Web Directions @media 2011 Hot Topics Panel

A panel I moderated at Web Directions @media in London in May 2011.

Jeremy: Okay, welcome back everyone. Thank you all for joining me for the final talk of the day. This is the Hot Topics Panel.

Hands up how many of you have been to an @media before? Okay, so most of you know the drill, that I assemble a team of people here and we talk bollocks for an hour, and it’s good fun.

I have solicited questions ahead of time on my blog; I actually opened up comments. I know! …and I got some questions from that, so I’ve collated a few of those. If you have been asking on Twitter, that’s good. If you’ve handed me scraps of paper, that’s even better; thank you very much.

At this point, it’s too late to start tweeting questions to me because I’m not going to sit here and check Twitter while I’m conducting a conversation. However, I will be opening this up to you guys, because it is all about you. We need to know what are the hot topics on your mind; what do you want to know about, and I think we’ve assembled a pretty good team here to be able to answer those questions.

I have two people from the design track and two people from the development track, so it’s an equal opportunities panel.

Furthest over there, we have Brian Suda who’s living in Reykjavik, Iceland, who is an informatician and speaking today on data visualisation. He’s also been signing his book out front which I highly recommend that you buy. I was honoured to be asked to write the foreword for the book, so that’s the best bit.

Brian: The easy bit.

Jeremy: The easy bit. It’s a great book. I highly recommend you check it out and very happy to have Brian here.

And I have Mr Bruce Lawson. The legendary, the infamous Mr Bruce Lawson, who works at Opera Software but mostly I would say he works for the web. He’s all about the open web and standards, man. I’m delighted to have him join me here.

And then here we have Relly Annett-Baker, who’s just finished speaking on content and history and everything; that was mind-blowing, it was wonderful. Relly and I used to be kind of neighbours when she was living down in Brighton, but alas, she’s moved a little further afield now, so it’s good to see her again. It’s great to have her here on the panel.

And finally, I have the one, the only Douglas fucking Crockford on this panel.

I’m sure you’ve all seen Chuck Norris facts, right? Have you seen Crockford facts? It exists. I’m not kidding. He has his own facts site all about him.

It is an honour to have him. The inventor of JSON—the discoverer of JSON, I would say—and all ‘round smart guy and author of JavaScript: The Good Parts.

Alright, so I have assembled some questions, like I say. I thought I’d kick off with some easy ones. What’s your favourite colour …in a hexadecimal value please? No, not quite that easy.

I’ve got some nice questions through my comments on my blog, from Nicole actually, Nicole Sullivan, who you will be seeing speaking tomorrow. She wanted to know—this is a nice easy one—“What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen done with CSS3?” But actually I’m going to broaden that and just say, what’s the coolest website you’ve seen recently? What’s the website you’ve seen recently that made you go “…ooohh, that’s cool!”

Who wants to be first? If you can’t think of one, I’ll dive in and lead the way.

Okay. Has anyone seen Space Log? It’s awesome. It’s basically taking the transcripts of the Apollo landings, putting them online in a beautifully designed way. The interaction is lovely. It was all built in a week in a dev fort. It’s wonderful. Hannah Donovan who’s speaking tomorrow is one of the people behind that. Absolutely great stuff. Totally addictive! I was just going to spend five minutes looking at it and half an hour later, I’m scrolling through again. Made me remember how great the web can be. And it was all about telling stories through data, through design.

Okay. That kind of thing. What have you seen lately?

Brian: I was going to say, one of the most interesting ones with CSS technology was the Nike website. As you scrolled down, the different pieces would spin at different parallax speeds.

Jeremy: I know the one you mean. I believe it’s not CSS only. I think there’s still JavaScript required to make that happen. And there was another one recently from the Stamen guys, that was using a similar technique, sort of vertical parallax stuff. Pretty neat.

Bruce, you got anything?

Bruce: Coolest CSS one I’ve seen is Lea Verou’s site—who spoke here earlier—because she’s got some kick-arse demonstrations on that.

Jeremy: Right, so she’s got the demos of the different sort of textures made with CSS3.

Brian: I’ve seen them

Jeremy: Yeah, it’s awesome, so do check out Lea’s site; it is awesome.

Bruce: Probably leaverou.me?

Brian: There’s some very nice tartan plaid in there.

Bruce: And the other cool site I’ve seen is one I used in my talk, which is JackDrawsAnything.com. There’s a six year old lad whose younger brother’s been in and out of hospital, so to raise money to the hospital to say thanks, he offered to draw anything you asked him to draw, for a donation. I had him draw a slide of DRM for my talk because I didn’t have an interstitial. He was aiming to raise £100, and he’s raised 20 grand, so that’s pretty cool. JackDrawsAnything.com, and his dad’s a developer.

Jeremy: It’s a bit like child labour, but still.

Bruce: It’s a lot like child labour, but it’s for a good cause, so we’ll not report it to the authorities or Esther Rantzen.

Relly: The thing that I love about that story is that he opened it up for donations, I saw an interview about it, he’s just having a book published; he’s got a book deal around it as well to raise more funds basically and put all the pictures, collate all of the pictures. He opened it up saying, ‘hey, send me requests’. Within two weeks they had to close it because he had over a thousand requests. The kid only …he’s like at school, he’s got holidays, so at the moment he’s done around 620 of them. They estimate he’ll finish by the end of the summer holidays. He’s doing about five a day at this point, bless him.

Jeremy: Like a very specialised Mechanical Turk.

Relly: Very much so. And the pictures are brilliant, really good.

On that note, one of the things that I’ve really liked recently is irkafirka, which is …you can re-tweet something to the irkafirka account, and they pick a tweet each day to draw a picture of it and give imaginary context. A similar thing was Exploding Dog, where you used to be able to send in text messages and things. But irkafirka do one every day, and they’re really, really funny. Anything like that really tickles me where they take something and re-mould that content and turn it into something new.

Jeremy: There’s a bunch of guys doing that but they’re creating a cappella harmony versions of tweets. They pick random tweets and then perform a cappella harmonies of that tweet.

Relly: See? The web is fucking amazing!

Jeremy: What have you got, Doug? Beat that.

Douglas: I saw a website that has pictures of cats and they’re doing funny things and then there’s a caption and it’s mis-spelled and it’s really funny ‘cos cats can’t spell.

Jeremy: You are so ahead of the curve!

Bruce: I haven’t seen that. Is there a URL?

Relly: Have you got a link?

Jeremy: Okay, now you’ve got some sites to visit.

Douglas: It’s all about content.

Jeremy: Douglas. You kind of dodged the question I had for you earlier after the talk…

Well my question was kind of two part and half of it was about how do we kill IE6, but the other half was cultural resistance to new ways of programming, and I actually had a question, this is from Nadine—she left a comment on the blog. Now she was talking specifically about something like Ruby on Rails—a new framework comes along—but this applies equally to Node JS. It’s something else for developers to figure out. All of a sudden we spent years mastering SQL and now this comes along and the question is, when do frameworks enable and when do they disable the developer? In other words, all this knowledge that we’ve built up over the years, now we have to ditch and learn a whole new way of doing things.

Douglas: That’s always been the way, so since the beginning of programming there’s been resistance to advances in software development. The biggest obstacle in progressing software is the programmers, and that’s why it took a generation to move from Assembly language to Fortran. It took another generation to move away from the GOTO statement, and another generation to go Object Oriented, because there are these guys who have learned to do things and figure they’ve learned enough.

Jeremy: They get comfortable.

Douglas: And we have to wait for them to retire before we get critical mass on the next innovation. So hardware—Moore’s Law—happens in two year cycles; software happens in twenty year cycles, and it’s because of this. It’s not because we can’t come up with the ideas; it’s because there’s so much resistance among our own practitioners to moving forward.

Jeremy: We’ve actually been here before with JavaScript on the client side. Because ten years ago you asked anybody what JavaScript was and it was this horrible language, it was buggy, it was inaccessible.

Douglas: Which was all true. But it turned out that there was a good language hidden inside of it. So the thing that’s easier than trying to get everybody to go Fortran is that we don’t have to get everybody to go forward. It’s one site at a time, perhaps even one project at a time. And so we can do this incrementally. We don’t have to push everybody at once.

Jeremy: I guess it’s kind of Darwinian as well because the people who can change will adapt and will survive, and the people who don’t…

Douglas: Yes, so we’ll grow with the smart, young people and you know, the stupid old people are useless, so we won’t worry about them.

Jeremy: I guess that question speaks to a larger topic, and another comment from Brad Koehler.

Bruce, I wonder how you handle this? Brad says that the industry seems to be moving so fast at the minute, we seem to be sprinting just to keep up. HTML5, CSS3, responsive design, boilerplates popping up left, right and centre; tons of mobile devices to look at and try and test on. How do you keep up to date without going insane?

Bruce: That’s a great question. I’m paid to do it full time. Sometimes I go away for a fortnight’s holiday and I come back and I think “Shit, the world’s just moved around a little bit.”

I’ve no idea. What I do is follow blogs from people whose opinion I trust.

Jeremy: I speak to people these days who say they don’t even have time for that; that 140 characters is about as much as they can handle.

Bruce: Yeah, but you can’t get any real information in 140 characters.

I must admit I don’t use my RSS feed any more. I wait for people I know to tweet something that’s a link to a blog or something, another resource on the web, and that’s what I do, so I’ve got stuff filtered by my peers or people I trust.

Jeremy: So Twitter acts like a filter for you?

Bruce: Yes, but you can’t say anything really worth saying in 140 characters. It’s only ephemera.

Jeremy: But if somebody links to something, or if four or five people link to something, you know it’s something you should probably be checking out?

Bruce: Yes, but generally I pick up my mobile phone and look under R and I call Remy Sharp and he knows the answer.

Jeremy: Always good. Remy’s always good for explaining stuff.

Bruce: I’ll tweet his phone number later and you can all do it.

Jeremy: It’s awesome. Remy is the king of the lazy web. If there’s something I’d love to see built or some demo or something, I just make sure I’m in the pub with Remy, and casually let it slip while he’s in earshot and then say something like “But nobody’d be able to build that.” And then he’ll build it.

Bruce: Actually, you say that; I spent a morning trying with my embarrassingly rudimentary JavaScript on how to do something, tweeted, “I’ve got no idea how to do this,” and Remy tweeted the fucking script to me. With room at the end to say “(in 140 characters).”

So it’s not true that there’s nothing worth that you can do in 140 characters, but it is true that if you want to give Remy a kicking for being a smartarse, no jury will convict.

Jeremy: What about you, Brian? How do you keep up? Because it seems like you’ve been specialising lately, what with the book and everything—with data visualisation—but I know that you’re interests are a lot broader.

Brian: I do a lot of reading, I mean I’ve got several hundred things in the RSS reader. Partly because I love RSS feeds because I don’t have to try and remember the two or three hundred websites. When they publish, they publish.

But also—getting back to your question—you don’t necessarily need to be on top of everything. I mean it’s great to be, for you personally for your advancement in the industry, but at the end of the day, your HTML 4 site isn’t going to stop working. It’s great to know these things, but it’s not as mission critical as people might think. I seriously doubt huge domains are going to …they need to move much slower; they have a much wider browser base. They’re not going to be jumping on these very cutting edge things very quickly.

Jeremy: I guess it’s the side of standards, web standards, that people forget; it’s not necessarily about the new shiny stuff and making that work in the latest browsers. It’s ensuring the site you built ten years ago is still going to work in a browser release ten years from now.

You say you read a lot. Do you mean physical books too?

Brian: I do. I have…

Jeremy: How’s that working out for you?

Brian: Quite difficult. I mean I’m quite …Amazon does a really good job. They finally do free shipping to Iceland so I’ve been buying quite a lot.

Jeremy: You no longer have to get everything delivered to…

Brian: Exactly. Sent to somebody else’s house and mule it all the way up to London.

Jeremy: Actually, on the subject of the physical artefacts, the digital artefacts; you have a book, a great book with an awesome foreword. People buy the physical book and maybe a couple of months later, a digital version might be released, whatever format; ePub, PDF, I don’t know. Do people feel entitled to the digital version because they have a copy of the physical version?

Brian: People I think do. I mean me as a consumer, I understand if I bought this physical CD, I can rip it into iTunes and get it in digital form. In the US that was completely legal; in the UK it just became legal recently. I think a lot of people kind of have the same thing. I bought the physical book, I paid for it, but I want to also have it on my Kindle. But at the moment, those are two …sometimes it’s more expensive to have it on the Kindle, there’s two different prices.

Jeremy: Don’t get started with the pricing model!

Brian: So as an author, that’s great for me; I get sale revenue on both. From a consumer, I can completely see where people are coming from, but also as someone who creates as well, I know it takes a lot of energy. It’s not like ripping to an mp3. There’s a lot of work involved in laying it out, getting it set up for…

Relly: It’s a whole different process.

Brian: Yes, but I don’t think that’s necessarily clearly articulated to the consumers.

Jeremy: I saw you nodding your head there, Bruce. Do you have first-hand knowledge of people expecting to have the electronic version?

Bruce: Well I know that there’s been 14,000 illegal downloads of our book from tosspot.ru or something. But Remy and I have already bought one yacht each on the proceeds, so we don’t need another.

No, we wrote the book because we wanted to write a book. We wanted to get invited to speak at things like this on the back of it. It was good for us.

Jeremy: I mean, if somebody downloads an electronic copy from a warez site, that’s probably not a lost sale.

Bruce: I’d rather that person coded the shit right because they’d read an illegal version of our book than coded shit wrong because they hadn’t been able to read the book, personally.

Jeremy: Fair enough.

You’ve kind of got all this ahead of you, Relly.

Relly: Yes. Apparently I’m doing a book! Well, I am doing a book. It’s meant to be out now, and it’s not. There’s a reason for that. Books take a long time to write. Who knew?

So I’m currently writing a book with the good people at Five Simple Steps that Brian has been publishing with, and yes, I’m going through the process at the moment going backwards and forwards with an editor. I can say hands down, Five Simple Steps are amazing publishers if you ever get the chance to do a book with them, seize it completely.

But I think the kind of educational stuff we do rather than, you know, I’m not writing a fiction book, if anyone’s wondering; I’m writing a book about my job, so other people can do my job. I think for us, what you said, we’re writing it as an education, we’re not going to make a massive profit out of it. I’m hoping for a weekend away in a caravan out of the proceeds, frankly, and any more than that is great.

Jeremy: A small caravan?

Relly: A small caravan, yes. Well, I don’t want to take the kids with me. If it’s a four berth caravan, I have to take them as well.

So there is that thing that you write a book …I could write a book and give it away for free. I like books and I quite like to have a physical book.

Jeremy: You mean a physical book?

Relly: Yes. I love my Kindle; I love reading my Kindle. I said in my talk actually that the way forward for text books generally is probably going to be things like e-readers and stuff because of the print run.

So I bought a text book for my talk called The Printing Press As An Agent Of Change and the edition that I wanted was £89 hardback, and it’s like that just makes me cry, but it’s because it’s such a small print run, and so I think with the sort of things we’re doing, moving it into digital format is going to be the way to go. Maybe with the paperback accompaniment, maybe a special edition, that kind of stuff, but more and more things are going to go in that direction because it’s the only way they’re going to be profitable really.

Jeremy: And stay up to date?

Relly: And stay up to date.

Jeremy: Douglas; your book is a technology related book, but you’ve kind of had almost like a long zoom view in that it wasn’t about to go out of date any time soon.

Douglas: It’s an evergreen.

Jeremy: An evergreen. Indeed. It’s a classic. It’ll never go out of style. But that’s kind of unusual for a technology book, right?

Douglas: It is. I mean, most technical books have a version number in the title and they go obsolete in a few months.

Jeremy: Certainly when it’s physical books. So I guess this is another area where the digital could help us, where you have a constantly updated book?

Brian: This is the tricky thing as well. People are used to paying for a .1 update of a physical book, a second edition or third edition of a book, but if you paid for a PDF, do people feel entitled to get that…

Jeremy: Lifetime updates?

Brian: Yes. And I think a lot of publishers are struggling with how to take that.

Relly: One fiction author that I’ve seen deal with that quite nicely is a guy called Jasper Fforde. He writes quite comic novels. With all of his novels, he’s had a fairly rudimentary website that he’s done himself in agreement with his publisher, where he has a making of bookumentary, where he discusses the writing the book and different locations he uses as inspiration. And where he’s made mistakes and things, he has an updated version of the book, and he actually has versions that you can cut out and print the same size as your print edition, and stick it on top, which I think is a really cute idea. But it goes to show there is a need for this kind of stuff and that may be a way of handling it.

Jeremy: On the one hand, there’s all sorts of opportunities being afforded by digitising things, for example, books. But on the other hand you have these lumbering, slow-moving industries that have been built upon physical artefacts, like the publishing industry—not Five Simple Steps but standard publishing houses. They’re ignoring the lessons of the music industry and ignoring the lessons of the film industry and making the same mistakes over and over.

That’s something somebody brought up—I got handed a question from John—which is to do with what Tom Coates was talking about today. He was talking about what BERG had called Mujicomp. It’s going to be this wonderful networked environment full of things that are useful and beautiful, all connected to a network, which is a great vision, a great dream. But looking at the way that some industries have been dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age, I wonder if it might go more dystopian rather than utopian. John writes that he fears that it might be more like Ryanaircomp rather than Mujicomp, which is a frightening thought.

Brian, would you take a dystopian or utopian view of this brave digital networked future that lies ahead of us?

Brian: I think there was somebody who talked about, worried about killer robots, and he said before we get a killer robot, we’ve got a not so nice robot, and before the not so nice robot we’ve just got an angry robot.


Have you published a response to this? :