Archive: January 21st, 2013

Long time

A few years back, I was on a road trip in the States with my friend Dan. We drove through Maryland and Virginia to the sites of American Civil War battles—Gettysburg, Antietam. I was reading Tom Standage’s magnificent book The Victorian Internet at the time. When I was done with the book, I passed it on to Dan. He loved it. A few years later, he sent me a gift: a glass telegraph insulator.

Glass telegraph insulator from New York

Last week I received another gift from Dan: a telegraph key.

Telegraph key

It’s lovely. If my knowledge of basic electronics were better, I’d hook it up to an Arduino and tweet with it.

Dan came over to the UK for a visit last month. We had a lovely time wandering around Brighton and London together. At one point, we popped into the National Portrait Gallery. There was one painting he really wanted to see: the portrait of Samuel Pepys.


“Were you reading the online Pepys diary?”, I asked.

“Oh, yes!”, he said.

“I know the guy who did that!”

The “guy who did that” is, of course, the brilliant Phil Gyford.

Phil came down to Brighton and gave a Skillswap talk all about the ten-year long project.

The diary of Samuel Pepys: Telling a complex story online on Huffduffer

Now Phil has restarted the diary. He wrote a really great piece about what it’s like overhauling a site that has been online for a decade. Given that I spent a lot of my time last year overhauling The Session (which has been online in some form or another since the late nineties), I can relate to his perspective on trying to choose long-term technologies:

Looking ahead, how will I feel about this Django backend in ten years’ time? I’ve no idea what the state of the platform will be in a decade.

I was thinking about switching The Session over to Django, but I decided against it in the end. I figured that the pain involved in trying to retrofit an existing site (as opposed to starting a brand new project) would be too much. So the site is still written in the very uncool LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP.

Mind you, Marco Arment makes the point in his Webstock talk that there’s a real value to using tried and tested “boring” technologies.

One area where I’ve found myself becoming increasingly wary over time is the use of third-party APIs. I say that with a heavy heart—back at dConstruct 2006 I was talking all about The Joy of API. But Yahoo, Google, Twitter …they’ve all deprecated or backtracked on their offerings to developers.

Anyway, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately: evaluating technologies and services in terms of their long-term benefit instead of just their short-term hit. It’s something that we need to think about more as developers, and it’s certainly something that we need to think about more as users.

Compared with genuinely long-term projects like the 10,000 year Clock of the Long Now making something long-lasting on the web shouldn’t be all that challenging. The real challenge is acknowledging that this is even an issue. As Phil puts it:

I don’t know how much individuals and companies habitually think about this. Is it possible to plan for how your online service will work over the next ten years, never mind longer?

As my Long Bet illustrates, I can be somewhat pessimistic about the longevity of our web creations:

The original URL for this prediction ( will no longer be available in eleven years.

But I really hope I lose that bet. Maybe I’ll suggest to Matt (my challenger on the bet) that we meet up on February 22nd, 2022 at the Long Now Salon. It doesn’t exist yet. But give it time.

Speed up your site using prefetching by Jon Fox

More details on DNS prefetching, page prefetching and, controversial, page pre-rendering.

Front-end performance for web designers and front-end developers by Harry Roberts

A really good introduction to front-end performance techniques. Most of this was already on my radar, but I still picked up a handy tip or two (particularly about DNS prefetching).

At this stage it should go without saying that you should be keeping up with this kind of thing: performance is really, really, really important.

The impending crisis that is Windows XP and IE 8 by Troy Hunt

A good explanation of the litany of woes that comes from Internet Explorer 8 being the highest that users of Windows XP can upgrade to. It’s a particularly woeful situation if you are a web developer attempting to provide parity. But there is hope on the horizon:

2013 will see the culmination of all these issues; support for IE 8 will drop of rapidly, users of XP will find an increasingly broken web, the cost of building software in XP organisations will increase.

Foreword to DOM Enlightenment by Cody Lindley

The foreword to the O’Reilly book.

I make websites. Sometimes I make music. Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern of behavior from some musicians—often self-taught—who think of themselves as creative types: they display an aversion to learning any music theory. The logic, they say, is that knowing the theory behind music will somehow constrain their creative abilities. I’ve never understood that logic (and I secretly believe that it’s a retroactive excuse for a lack of discipline). To my mind, I just don’t see how any kind of knowledge or enlightenment could be a bad thing.

Alas, I have seen the same kind of logic at work in the world of web design. There are designers who not only don’t know how to write markup and CSS, they actively refuse to learn. Again, they cite the fear of somehow being constrained by this knowledge (and again, I believe that’s a self-justifying excuse).

In the world of front-end development, that attitude is fortunately far less prevalent. Most web devs understand that there’s always more to learn. But even amongst developers who have an encyclopediac knowledge of HTML and CSS, there is often a knowledge gap when it comes to the Document Object Model. That’s understandable. You don’t need to understand the inner workings of the DOM if you’re using a library like jQuery. The whole point of JavaScript libraries is to abstract away the browser’s internal API and provide a different, better API instead.

Nonetheless, I think that many front-end devs have a feeling that they should know what’s going on under the hood. That’s the natural reaction of a good geek when presented with a system they’re expected to work with. Now, thanks to DOM Enlightenment, they can scratch that natural itch.

Douglas Crockford gave us a map to understand the inner workings of the JavaScript language in his book JavaScript: The Good Parts. Now Cody Lindley has given us the corresponding map for the Document Object Model. Armed with this map, you’ll gain the knowledge required to navigate the passageways and tunnels of the DOM. ix

You might not end up using this knowledge in every project. You might decide to use a library like jQuery instead. But now it will be your decision. Instead of having to use a library because that’s all that you know, you can choose if and when to use a library. That’s a very empowering feeling. That’s what knowledge provides. That is true enlightenment.