Jeremy Keith

Jeremy Keith

Making websites. Writing books. Speaking at events. Living in Brighton. Working at Clearleft. Playing music. Taking photos. Answering email.

Journal 2536 sparkline Links 7922 sparkline Articles 72 sparkline Notes 4116 sparkline

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Interaction 19

Right before heading to Geneva to spend the week hacking at CERN, I was in Seattle with a sizable Clearleft contingent to attend Interaction 19, the annual conference put on by the Interaction Design Association.

Ben has rounded up the highlights from my fellow Clearlefties. There are some good talks listed there: John Maeda, Nelly Ben Hayoun, and Jon Bell were thoroughly enjoyable. Some other talks were just okay, and there was one talk, by IXDA president Alok Nandi, that was almost impressive in how rambling and incoherent it was. It was like being in a scene from Silicon Valley. I remember clapping at the end; not out of appreciation, but out of relief.

If truth be told, Interaction 19 had about a day’s worth of really great content …spread out over three days. To be fair, that’s par for the course. When we went to Interaction 17 in New York, the hit/miss ratio was about the same:

There were some really good talks at the event, but alas, the muti-track format made it difficult to see all of them. Continuous partial FOMO was the order of the day.

And as I said at the time:

To be honest, the conference was only part of the motivation for the trip. Spending a week in New York with a gaggle of Clearlefties was its own reward.

So I’m willing to cut Interaction 19 a lot of slack. Even if quite a few of the talks were just so-so, getting to hang with Clearlefties in Seattle during snowmageddon was a lot of fun (and you’ll be pleased to hear that we didn’t even resort to cannibalism to survive).

But while the content of the conference was fair to middling, the organisation of it was a shambles:

Imagine the Fyre Festival but in downtown Seattle in winter. Welcome to @ixdconf. #ixd19

They sold more tickets than there were seats. I ended up watching the first morning’s keynotes being streamed to a screen in a conference room in a different building.

Now, I’ve been at events with keynotes that have overflow rooms—South by Southwest does this. But that’s at a different scale. This is a conference with a known number of attendees, each one of them spending over a thousand dollars to attend. I’m pretty sure that a first-come, first-served policy isn’t the best way of treating those attendees.

Anyway, here’s what I submitted for that round-up of the best talks, but which, for reasons of prudence, was omitted from the final post:

I really enjoyed the keynote by Liz Jackson on inclusive design. I would’ve enjoyed it even more if I could’ve seen it in person. Instead I watched it live-streamed to a meeting room two buildings over because the conference sold more tickets than they had seats for. This was after queueing in the cold for registration. So I feel like I learned a lot from Interaction 19 …about how not to organise a conference.

Still, as Ben notes:

We all enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, despite best efforts by the West Coast snow to disrupt the entire city.

I’m going to be back in Seattle in just under two weeks for An Event Apart. Now that’s a conference! It runs like a well-oiled machine, and every talk in its single track has been curated for excellence …with one exception.

An Interview with Nick Harkaway: Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality - Los Angeles Review of Books

Nick Harkaway on technology in fiction:

Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet.

SF is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, SF has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that.

And on Borges:

He was a genius, and he left this cryptic, brilliant body of work that’s poetic, incomplete, astonishing. It’s like a tasting menu in a restaurant where they let you smell things that go to other tables and never arrive at yours.

Blockchain and Trust - Schneier on Security

Honestly, cryptocurrencies are useless. They’re only used by speculators looking for quick riches, people who don’t like government-backed currencies, and criminals who want a black-market way to exchange money.

Bruce Schneier on the blockchain:

What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network. And you need to trust them absolutely, because they’re often single points of failure.

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

Timelines of the web

Recreating the original WorldWideWeb browser was an exercise in digital archeology. With a working NeXT machine in the room, Kimberly was able to examine the source code for the first every browser and discover a treasure trove within. Like this gem in HTUtils.h:

#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */

Sure enough, by June of 1992 port 80 was documented as being officially assigned to the World Wide Web (Gopher got port 70). Jean-François Groff—who worked on the World Wide Web project with Tim Berners-Lee—told us that this was a moment they were very pleased about. It felt like this project of theirs was going places.

Jean-François also told us that the WorldWideWeb browser/editor was kind of like an advanced prototype. The idea was to get something up and running as quickly as possible. Well, the NeXT operating system had a very robust Text Object, so the path of least resistance for Tim Berners-Lee was to take the existing word-processing software and build a hypertext component on top of it. Likewise, instead of creating a brand new format, he used the existing SGML format and added one new piece: linking with A tags.

So the WorldWideWeb application was kind of like a word processor and document viewer mashed up with hypertext. Ted Nelson complains to this day that the original sin of the web was that it borrowed this page-based metaphor. But Nelson’s Project Xanadu, originally proposed in 1974 wouldn’t become a working reality until 2014—a gap of forty years. Whereas Tim Berners-Lee proposed his system in March 1989 and had working code within a year. There’s something to be said for being pragmatic and working with what you’ve got.

The web was also a mashup of ideas. Hypertext existed long before the web—Ted Nelson coined the term in 1963. There were conferences and academic discussions devoted to hypertext and hypermedia. But almost all the existing hypertext systems—including Tim Berners-Lee’s own ENQUIRE system from the early 80s—were confined to a local machine. Meanwhile networked computers were changing everything. First there was the ARPANET, then the internet. Tim Berners-Lee’s ambitious plan was to mash up hypertext with networks.

Going into our recreation of WorldWideWeb at CERN, I knew I wanted to convey this historical context somehow.

The World Wide Web officially celebrates its 30th birthday in March of this year. It’s kind of an arbitrary date: it’s the anniversary of the publication of Information Management: A Proposal. Perhaps a more accurate date would be the day the first website—and first web server—went online. But still. Let’s roll with this date of March 12, 1989. I thought it would be interesting not only to look at what’s happened between 1989 and 2019, but also to look at what happened between 1959 and 1989.

So now I’ve got two time cones that converge in the middle: 1959 – 1989 and 1989 – 2019. For the first time period, I made categories of influences: formats, hypertext, networks, and computing. For the second time period, I catalogued notable results: browsers, servers, and the evolution of HTML.

I did a little bit of sketching and quickly realised that these converging timelines could be represented somewhat like particle collisions. Once I had that idea in my head, I knew how I would be spending my time during the hack week.

Rather than jumping straight into the collider visualisation, I took some time to make a solid foundation to build on. I wanted to be sure that the timeline itself would be understable even if it were, say, viewed in the first ever web browser.

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of h-events:

<li class="h-event y1968">
  <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_%28computer_system%29" class="u-url">
    <time class="dt-start" datetime="1968-12-09">1968</time>
    <abbr class="p-name" title="oN-Line System">NLS</abbr>
  </a>
</li>

With the markup in place, I could concentrate on making it look halfway decent. For small screens, the layout is very basic—just a series of lists. When the screen gets wide enough, I lay those lists out horzontally one on top of the other. In this view, you can more easily see when events coincide. For example, ENQUIRE, Usenet, and Smalltalk all happen in 1980. But the real beauty comes when the screen is wide enough to display everthing at once. You can see how an explosion of activity in the early 90s. In 1994 alone, we get the release of Netscape Navigator, the creation of HTTPS, and the launch of Amazon.com.

The whole thing is powered by CSS transforms and positioning. Each year on a timeline has its own class that gets moved to the correct chronological point using calc(). I wanted to use translateX() but I couldn’t get the maths to work for that, so I had use plain ol’ left and right:

.y1968 {
  left: calc((1968 - 1959) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

For events before 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 1959. For events after 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 2019:

.y2014 {
  right: calc((2019 - 2014) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

(Each h-event has a width of 5em so that’s where the extra bit at the end comes from.)

I had to do some tweaking for legibility: bunches of events happening around the same time period needed to be separated out so that they didn’t overlap too much.

As a finishing touch, I added a few little transitions when the page loaded so that the timeline fans out from its centre point.

Et voilà!

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I fiddled with the content a bit after peppering Robert Cailliau with questions over lunch. And I got some very valuable feedback from Jean-François. Some examples he provided:

1971: Unix man pages, one of the first instances of writing documents with a markup language that is interpreted live by a parser before being presented to the user.

1980: Usenet News, because it was THE everyday discussion medium by the time we created the web technology, and the Web first embraced news as a built-in information resource, then various platforms built on the web rendered it obsolete.

1982: Literary Machines, Ted Nelson’s book which was on our desk at all times

I really, really enjoyed building this “collider” timeline. It was a chance for me to smash together my excitement for web history with my enjoyment of using the raw materials of the web; HTML and CSS in this case.

The timeline pales in comparison to the achievement of the rest of the team in recreating the WorldWideWeb application but I was just glad to be able to contribute a little something to the project.

Hello WorldWideWeb.

Is the universe pro-life? The Fermi paradox can help explain — Quartz

Living things are just a better way for nature to dissipate energy and increase the universe’s entropy.

No anthropocentric exceptionalism here; just the laws of thermodynamics.

According to the inevitable life theory, biological systems spontaneously emerge because they more efficiently disperse, or “dissipate” energy, thereby increasing the entropy of the surroundings. In other words, life is thermodynamically favorable.

As a consequence of this fact, something that seems almost magical happens, but there is nothing supernatural about it. When an inanimate system of particles, like a group of atoms, is bombarded with flowing energy (such as concentrated currents of electricity or heat), that system will often self-organize into a more complex configuration—specifically an arrangement that allows the system to more efficiently dissipate the incoming energy, converting it into entropy.

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

FOREVERYONE.NET

I linked to this a while back but now this great half hour documentary by Jessica Yu is ready and you can watch the whole thing online: Tim Berners-Lee, the birth of the web, and where the web has gone since.

In the scenes describing the early web, there’s footage of the recreated Line Mode Browser—how cool is that‽

Recreating the First Web Browser at CERN | U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva

The US Mission to the UN in Geneva came by to visit us during our hackweek at CERN.

“Our hope is that over the next few days we are going to recreate the experience of what it would be like using that browser, but doing it in a way that anyone using a modern web browser can experience,” explains team member Jeremy Keith. The aim is to “give people the feeling of what it would have been like, in terms of how it looked, how it felt, the fonts, the rendering, the windows, how you navigated from link to link.”

WorldWideWeb

Nine people came together at CERN for five days and made something amazing. I still can’t quite believe it.

Coming into this, I thought it was hugely ambitious to try to not only recreate the experience of using the first ever web browser (called WorldWideWeb, later Nexus), but to also try to document the historical context of the time. Now that it’s all done, I’m somewhat astounded that we managed to achieve both.

Want to see the final result? Here you go:

worldwideweb.cern.ch

That’s the website we built. The call to action is hard to miss:

Launch WorldWideWeb

Behold! A simulation of using the first ever web browser, recreated inside your web browser.

Now you could try clicking around on the links on the opening doucment—remembering that you need to double-click on links to activate them—but you’ll quickly find that most of them don’t work. They’re long gone. So it’s probably going to be more fun to open a new page to use as your starting point. Here’s how you do that:

  1. Select Document from the menu options on the left.
  2. A new menu will pop open. Select Open from full document reference.
  3. Type a URL, like, say https://adactio.com
  4. Press that lovely chunky Open button.

You are now surfing the web through a decades-old interface. Double click on a link to open it. You’ll notice that it opens in a new window. You’ll also notice that there’s no way of seeing the current URL. Back then, the idea was that you would navigate primarily by clicking on links, creating your own “associative trails”, as first envisioned by Vannevar Bush.

But the WorldWideWeb application wasn’t just a browser. It was a Hypermedia Browser/Editor.

  1. From that Document menu you opened, select New file…
  2. Type the name of your file; something like test.html
  3. Start editing the heading and the text.
  4. In the main WorldWideWeb menu, select Links.
  5. Now focus the window with the document you opened earlier (adactio.com).
  6. With that window’s title bar in focus, choose Mark all from the Links menu.
  7. Go back to your test.html document, and highlight a piece of text.
  8. With that text highlighted, click on Link to marked from the Links menu.

If you want, you can even save the hypertext document you created. Under the Document menu there’s an option to Save a copy offline (this is the one place where the wording of the menu item isn’t exactly what was in the original WorldWideWeb application). Save the file so you can open it up in a text editor and see what the markup would’ve looked it.

I don’t know about you, but I find this utterly immersive and fascinating. Imagine what it must’ve been like to browse, create, and edit like this. Hypertext existed before the web, but it was confined to your local hard drive. Here, for the first time, you could create links across networks!

After five days time-travelling back thirty years, I have a new-found appreciation for what Tim Berners-Lee created. But equally, I’m in awe of what my friends created thirty years later.

Remy did all the JavaScript for the recreated browser …in just five days!

Kimberly was absolutely amazing, diving deep into the original source code of the application on the NeXT machine we borrowed. She uncovered some real gems.

Of course Mark wanted to make sure the font was as accurate as possible. He and Brian went down quite a rabbit hole, and with remote help from David Jonathan Ross, they ended up recreating entire families of fonts.

John exhaustively documented UI patterns that Angela turned into marvelous HTML and CSS.

Through it all, Craig and Martin put together the accomanying website. Personally, I think the website is freaking awesome—it’s packed with fascinating information! Check out the family tree of browsers that Craig made.

What a team!

Friday, February 15th, 2019