free ride credits. I just went through my receipts and counted 77 free rides in total, averaging one every couple weeks. Then they suddenly stopped. All that time, I never knew why I was getting them — why look a gift horse in the mouth? — but once they stopped I put on my detective hat and did a little digging. I’m pretty sure I’ve solved the mystery. Follow my story and see if you can figure it out.

When I joined Uber in 2011 I was given the opportunity to create any referral code I wanted as long as it started with the word “uber” (I think they still let you do that, actually) so I just added my initials to it and made the code UBERDF figuring that would be easy for me to remember. I might have given it out to a couple people, but then pretty much forgot about it.

Then in late 2013, the trickle of free rides started. I’d get an email saying I earned $10, $15, or $20 in credit because someone took their first ride using my referral code. At first I assumed someone I gave my code to in 2011 finally used it. Then when more free rides came in, I wondered if perhaps my code was on some list of Uber referral codes that may have been circulating. I didn’t really think more about it. I just accumulated my free rides in my account, ready to use when I needed them. It was great. Sometimes I even forced myself to use them instead of the subway, since they would eventually expire otherwise.

I casually looked into whether this was happening to anyone else. The closest thing I found was an article about a guy who placed online ads for Uber using his own referral code and got hundreds of free rides that way. Uber found out about his scheme and took them away. So I was glad that my trickle of free rides was a slow drip that was unlikely to get their attention.

Then, around January of 2016, they stopped. At their peak I was getting 2-3 free rides a week. And then nothing. I couldn’t be too upset that I had to start paying for something everyone else paid for, but I was curious what happened. And since I wasn’t getting any more free rides anyway, I was no longer afraid to look into it.

Continue reading “The Mystery of Why Uber Gave Me 77 Free Rides (or, How I Accidentally Gamed The System)” »

December 19, 2016

How Postage Stamps Are Made

I just completed a nice little mini-documentary about the design of US postage stamps. The US Postal Service has four Art Directors who oversee the stamp designs, and I worked with one of them to make this video, Antonio Alcalá of Studio A in Virginia.

June 25, 2016

Sunday Magazine is back. With a twist!

Hey, everyone! Longtime readers (and if this is still popping up in your RSS feed, I’m not sure there’s any other kind) will remember that I used to run a side project called, where each week I posted the most interesting articles from the New York Times Sunday Magazine exactly 100 years ago that week, usually with some commentary about its relevancy to today. I even wrote an article about it for Slate.

Well, when I had kids, I lost time for those sorts of side projects, and I put SundayMagazine on hiatus. In the meantime, I’ve had occasional requests from people who wanted to pick up the mantle, and I’ve considered handing over the reigns. But it never worked out. Until now.

SundayMagazine is now being run by Jesse Rifkin, a DC-based journalist. I’m sure his taste in articles to highlight will differ from mine, as will his writing style. (He’s probably a much better writer than I am). I look forward to seeing where he takes things. Check out his first post, introducing himself to readers. And then add (or re-add) SundayMagazine to your reading habits.

The website:
The twitter: @sundaymagazine
The Facebook:

(Please note that SundayMagazine has been dormant for nearly five years, and is in serious need of updating. Some things may be broken. We’ll fix things as we go.)

August 25, 2015

Inventor Portrait: Alan Adler (AeroPress; Aerobie)

It’s a new Inventor Portrait! Alan Adler, inventor of the Aerobie Flying Disc and the AeroPress coffee maker, tells the stories behind his famous inventions.

I confess I actually completed this a year ago, but hadn’t posted it for a variety of reason. It’s great to finally share it.

July 8, 2015

My Letter From Oliver Sacks

I’ve just written a longform article for The Morning News about the time I got a letter from Oliver Sacks. But it’s about so much more. It’s a little bit science, a little bit personal essay, and a tiny bit biography. I’ve never fully told this story before, and it’s the first time I’ve shown anyone the letter.

Go read it!

June 11, 2015

A short documentary about a street puppeteer, his craft, and an unconventional friendship

How has it been so long since I’ve written anything here? Is anyone still reading me? If so, I have something new to show you. I’m really proud of how my latest short documentary turned out.

It’s about Ricky Syers, a street performer in Washington Square Park, and his friendship with Doris Diether, a local community activist who spends a lot of time in the park. The two of them are so endearing, and a couple of real New York characters. Check it out!

October 28, 2014

Idea: Pop Culture Twitter Lists

It’s been five years since Twitter introduced Lists and frankly I never found a use for them. It’s not that I don’t see the value in curated lists, but I never remembered to look at them, preferring to watch my complete stream of tweeters, signal, noise, and all.

But I finally came up with a use for them. So without further ado, here are a bunch of Pop Culture Twitter Lists you can follow, in apparently random order, with notes about what you’ll find there.

(You can also see them with nicer formatting but without the notes, and easily to subscribe to them, here on Twitter).

Am I missing your favorite cast that’s on Twitter? Let me know at @ironicsans and maybe I’ll add it when I get a chance.

(Wow, a bulleted list of links sure highlights how dated my site’s design feels)

Update: I’ve since added…

May 6, 2014

New York City photographed with the Game Boy Camera in 2000

Back in 2000, I was playing around with a Game Boy Camera, trying to use it to take color photos. (I finally got that to work.) When I first got the camera, I took a walk through midtown taking pictures. I just came across the images and thought I’d share them here for posterity (scaled up to 200% for visibility on our fancy modern displays).

Rockefeller Plaza:

The New York Public Library:

A Giacometti statue at MOMA:

A slice of pizza:

A park bench:

Toy taxis being sold on the street:

A subway car speeding past:

A subway passenger:

Another subway passenger:

Selfie sporting a goatee:

March 26, 2014

How Captain America Got His Stripes

With a new Captain America movie about to be released, I think it’s time I tell the story of when I was 14 year old, and I saved Captain America from appearing on the cover of a Marvel comic without his famous red and white stripes.

The year was 1989. I was a huge comics nerd, and a big fan of artist Todd McFarlane. At first I thought his style was weird, with too many lines on elongated faces, but it quickly grew on me. He was making an appearance at a local comic shop in Phoenix, so of course I went. I got there early and stood in a long line. And once I made it to his table, I hovered.

I’m pretty sure I hung out at his table for two hours, asking him question after question while he signed comics for people who I hope I let get their own questions in. He never let on if I bothered him, and I felt like I was spending quality time with a huge celebrity.

Todd (I can call him Todd now, right?) had brought in some photocopies of artwork he’d recently finished for upcoming issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Among them was this cover of issue #323:

I noticed something was wrong. “Where are his stripes?” I asked.


“His stripes. Captain America is supposed to be wearing a blue chainmail half-shirt over a red-and-white striped long sleeve shirt. But this doesn’t show any stripes.”

As I remember it, Todd then said something like, “Oh my God! I have to take care of this right away! If I don’t fix it, the colorist will do it, and he’s going to mess it up!” and then he pulled out his cell phone to call Marvel HQ right away. But of course he didn’t have a cell phone in 1989 so my memory must be wrong. I think it actually went more like this:

“Oh, no. Thanks for catching that. I need to get that artwork back so I can add the stripes myself. If I don’t do it, the colorist will, and he’s going to mess it up.” And then he wrote himself a reminder note on the back of the photocopy.

“How would the colorist mess it up?”

“He might not follow the contours of Cap’s body. He’d make the stripes too straight.”

“Oh.” I beamed with pride that I found a mistake and he seemed to appreciate it.

A few months later, the issue came out, and I was glad to see that Captain America had his stripes. But I was a little sad that nobody would ever know how he got them.

Bonus: Here’s an awesombarrassing picture of me and Todd the first time we met, a summer earlier at Comic-Con 1988:

I can’t believe in Phoenix he acted like he didn’t even know me.

February 21, 2014

House of Cards Season 2 Opening Credits Comparison in Animated GIFs

Are you watching House of Cards Season 2 on Netflix? Did you notice that they changed the opening credits since Season 1? There are still 37 time-lapse shots of Washington DC, and the cuts are in all the same places, but almost half of the shots have been changed. In some cases, the new shot is a slightly different view of the same place. In others, it’s a radically different view, or a different time of year, or a shot of a completely different location altogether. The time-lapses were shot by District 7 Media based just outside DC. They did a beautiful job. Let’s see what’s changed between seasons.

The following are all comparisons of the images. In all cases, the top image is Season 1 and the bottom image is Season 2:

Shot 1:

Shot 2 (are those the same clouds? Same time of day? Same cars? I think this might be the same shot recolored.):

Shot 3:

Shot 4:

Continue reading “House of Cards Season 2 Opening Credits Comparison in Animated GIFs” »

February 18, 2014

Idea: A sign at the top of Mt. Everest

[This post is part of an idea dump.]

Is anyone heading up Mt. Everest soon? I have an idea. Put a sign at the top for future travelers that says “Thank you Mario! But our princess is on another mountain!”

Idea: A new automatic setting for cameras

There’s a rule of thumb for long lenses and shutter speeds: to handhold a camera without noticeable motion blur, your shutter speed should be no slower than the inverse of your focal length. So for a 50mm lens, you can safely handhold at 1/50 of a second or faster. If you have a long telephoto, like say a 200mm lens, you shouldn’t try to handhold at slower than 1/200 of a second.

But what if you’re using a zoom lens, and your focal length varies from one shot to another as you capture wide shots and close-ups to tell the story of whatever you’re shooting? Wouldn’t it be great if your camera had a setting to automatically adjust your shutter speed (and appropriately your aperture to maintain exposure) when you zoom so your tight shots are still nice and sharp?

You already have an aperture priority mode that adjusts your shutter speed if you change the aperture, and a shutter priority mode that does the opposite. So why not add focal length to the automatic equation, too?

It will not be useful in all situations, of course. In dim light, your lens might not be able to open up enough to compensate for the loss of light when the shutter speed increases as you zoom. But in other situations, this setting could be just the thing that keeps you taking sharp photos instead of smeary messes.

November 5, 2013

Check out this creative teenage hip-hop artist in Nashville

I don’t usually link to other people’s stuff on here. But when I stumbled upon this guy’s videos on YouTube and saw that they only have a couple thousand views, I thought he needed a larger audience.

His name is Matt Morris. I first saw him starring in this funny video that came out shortly after the iPhone 5S was released. It shows off some of the phone’s new video features in a creative and amusing way, and features catchy music that’s actually remixed from the iPhone’s built in ringtones:

Out of curiosity, I Googled to see who the heck this Matt Morris guy is and that’s when I found his YouTube channel. I didn’t know until I hit play on the first video that I was going to hear him rapping, and it turns out his lyrics are really clever, and his videos are quite nicely produced.

Take for example this video about that angst of not being sure your night out with a pretty girl is a date:

And the songs are really catchy. Here’s “Regular Guy”, which you’ll be singing along to before it ends:

I think some of my favorite lyrics are in “Art Official” which was Matt’s first video. “Lost my keys in the Prius now I’m in the car diggin’. / Lookin’ like my grandpa in my cardigan.”

What impresses me about Matt is that he’s only nineteen years old but he has the skills, confidence, and tools to do something like this. The songs are funny, catchy, and inoffensive.

Oh, and he has collaborators who shouldn’t be overlooked (and probably should have been mentioned sooner). Matt writes the lyrics, but the music is by Ben Worley (who also did the remixed iPhone ringtones tune). The videos are by Nick Serban.

I asked Matt for his story and he said, “Right now I’m just a 19 year old kid in school and working and hoping something happens with the music. Lived south of Nashville my whole life. That’s the story in a nutshell I guess.”

October 9, 2013

Interview with me on the “Unprofessional” podcast

I’m the guest on this week’s episode of Unprofessional, the podcast where Dave Wiskus and Lex Friedman have conversations with people about anything other than their profession.

Okay, we talk about my profession a little bit. But we also talk about ideas, hotel service (perhaps a little too much), and John Turturro’s daily routine, so if any of these things sound remotely interesting, give a listen below or check out their website where you can also hear previous episodes.

Thanks for having me on!

October 8, 2013

I wrote it, you made it: A Spoiler Tag

Well that was fast. On Thursday I proposed a new standard HTML tag for redacting spoilers. It could be customized with an expiration date (for things that don’t need to be redacted long term) and had some other features I’d like to see.

Well, it’s not an HTML standard yet, but Google Engineer Michael Ashbridge did come up with a way for people to add this feature to their own websites using Google’s Polymer library.

Check out his demo to see what his implementation looks like and how you can use it.

Awesome. Now do any of my readers have a contact at the W3C?

October 3, 2013

Idea: A Spoiler Tag

I think HTML needs a <spoiler> tag. Compliant browsers would automatically redact anything contained within it.

For further granularity, you could have support for <spoiler kind=”XXX”> where XXX might be “Breaking Bad” or “US Open” or “Cheers Final Episode” or whatever. Then when you visit a page, your browser would note at the top: “Warning: This page contains spoilers for Breaking Bad, US Open, and Cheers Final Episode” with an option to redact some or all of those things.

Your browser could remember your preferences across websites, so if you chose to redact spoilers where kind=”Breaking Bad” on one site, that will be the default behavior on other sites until you turn it off in the spoilers preferences, which keep a running list of spoiler kinds you’ve encountered.

September 10, 2013

Idea: Content-Sensitive Transcription Formatting

We all know that WHEN SOMEONE TYPES IN ALL-CAPS it’s interpreted as shouting. So why shouldn’t it work the other way, too? Now that everyone has devices capable of transcription in their pockets, maybe we can work on making transcription easier by using vocal tones for formatting cues.


If I only shout one word of a sentence, it should be italicized, especially if it’s an adverb.

Someone must be working on more seamless formatting of transcription, right? Nuance, the company which makes the speech recognition engine behind Siri, has a feature in their own software that they call Natural Punctuation, but even that’s limited to just automatic periods and commas.

Could we have a setting that automatically interprets upspeak as an indication to end a sentence with a question mark?

What other kinds of formatting could be managed easily by changing your inflection rather than your content?

July 29, 2013

HeadBlade Inventor Todd Greene

I started losing my hair way back in college. I went through some years that were not very attractive as I tried to figure out what to do about it. But I never shaved my head. If the HeadBlade had been around at the time, I might have given it a try. Todd Greene invented the HeadBlade as a way to make head shaving easier, but has since built the brand into a whole line of head care products. His original HeadShave design is now part of MoMA’s permanent collection. Here’s a video portrait of Todd Greene talking about the origin of his product and the process of bringing it to market:

See more episodes of my PBS INVENTORS series here!

July 3, 2013

Douglas Engelbart (1925-2013)

I’m sad to learn that Douglas Engelbart, father of the computer mouse, passed away today. I spent an afternoon with him and his wife Karen in 2009 photographing him at home and work as part of my inventor portraits project. He was charming, even flirted with my assistant. I will have more thoughts to share, but for now here are a few photos from my shoot with him.

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