Journal

2298

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Conversational interfaces

Psst… Jeremy! Right now you’re getting notified every time something is posted to Slack. That’s great at first, but now that activity is increasing you’ll probably prefer dialing that down.

Slackbot, 2015

What’s happening?

Twitter, 2009

Why does everyone always look at me? I know I’m a chalkboard and that’s my job, I just wish people would ask before staring at me. Sometimes I don’t have anything to say.

Existentialist chalkboard, 2007

I’m Little MOO - the bit of software that will be managing your order with us. It will shortly be sent to Big MOO, our print machine who will print it for you in the next few days. I’ll let you know when it’s done and on it’s way to you.

Little MOO, 2006

It looks like you’re writing a letter.

Clippy, 1997

Your quest is to find the Warlock’s treasure, hidden deep within a dungeon populated with a multitude of terrifying monsters. You will need courage, determination and a fair amount of luck if you are to survive all the traps and battles, and reach your goal — the innermost chambers of the Warlock’s domain.

The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, 1982

Welcome to Adventure!! Would you like instructions?

Colossal Cave, 1976

I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.

I, Pencil, 1958

ÆLFRED MECH HET GEWYRCAN
Ælfred ordered me to be made

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The Ælfred Jewel, ~880

Technical note

I have marked up the protagonist of each conversation using the cite element. There is a long-running dispute over the use of this element. In HTML 4.01 it was perfectly fine to use cite to mark up a person being quoted. In the HTML Living Standard, usage has been narrowed:

The cite element represents the title of a work (e.g. a book, a paper, an essay, a poem, a score, a song, a script, a film, a TV show, a game, a sculpture, a painting, a theatre production, a play, an opera, a musical, an exhibition, a legal case report, a computer program, etc). This can be a work that is being quoted or referenced in detail (i.e. a citation), or it can just be a work that is mentioned in passing.

A person’s name is not the title of a work — even if people call that person a piece of work — and the element must therefore not be used to mark up people’s names.

I disagree.

In the examples above, it’s pretty clear that I, Pencil and Warlock Of Firetop Mountain are valid use cases for the cite element according to the HTML5 definition; they are titles of works. But what about Clippy or Little Moo or Slackbot? They’re not people …but they’re not exactly titles of works either.

If I were to mark up a dialogue between Eliza and a human being, should I only mark up Eliza’s remarks with cite? In text transcripts of conversations with Alexa, Siri, or Cortana, should only their side of the conversation get attributed as a source? Or should they also be written without the cite element because it must not be used to mark up people’s names …even though they are not people, according to conventional definition.

It’s downright botist.

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

Machine supplying

I wrote a little something recently about some inspiring projects that people are working on. Like Matt’s Machine Supply project. There’s a physical side to that project—a tweeting book-vending machine in London—but there’s also the newsletter, 3 Books Weekly.

I was honoured to be asked by Matt to contribute three book recommendations. That newsletter went out last week. Here’s what I said…

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

A book about the history of telegraphy might not sound like the most riveting read, but The Victorian Internet is both fascinating and entertaining. Techno-utopianism, moral panic, entirely new ways of working, and a world that has been utterly transformed: the parallels between the telegraph and the internet are laid bare. In fact, this book made me realise that while the internet has been a great accelerator, the telegraph was one of the few instances where a technology could truly be described as “disruptive.”

Ancillary Justice: 1 (Imperial Radch) by Ann Leckie

After I finished reading the final Iain M. Banks novel I was craving more galaxy-spanning space opera. The premise of Ancillary Justice with its description of “ship minds” led me to believe that this could be picking up the baton from the Culture series. It isn’t. This is an entirely different civilisation, one where song-collecting and tea ceremonies have as much value as weapons and spacecraft. Ancillary Justice probes at the deepest questions of identity, both cultural and personal. As well as being beautifully written, it’s also a rollicking good revenge thriller.

The City & The City by China Miéville

China Miéville’s books are hit-and-miss for me, but this one is a direct hit. The central premise of this noir-ish tale defies easy description, so I won’t even try. In fact, one of the great pleasures of this book is to feel the way your mind is subtly contorted by the author to accept a conceit that should be completely unacceptable. Usually when a book is described as “mind-altering” it’s a way of saying it has drug-like properties, but The City & The City is mind-altering in an entirely different and wholly unique way. If Borges and Calvino teamed up to find The Maltese Falcon, the result would be something like this.

When I sent off my recommendations, I told Matt:

Oh man, it was so hard to narrow this down! So many books I wanted to mention: Station 11, The Peripheral, The Gone-Away World, Glasshouse, Foucault’s Pendulum, Oryx and Crake, The Wind-up Girl …this was so much tougher than I thought it was going to be.

And Matt said:

Tell you what — if you’d be up for writing recommendations for another 3 books, from those ones you mentioned, I’d love to feature those in the machine!

Done!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven made think about the purpose of art and culture. If art, as Brian Eno describes it, is “everything that you don’t have to do”, what happens to art when the civilisational chips are down? There are plenty of post-pandemic stories of societal collapse. But there’s something about this one that sets it apart. It doesn’t assume that humanity will inevitably revert to an existence that is nasty, brutish and short. It’s also a beautifully-written book. The opening chapter completely sucker-punched me.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

On the face of it, this appears to be another post-Singularity romp in a post-scarcity society. It is, but it’s also a damning critique of gamification. Imagine the Stanford prison experiment if it were run by godlike experimenters. Stross’s Accelerando remains the definitive description of an unfolding Singularity, but Glasshouse is the one that has stayed with me.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

This isn’t an easy book to describe, but it’s a very easy book to enjoy. A delightful tale of a terrifying apocalypse, The Gone-Away World has plenty of laughs to balance out the existential dread. Try not to fall in love with the charming childhood world of the narrator—you know it can’t last. But we’ll always have mimes and ninjas.

I must admit, it’s a really lovely feeling to get notified on Twitter when someone buys one of the recommended books.

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Sparklining

I was in Nuremberg last weekend for Indie Web Camp. It was great.

At some point I really should stop being surprised by just how much gets done in one weekend, but once again, I was blown away by the results.

On the first day we had very productive BarCamp-like discussion sessions, and on the second day it was heads-down hacking. But it was hacking with help. Being in the same room as other people who each have their own areas of expertise is so useful. It really turbo-charges the amount that you can get accomplished.

For example, I was helping Tom turn his website into a progressive web app with the addition of a service worker and a manifest file. Meanwhile Tom was helping somebody else get a Wordpress site up and running.

Actually, that was what really blew me away: two people began the second day of Indie Web Camp Nuremberg without websites and by the end of the day, they both had their own sites up and running. For me, that’s the real spirit of the indie web—I know we tend to go on about the technologies like h-card, h-entry, webmentions, micropub, and IndieAuth, but really it’s not about the technologies; it’s about having your own place on the web so that you have control over what you put out in the world.

For my part, I was mostly making some cosmetic changes to my site. There was a really good discussion on the first page about home pages. What’s the purpose of a home page? For some, it’s about conveying information about the person. For others, it’s a stream of activity.

My site used to have a splash-like homepage; just a brief bio and a link to the latest blog post. Then I changed it into a stream a few years ago. But that means that the home page of my site doesn’t feel that different from sections of the site like the journal or the link list.

During the discussion at Indie Web Camp, we started looking at how silos design their profile pages to see what we could learn from them. Looking at my Twitter profile, my Instagram profile, my Untappd profile, or just about any other profile, it’s a mixture of bio and stream, with the addition of stats showing activity on the site—signs of life.

I decided I’d add signs of life to my home page. Once again, I reached for my favourite little data visualisation helper: sparklines

A sparkline is a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution.

I’ve already got sparklines on Huffduffer and on The Session so I suppose it was only a matter of time before they showed up here.

Small Screen Sparklines Large Screen Sparklines

I’ve been tweaking them ever since I got back from Germany. Now I’ve added in a little h-card bio as well.

Bio and sparklines Bio And Sparklines (large screen)

Initially I was using the fantastic little scripted SVG that Stuart made , the same one that I’m using on Huffduffer and The Session. But Kevin pointed out that a straightforward polyline would be more succinct. And in the case of my own site, there’s only four sparklines so it wouldn’t be a huge overhead to hard-code the values straight into the SVGs.

Yesterday was the first day of Render Conference in Oxford (I’ll be speaking later today). Sara gave a blisteringly great talk on (what else?) SVGs and I got so inspired I started refactoring my code right there and then. I’m pretty happy with how the sparklines are working now, although I’m sure I’ll continue to play around with them some more.

There’s another activity visualisation that I’m eager to play around with. I really like the calendar heatmap on my Github profile. I could imagine using something like that for an archive view on my own site.

Luckily for me, I’ll have a chance to play around with my website a bit more very soon. There’s going to be another Indie Web Camp in Germany very soon.

Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf will take place on May 7th and 8th, right before Beyond Tellerrand. Last year’s event was really inspiring. If there’s any chance you can make it, you should come along. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

Accessible progressive disclosure revisited

I wrote a little while back about making an accessible progressive disclosure pattern. It’s very basic—just a few ARIA properties and a bit of JavaScript sprinkled onto some basic HTML. The HTML contains a button element that toggles the aria-hidden property on a chunk of markup.

Earlier this week I had a chance to hang out with accessibility experts Derek Featherstone and Devon Persing so I took the opportunity to pepper them with questions about this pattern. My main question was “Should I automatically focus the toggled content?”

Derek’s response was very perceptive. He wanted to know why I was using a button. Good question. When you think about it, what I’m doing is pointing from one element to another. On the web, we point with links.

There are no hard’n’fast rules about this kind of thing, but as Derek put it, it helps to think about whether the action involves controlling something (use a button) or taking the user somewhere (use a link). At first glance, the progressive disclosure pattern seems to be about controlling something—toggling the appearance of another element. But if I’m questioning whether to automatically focus that element, then really I’m asking whether I want to take the user to that place in the document—in other words, linking to it.

I decided to update the markup. Here’s what I had before:

<button aria-controls="content">Reveal</button>
<div id="content"></div>

Here’s what I have now:

<a href="#content" aria-controls="content">Reveal</a>
<div id="content"></div>

The logic in the JavaScript remains exactly the same:

  1. Find any elements that have an aria-controls attribute (these were buttons, now they’re links).
  2. Grab the value of that aria-controls attribute (an ID).
  3. Hide the element with that ID by applying aria-hidden="true" and make that element focusable by adding tabindex="-1".
  4. Set aria-expanded="false" on the associated link (this attribute can be a bit confusing—it doesn’t mean that this element is not expanded; it means the element it controls is not expanded).
  5. Listen for click events on those links.
  6. Toggle the aria-hidden and aria-expanded when there’s a click event.
  7. When aria-hidden is set to false on an element (thereby revealing it), focus that element.

You can see it in action on CodePen.

See the Pen Accessible toggle (link) by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

Mistakes on a plane

I’m in Seattle. An Event Apart just wrapped up here and it was excellent as always. The venue was great and the audience even greater so I was able to thoroughly enjoy myself when it was time for me to give my talk.

I’m going to hang out here for another few days before it’s time for the long flight back to the UK. The flight over was a four-film affair—that’s how I measure the duration of airplane journeys. I watched:

  1. Steve Jobs,
  2. The Big Short,
  3. Spectre, and
  4. Joy.

I was very glad that I watched Joy after three back-to-back Bechdel failures. Spectre in particular seems to have been written by a teenage boy, and I couldn’t get past the way that the The Big Short used women as narrative props.

I did enjoy Steve Jobs. No surprise there—I enjoy most of Danny Boyle’s films. But there was a moment that took me out of the narrative flow…

The middle portion of the film centres around the launch of the NeXT cube. In one scene, Michael Fassbender’s Jobs refers to another character as “Rain Man”. I immediately started to wonder if that was an anachronistic comment. “When was Rain Man released?” I thought to myself.

It turns out that Rain Man was released in 1988 and the NeXT introduction was also in 1988 but according to IMDB, Rain Man was released in December …and the NeXT introduction was in October.

The jig is up, Sorkin!

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

A brief history of the World Wide Web by web developers

The web will be so much better when we have images.

The web will be so much better when we can use more than 216 colours.

The web will be so much better when we have Cascading Style Sheets.

The web will be so much better when we have Cascading Style Sheets that work the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when we have JavaScript.

The web will be so much better when we have JavaScript that works the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when people stop using Netscape Navigator 4.

The web will be so much better when people stop using Internet Explorer 6.

The web will be so much better when we can access it on our mobile phones.

The web will be so much better when we have native video support.

The web will be so much better when we have native video support that works the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when Flash dies.

The web will be so much better when we have more than a handful of fonts.

The web will be so much better when nobody is running Windows XP anymore.

The web will be so much better when nobody is running Android 2 anymore.

The web will be so much better when we have smooth animations.

The web will be so much better when websites can still work offline.

The web will be so much better when we get push notifications.

The web will be so much better when…

Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

The web on my phone

It’s funny how times have changed. Remember back in the 90s when Microsoft—quite rightly—lost an anti-trust case? They were accused of abusing their monopolistic position in the OS world to get an unfair advantage in the browser world. By bundling a copy of Internet Explorer with every copy of Windows, they were able to crush the competition from Netscape.

Mind you, it was still possible to install a Netscape browser on a Windows machine. Could you imagine if Microsoft had tried to make that impossible? There would’ve been hell to pay! They wouldn’t have had a legal leg to stand on.

Yet here we are two decades later and that’s exactly what an Operating System vendor is doing. The Operating System is iOS. It’s impossible to install a non-Apple browser onto an Apple mobile computer. For some reason, the fact that it’s a mobile device (iPhone, iPad) makes it different from a desktop-bound device running OS X. Very odd considering they’re all computers.

“But”, I hear you say, “What about Chrome for iOS? Firefox for iOS? Opera for iOS?”

Chrome for iOS is not Chrome. Firefox for iOS is not Firefox. Opera for iOS is not Opera. They are all using WebKit. They’re effectively the same as Mobile Safari, just with different skins.

But there won’t be any anti-trust case here.

I think it’s a real shame. Partly, I think it’s a shame because as a developer, I see an Operating System being let down by its browser. But mostly, I think it’s a shame because I use an iPhone and I’m being let down by its browser.

It’s kind of ironic, because when the iPhone first launched, it was all about the web apps. Remember, there was no App Store for the first year of the iPhone’s life. If you wanted to build an app, you had to use web technologies. Apple were ahead of their time. Alas, the web technologies weren’t quite up to the task back in 2007. These days, though, there are web technologies landing in browsers that are truly game-changing.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m very excited about Service Workers. It’s doubly exciting to see the efforts the Chrome on Android team are making to make the web a first-class citizen. As Remy put it:

If I add this app to my home screen, it will work when I open it.

I’d like to be able to use Chrome, Firefox, or Opera on my iPhone—real Chrome, real Firefox, or real Opera; not a skinned version of Safari. Right now the only way for me to switch browsers is to switch phones. Switching phones is a pain in the ass, but I’m genuinely considering it.

Whereas I’m all talk, Henrik has taken action. Like me, he doesn’t actually care about the Operating System. He cares about the browser:

Android itself bores me, honestly. There’s nothing all that terribly new or exciting here.’

save one very important detail…

IT’S CURRENTLY THE BEST MOBILE WEB APP PLATFORM

That’s true for now. The pole position for which browser is “best” is bound to change over time. The point is that locking me into one particular browser on my phone doesn’t sit right with me. It’s not very …webby.

I’m sure that Apple are not quaking in their boots at the thought of myself or Henrik switching phones. We are minuscule canaries in a very niche mine.

But what should give Apple pause for thought is the user experience they can offer for using the web. If they gain a reputation for providing a sub-par web experience compared to the competition, then maybe they’ll have to make the web a first-class citizen.

If I want to work towards that, switching phones probably won’t help. But what might help is following Alex’s advice in his answer to the question “What do we do about Safari?”:

What we do about Safari is we make websites amazing …and then they can’t not implement.

I’ll be doing that here on adactio, over on The Session (and Huffduffer when I get around to overhauling it), making progressively enhanced, accessible, offline-first, performant websites.

I’ll also be doing it at Clearleft. If you work at an organisation that wants a progressively-enhanced, accessible, offline-first, performant website, we should talk.

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Making things happen

I have lovely friends who are making lovely things. Surprisingly, lots of these lovely things aren’t digital (or at least aren’t only digital).

My friends Brian and Joschi want to put on an ambitious event called Material:

A small conference based in Reykjavik, Iceland, looking into the concept of the Web as a Material — 22nd July 2016, https://material.is

They’re funding it through Kickstarter. If you have any interest in this at all, I suggest you back it. Best bet is to pledge the amount that guarantees you a ticket to the conference. Go!

My friend Matt has a newsletter called 3 Books Weekly to match his Machine Supply website. Each edition features three book recommendations chosen by a different person each time.

Here’s the twist: there’s going to be a Machine Supply pop-up bookshop AKA a vending machine in Shoreditch. That’ll be rolling out very soon and I can’t wait to see it.

My friend Josh made a crazy website to tie in with an art project called Cosmic Surgery. My friend Emily made a limited edition run of 10 books for the project. Now there’s a Kickstarter project to fund another run of books which will feature a story by Piers Bizony.

An Icelandic conference, a vending machine for handpicked books, and a pop-up photo book …I have lovely friends who are making lovely things.

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Bookmarklets

Someone at Clearleft asked me a question recently about making bookmarklets. I have a bit of experience in that department. As well as making a bookmarklet for adding links to my own site, there’s the Huffduffer bookmarklet that’s been chugging away since 2008.

I told them that there are basically two approaches:

  1. Have the bookmarklet pop open a new browser window at your service, passing in the URL of the current page. Then do all the heavy lifting on your server.
  2. Have the bookmarklet inject JavaScript to analyse and edit the DOM of the document in the current browser window. All the heavy lifting is done directly in client-side JavaScript.

I favour the first approach. Partly that’s because it makes it easier to update the functionality. As you improve your server-side script, the bookmarklet functionality gets better automatically. But also, if your server-side script doesn’t do its magic, you can always fall back to letting the end user fill in the details.

Here’s an example…

When you click the Huffduffer bookmarklet, it pops open this URL:

https://huffduffer.com/add?page=…

…with that page parameter filled in with whatever page you currently have open. Let’s say I’ve got this page currently open in my browser:

https://adactio.com/journal/6786

If I press the Huffduffer bookmarklet, that will spawn a new window with this URL:

https://huffduffer.com/add?page=https://adactio.com/journal/6786

And that’s all it does. Now it’s up to that page on Huffduffer to figure out what to do with the URL it has been given. In this case, it makes a CURL request to figure out what to use as a title, what to use as a description, what audio file to use, etc. If it can’t figure that out, I can always fill in those fields myself by hand.

I could’ve chosen to get at that information by injecting JavaScript directly into the page open in the browser. But that’s somewhat invasive.

Brian Donohue wrote on Ev’s blog a while back about one of the problems with that approach. Sites that—quite correctly—have a strict Content Security Policy will object to having arbitrary JavaScript injected into their documents.

But remember this only applies to some bookmarklets. If a bookmarklet just spawns a new window—like Huffduffer’s—then there’s no problem. That approach to bookmarklets was dismissed with this justification:

The crux of the issue for bookmarklets is that web authors can control the origin of the JavaScript, network calls, and CSS, all of which are necessary for any non-trivial bookmarklet.

Citation needed. I submit that Huffduffer and Instapaper provide very similar services: “listen later” and “read later”. Both use cases could be described as “non-trivial”. But only one of the bookmarklets works on sites with strict CSPs.

Time and time again, I see over-engineered technical solutions that are built with the justification that “this problem is very complex therefore the solution needs to be complex” (yes, I am talking about web thangs that rely on complex JavaScript). In my experience, it’s exactly the opposite way around. The more complex the problem, the more important it is to solve it in the simplest way possible. It’s the only way of making sure the solution is resilient to unexpected scenarios.

The situation with bookmarklets is a perfect example. It’s not just an issue with strict Content Security Policies either. I’ve seen JavaScript-injecting bookmarklets fail because someone has set their browser cookie preferences to only accept cookies from the originating server.

Bookmarklets are not dead. They may, however, be pining for the fjords. Nobody has a figured out a way to get bookmarklets to work on mobile. Now that might well be a death sentence.

Friday, March 11th, 2016

Accessible progressive disclosure

Over on The Session I have a few instances of a progressive disclosure pattern. It’s just your basic show/hide toggle: click on a button; see some more content. For example, there’s a “download” button for every tune that displays options to download the tune in different formats (ABC and midi).

To begin with, I was using the :checked pseudo-class pattern that Charlotte has documented so well. I really like that pattern. It feels nice and straightforward. But then I got some feedback from someone using the site:

the link for midi files is no longer coming up on the tune pages. I am blind so I rely on the midi’s when finding tunes for my students.

I wrote back saying the link to download midi files was revealed by the “download” option. The response:

Excellent. I have it now, I was just looking for the midi button which wasn’t there. the actual download button doesn’t read as a button under each version of the tune but now I know it’s there I know what I am doing. I am using the JAWS screen reader.

This was just one person …one person who took the time to write to me. What about other screen reader users?

I dabbled around with adding role="button" to the checkbox or the label, but that felt really icky (contradicting the inherent role of those elements) and it didn’t seem to make much difference anyway.

I decided to refactor the progressive disclosure to use JavaScript instead just CSS. I wanted to make sure that accessibility was built into the functionality, rather than just bolted on. That’s why code I’ve written doesn’t rely on the buttons having a particular class value; instead the buttons must have an aria-controls attribute that associates the button with the element it toggles (in much the same way that a for attribute associates a label with a form field).

Here’s the logic:

  1. Find any elements that have an aria-controls attribute (these should be buttons).
  2. Grab the value of that aria-controls attribute (an ID).
  3. Hide the element with that ID by applying aria-hidden="true" and make that element focusable by adding tabindex="-1".
  4. Set aria-expanded="false" on the associated button (this attribute can be a bit confusing—it doesn’t mean that this element is not expanded; it means the element it controls is not expanded).
  5. Listen for click events on those buttons.
  6. Toggle the aria-hidden and aria-expanded when there’s a click event.
  7. When aria-hidden is set to false on an element (thereby revealing it), focus that element.

You can see it action on CodePen.

I’m still playing around with this. I think the :focus styles are probably far too subtle right now—see this excellent presentation from Laura Palmaro for more on that. I’m also not sure if the revealed content should automatically take focus. I’ll see if I can get some feedback from people on The Session using screen readers—there’s quite a few of them.

Feel free to use my code but you might want to check out Jason’s code to do the same thing—his is bound to be nicer to work with.

Update: In response to this discussion, I’ve decided not to automatically focus the expanded content.