Archive: October, 2013


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Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Steve & Steve: a graphic novel by Patrick Sean Farley

This is absolutely delightful, nicely weird, and thoroughly entertaining.

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013


From the lovely people behind Editorially comes STET:

A Writers’ Journal on Culture & Technology

Moving in, moving on — Paul Robert Lloyd

I’m going to miss having Paul around at Clearleft …and it sounds like he’s going to miss us too.

In many respects, Clearleft can be regarded as a family. Andy and Rich are the parents while perhaps Jeremy is the fun uncle sending postcards from his adventures around the world.

By the way, we’re hiring (two roles, because that’s what it’ll take to fill Paul’s unicorn shoes).

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Responsive App Design

Dan Bricklin—co-creator of the original VisiCalc spreadsheet—turns his attention to responsive design, specifically for input-centric tasks.

Saturday, October 26th, 2013

Medieval times

I just got back from Nürnberg where I gave the closing talk at the cheap’n’cheerful border:none event. It was my first time in Nürnberg and I wish I could’ve stayed longer in such a beautiful place. I would’ve liked to stick around for today’s Open Device Lab admin meetup, but alas I had to get up at the crack of dawn to start making my way back to Brighton.

I was in Germany last month too. That time I was in Freiburg, where I was giving the closing talk at Smashing Conference. That was a lot of fun:

So I threw away my slidedeck and went Keynote commando.

The video from that slideless talk is up on Vimeo now for your viewing and/or downloading pleasure.

If you watch it through to the end, then you’ll know why I could be found immediately afterwards showing people some centuries-old carvings on Freiburg’s cathedral.

Jeremy playing tour guide Bread standards

Update: I’ve published a transcript of the talk.

Monday, October 21st, 2013

How many people are missing out on JavaScript enhancement? | Government Digital Service

The research behind GDS’s research that one in every 93 users of is not receiving JavaScript …and it’s not because of JavaScript being disabled in their browser either. As ever, progressive enhancement is most useful in dealing with the situations you don’t anticipate.

Classy values

Two articles were published today that take diametrically opposed viewpoints on how developers should be using CSS:

I don’t want to attempt to summarise either article as they both give fairly lengthy in-depth explanations of their positions, although I find that they’re both a bit extreme. They’re both ostensibly about CSS, though in reality they’re more about the class values we add to our HTML (and remember, as Ben points out, class is an HTML attribute; there’s no such thing as CSS classes).

Thierry advocates entirely presentational values, like this:

    <div class="Bfc M-10">

Meanwhile Ben argues that this makes the markup less readable and maintainable, and that we should strive to have human-readable markup, more like the example that Thierry dismisses as inefficient:

    <div class="media">

Here’s my take on it: this isn’t an either/or situation. I think that both extremes are problematic. If you make your class values entirely presentational in order to make your CSS more modular, you’re offloading a maintainability expense onto your markup. But if you stick to strictly semantically-meaningful class values, your CSS is probably going to be a lot harder to write in a modular, maintainable way.

Fortunately, the class attribute takes a space-separated list of values. That means you can have your OOCSS/SMACSS/BEM cake and semantically eat it too:

<div class="media Bfc M-10">

The “media” value describes the content, which is traditionally what a semantically-meaningful class name is supposed to do. Meanwhile, the “Bfc” and “M-10” values say nothing about the nature of the content, but everything about how it should be displayed.

Is it wasteful to use a class value that is never used by the CSS? Possibly. But I think it serves a useful purpose for any humans (developer or end user) reading the markup, or potentially machines parsing/scraping the markup.

I’ve used class values that never get touched by CSS. Here on, if I want to mark up something as being a scare quote, I’ll write:

<q class="scare">scare quote</q>

But nowhere in my CSS do I use a selector like this:

q.scare { }

Speaking of scare quotes….

Both of the aforementioned articles begin by establishing that their approach is the minority viewpoint and that web developers everywhere are being encouraged to adapt the other way of working.

Ben writes:

Most disconcertingly, these methodologies have seen widespread adoption thanks to prominent bloggers evangelising their usage as ‘best practice’.

Meanwhile Thierry writes:

But when it comes to the presentational layer, “best practice” goes way beyond the separation of resources.

Perhaps both authors have more in common than they realise: they certainly seem to agree that any methodology you don’t agree with should be labelled as a best practice and wrapped in scare quotes.

Frankly, I think this attitude does more harm than good. A robust argument should stand on its own strengths—it shouldn’t rely on knocking down straw men that supposedly represent the opposing viewpoint.

Some of the trigger words that grind my gears are: dogma, zealot, purist, sacred, and pedant. I’ve mentioned this before:

Whenever someone labels those they disagree with as “dogmatic” or “purist”, it’s a lazy meaningless barb (like calling someone a hipster). “I’m passionate; you’re dogmatic. I sweat the details; you’re a purist.” Even when I agree completely with the argument being made—as was the case withAndy’s superb talk at South by Southwest this year—I cringe to hear the “dogma” attack employed: especially when the argument is strong enough to stand up on its own without resorting to Croftian epithets.

That’s what I was getting at when I tried to crack this joke on Twitter:

…but all I ended up doing was making a cheap shot about designers (and developers for that matter), which wasn’t my intention. The point I was intending to make was that we all throw a lot of stones from our glasses houses.

So if you’re going to write an article about the right way to do something, don’t start by labelling dissenting schools of thought as dogmatic or purist.

Physician, heal thyself.

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

Unfashionably profitable

Rachel talks about some of the old-fashioned technologies and business practices driving Perch.

This reminds of a talk by Marco Arment at Webstock a few years back when he described the advantages of not using cutting-edge technologies: most of the time, “boring” well-established technologies are simply more stable.

Jim Silverman - Native Mobile Apps are the New Flash

The case may be a little overstated, but I agree with the sentiment of this. The web is always playing catch-up to something. For a while, it was Flash; now it’s native.

Flash was a great stopgap measure. But it outlived its usefulness and has been reduced to niche status.

Today, we’re seeing the nearly exact same scenario with native apps on mobile devices.

Native mobile apps are a temporary solution. We’re just over 4 years into the Appstore era and this has already become apparent. Open web technologies are catching up to the point that the vast majority of web apps no longer need a native counterpart.

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Line Mode on Parallel Transport

A love letter to HTML, prompted by the line-mode browser hack event at CERN.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013


I’ve just come back from a multi-hop trip to the States, spanning three cities in just over two weeks.

It started with an all-too-brief trip to San Francisco for Science Hack Day, which—as I’ve already described—was excellent. It was a shame that it was such a flying visit and I didn’t get to see many people. But then again, I’ll be back in December for An Event Apart San Francisco.

It was An Event Apart that took me to my second destination: Austin, Texas. The conference was great, as always. But was really nice was having some time afterwards to explore the town. Being in Austin when it’s not South by Southwest is an enjoyable experience that I can heartily recommend.

Christopher and Ari took me out to Lockhart to experience Smitty’s barbecue—a place with a convoluted family drama and really, really excellent smoked meat. I never really “got” Texas BBQ until now. I always thought I liked the sauced-based variety, but now I understand: if the BBQ is good enough, you don’t need the sauce.

For the rest of my stay, Sam was an excellent host, showing me around her town until it was time for me to take off for New York city.

To start with, I was in Manhattan. I was going to be speaking at Future Of Web Design right downtown on 42nd street, and I showed up a few days early to rendezvous with Jessica and do some touristing.

We perfected the cheapskate’s guide to Manhattan, exploring the New York Public Library, having Tiff show us around the New York Times, and wrangling a tour of the MoMA from Ben Fino-Radin, who’s doing some fascinating work with the digital collection.

I gave my FOWD talk, which went fine once the technical glitches were sorted out (I went through three microphones in five minutes). The conference was in a cinema, which meant my slides were giganormous. That was nice, but the event had an odd kind of vibe. Maybe it was the venue, or maybe it was the two-track format …I really don’t like two-track conferences; I constantly feel like I’m missing out on something.

I skipped out on the second day of the conference to make my way over the bridge to Brooklyn in time for my third trip to Brooklyn Beta.

This year, they tried something quite different. For the first two days, there was a regular Brooklyn Beta: 300 lovely people gathered together at the Invisible Dog, ostensibly to listen to talks but in reality to hang out and chat. It was joyous.

Then on the third and final day, those 300 people decamped to Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to join a further 1000 people. There we heard more talks and had more chats.

Alas, the acoustics in the hangar-like space battled against the speakers. That’s why I made sure to grab a seat near the front for the afternoon talks. I found myself with a front-row seat for a series of startup stories and app tales. Then, without warning, the tech talks were replaced with stand-up comics. The comedians were very, very good (Reggie Watts!) …but I found it hard to pay attention because I realised I was in a living nightmare: somehow I was in the front-row seat of a stand-up comedy show. I spent the entire time thinking “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me, please don’t…” I couldn’t sneak out either, because that would’ve only drawn attention to myself.

But apart from confronting me with my worst fears, Brooklyn Beta was great …I’m just not sure it scales well from 300 to 1300.

And with that, my American sojourn came to an end. I’m glad that the stars aligned in such a way that I was able to hit up four events in my 16 day trip:

What is EME?

Henri gives an overview of the DRM-style encryption proposed for HTML. It’s a very balanced unbiased description, but if you have the slightest concern about security, sentences like this should give you the heebie-jeebies:

Neither the browser nor the JavaScript program understand the bytes.

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

When most people see Peter Saville’s iconic cover for Unknown Pleasures, they think of Joy Division and the tragically early death of lead singer Ian Curtis. But whenever I come across variations of FACT 10, I see a tribute to Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Unknown Pleasures album cover

The album’s artwork is an inverted version of an illustration from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy (which brings up all sorts of fascinating questions about Saville’s “remixing” of the original). It represents a series of pulses from CP 1919, the first pulsar ever discovered.

The regularity of the radio pulses is what caused the source to be initially labelled LGM-1, standing for “Little Green Men.” But the actual cause of the speed and regularity turned out to be equally stunning: a magnetised incredibly massive neutron star rotating once every 1.3373 seconds.

Pulsars keep their regularity for millions of years. They are the lighthouses of their host galaxies. When Carl Sagan was designing the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager golden record, he included a pulsar map that pointed the way to Earth—a decision that was criticised by many for inviting potentially hostile attention.

The pioneer plaque

That first pulsar— CP 1919 (or LGM-1)—was discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell on November 28, 1967 while she was still a PH.d student, using the radio telescope she helped build. In fact, she discovered the first four pulsars. In 1974, the Nobel Prize in physics was, for the first time, awarded to an astronomer. It went to her Professor, Antony Hewish.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell herself claims no animosity on this point, but I can’t help but wonder if the committee might have made a different decision had the discoverer of one of the most important astronomical finds of the twentieth century had been a man.

She describes how the Daily Mail ran the pulsar discovery story with the headline Girl Discovers Little Green Men:

They did not know what to do with a young female scientist, you were a young female, you were page three, you weren’t a scientist.

For a fascinating insight into the career of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, I highly recommend listening to Jim al-Khalili’s interview with her on BBC 4’s The Life Scientific.

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Listen to dConstruct 2013

If you didn’t make it to this year’s dConstruct, at least your ears can catch up. If you did make it to this year’s dConstruct, your ears can experience the fun all over again.

The audio is available, is what I’m saying here.

  1. Amber Case: Ambient Location and the Future of the Interface
  2. Luke Wroblewski: Infinite Inputs
  3. Nicole Sullivan: Don’t Feed the Trolls
  4. Simone Rebaudengo: Great; things are connected, but what will they actually talk about?
  5. Sarah Angliss: Tech and the Uncanny
  6. Keren Elazari: The Heroes and Anti-heroes of the Information Age
  7. Maciej Cegłowski: Fan is a Tool-Using Animal
  8. Dan Williams: Unexpected Item In The Bagging Area
  9. Adam Buxton: Is My Laptop Ruining My Life?

The audio is on Huffduffer for your listening pleasure. If you’d like to take it with you on the go, here’s the RSS feed—just pop that into your podcasting/catching software of choice.

While you’re at it, this might be a nice opportunity to go back and explore the dConstruct archive where you can find every talk from every dConstruct from 2005 to 2013. That’s 70 talks, or about 46 hours of listening pleasure.

Share and enjoy!

Google Profiles “Shared Endorsements”

You might want to untick the checkbox at the bottom of this screen:

Based upon my activity, Google may show my name and profile photo in shared endorsements that appear in ads.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

“Now with Responsive!,” an article by Dan Mall

Dan gives some insight into what it took to make his personal site responsive. Stay tuned: there’ll be more of this.

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Web App Source Code Protection Community Group

This is the worst idea for a W3C community group ever. Come to think of it, it’s the worst idea for an idea ever.

Saturday, October 5th, 2013

The hits keep going… | MetaFilter

This gives me a warm fuzzy glow. The Mefites are using Radio Free Earth to find out which stars are receiving the number one hits from their birthdays.

Friday, October 4th, 2013

Radio Free Earth

Back at the first San Francisco Science Hack Day I wanted to do some kind of mashup involving the speed of light and the distance of stars:

I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant light cone idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner…

At this year’s San Francisco Science Hack Day, I came back to that idea. I wanted some kind of mashup that demonstrated the connection between the time that light has travelled from distant stars, and the events that would have been happening on this planet at that moment. So, for example, a star would be labelled with “the battle of Hastings” or “the sack of Rome” or “Columbus’s voyage to America”. To do that, I’d need two datasets; the distance of stars, and the dates of historical events (leaving aside any Gregorian/Julian fuzziness).

For wont of a better hack, Chloe agreed to help me out. We set to work finding a good dataset of stellar objects. It turned out that a lot of the best datasets from NASA were either about our local solar neighbourhood, or else really distant galaxies and stars that are emitting prehistoric light.

The best dataset we could find was the Near Star Catalogue from Uranometria but the most distant star in that collection was only 70 or 80 light years away. That meant that we could only mash it up with historical events from the twentieth century. We figured we could maybe choose important scientific dates from the past 70 or 80 years, but to be honest, we really weren’t feeling it.

We had reached this impasse when it was time for the Science Hack Day planetarium show. It was terrific: we were treated to a panoramic tour of space, beginning with low Earth orbit and expanding all the way out to the cosmic microwave background radiation. At one point, the presenter outlined the reach of Earth’s radiosphere. That’s the distance that ionosphere-penetrating radio and television signals from Earth, travelling at the speed of light, have reached. “It extends about 70 light years out”, said the presenter.

This was perfect! That was exactly the dataset of stars that we had. It was a time for a pivot. Instead of the lofty goal of mapping historical events to the night sky, what if we tried to do something more trivial and fun? We could demonstrate how far classic television shows have travelled. Has Star Trek reached Altair? Is Sirius receiving I Love Lucy yet?

No, not TV shows …music! Now we were onto something. We would show how far the songs of planet Earth had travelled through space and which stars were currently receiving which hits.

Chloe remembered there being an API from Billboard, who have collected data on chart-topping songs since the 1940s. But that API appears to be gone, and the Echonest API doesn’t have chart dates. So instead, Chloe set to work screen-scraping Wikipedia for number one hits of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s …you get the picture. It was a lot of finding and replacing, but in the end we had a JSON file with every number one for the past 70 years.

Meanwhile, I was putting together the logic. Our list of stars had the distances in parsecs. So I needed to convert the date of a number one hit song into the number of parsecs that song had travelled, and then find the last star that it has passed.

We were tempted—for developer convenience—to just write all the logic in JavaScript, especially as our data was in JSON. But even though it was just a hack, I couldn’t bring myself to write something that relied on JavaScript to render the content. So I wrote some really crappy PHP instead.

By the end of the first day, the functionality was in place: you could enter a date, and find out what was number one on that date, and which star is just now receiving that song.

After the sleepover (more like a wakeover) in the aquarium, we started to style the interface. I say “we” …Chloe wrote the CSS while I made unhelpful remarks.

For the icing on the cake, Chloe used her previous experience with the Rdio API to add playback of short snippets of each song (when it’s available).

Here’s the (more or less) finished hack:

Radio Free Earth.

Basically, it’s a simple mashup of music and space …which is why I spent the whole time thinking “What would Matt do?”

Just keep hitting that button to hear a hit from planet Earth and see which lucky star is currently receiving the signal.*


*I know, I know: the inverse-square law means it’s practically impossible that the signal would be in any state to be received, but hey, it’s a hack.

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

How to see through the cloud

This is a great explanatory piece from James Bridle in conjunction with Mozilla’s Webmaker. It’s intended for a younger audience, but its clear description of how web requests are resolved is pitch-perfect primer for anyone.

The web isn’t magic. It’s not some faraway place we just ‘connect’ to, but a vast and complex system of computers, connected by actual wires under the ground and the oceans. Every time you open a website, you’re visiting a place where that data is stored.

Science Hack Day San Francisco

When I organised the first ever Science Hack Day in London in 2010, I made sure to write about how I organised the event. That’s because I wanted to encourage other people to organise their own Science Hack Days:

If I can do it, anyone can. And anyone should.

Later that year, Ariel organised a Science Hack Day in Palo Alto at the Institute For The Future. It was magnificent. Since then, Ariel has become a tireless champion and global instigator of Science Hack Day, spreading the idea, encouraging new events all over the world, and where possible, travelling to them. I just got the ball rolling—she has really run with it.

She organised another Science Hack Day in San Francisco for last weekend and I was lucky enough to attend—it coincided nicely with my travel plans to the States for An Event Apart in Austin. Once again, it was absolutely brilliant. There were tons of ingenious hacks, and the attendees were a wonderfully diverse bunch: some developers and designers, but also plenty of scientists and students, many (perhaps most) from out of town.

Hacking Hacking Hacking Lunch outdoors

But best of all was the venue: The California Academy of Sciences. It’s a fantastic museum, and after 5pm—when the public left—we had the place to ourselves. Penguins, crocodiles, a rainforest, an aquarium …it’s got it all. I didn’t get a chance to do all of the activities that were provided—I was too busy hacking or helping out—like stargazing on the roof, or getting a tour of the archives. But I did make it to the private planetarium show, which was wonderful.

Hacking Hacking

The Science Hackers spent the night, unrolling their sleeping bags in all the nooks and crannies of the aquarium and the African hall. It was like being a big kid. Mind you, the fun of sleeping over in such a great venue was somewhat tempered by the fact that trying to sleep in a sleeping bag on just a yoga mat on a hard floor is pretty uncomfortable. I was quite exhausted by day two of the event, but I powered through on the wave of infectious enthusiasm exhibited by all the attendees.

Sleeping over Sleeping over

Then when it came time to demo all the hacks …well, I was blown away. So much cool stuff.

Ariel and her team really outdid themselves. I’m so happy I was able to make it to the event. If you get the chance to attend a Science Hack Day, take it. And if there isn’t one happening near you, why not organise one? Ariel has put together a handy checklist to get you started so you can get excited and make things with science.

I’m still quite amazed that this was the 24th Science Hack Day! When I organised the first one three years ago, I had no idea that it could spread so far, but thanks to Ariel, it has become a truly special phenomenon.

Stargazing Planetarium

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Chloe Weil — Science Hack Day

Chloe writes up her experience of the excellent Science Hack Day in San Francisco and describes the hack we built together: Radio Free Earth.

Science Hack Day San Francisco 2013 - a set on Flickr

Wonderful photos from Science Hack Day San Francisco, courtesy of Matt B.