Friday, June 30th, 2017
Up and atom for Patterns Day!
Wednesday, June 28th, 2017
Charlotte shares her thoughts on the elements of a fruitful mentorship:
- Learn from each other
- Find the right level of challenge
- Reach out
- Meet with intent
- Offer feedback and ask for feedback
Tuesday, June 27th, 2017
Here’s the website for Alla’s forthcoming book. You can sign up to a low-volume mailing list to get notified of updates.
Alla’s book is going to be a must-have (I know because I’ve been reviewing it as she’s been writing it). Pre-order it now. It’s out in September.
Progressing the web
Frances has written up some of the history behind her minting of the term “progressive web app”. She points out that accuracy is secondary to marketing:
I keep seeing folks (developers) getting all smart-ass saying they should have been PW “Sites” not “Apps” but I just want to put on the record that it doesn’t matter. The name isn’t for you and worrying about it is distraction from just building things that work better for everyone. The name is for your boss, for your investor, for your marketeer.
Personally, I think “progressive web app” is a pretty good phrase—two out of three words in it are spot on. I really like the word “progressive”, with its echoes of progressive enhancement. I really, really like the word “web”. But, yeah, I’m one of those smart-asses who points out that the “app” part isn’t great.
That’s not just me being a pedant (or, it’s not only me being a pedant). I’ve seen people who were genuinely put off investigating the technologies behind progressive web apps because of the naming.
The name is one of the reasons I didn’t look into PWAs 6 months ago. Can we change the name itself? 😎— Julian Gaviria (@juliangav) March 24, 2017
Here’s an article with the spot-on title Progressive Web Apps — The Next Step In Responsive Web Design:
Late last week, Smashing Magazine, one of the largest and most influential online publications for web design, posted on Facebook that their website was “now running as a Progressive Web App.”
Honestly, I didn’t think much of it. Progressive Web Apps are for the hardcore web application developers creating the next online cloud-based Photoshop (complicated stuff), right? I scrolled on and went about my day.
And here’s someone feeling the cognitive dissonance of turning a website into a progressive web app, even though that’s exactly the right thing to do:
My personal website is a collection of static HTML files and is also a progressive web app. Transforming it into a progressive web app felt a bit weird in the beginning because it’s not an actual application but I wanted to be one of the cool kids, and PWAs still offer a lot of additional improvements.
Still, it could well be that these are the exceptions and that most people are not being discouraged by the “app” phrasing. I certainly hope that there aren’t more people out there thinking “well, progressive web apps aren’t for me because I’m building a content site.”
In short, the name might not be perfect but it’s pretty damn good.
What I find more troubling is the grouping of unrelated technologies under the “progressive web app” banner. If Google devrel events were anything to go by, you’d be forgiven for thinking that progressive web apps have something to do with AMP or Polymer (they don’t). One of the great things about progressive web apps is that they are agnostic to tech stacks. Still, I totally get why Googlers would want to use the opportunity to point to their other projects.
Far more troubling is the entanglement of the term “progressive web app” with the architectural choice of “single page app”. I’m not the only one who’s worried about this.
I’ve seen too many devs assume PWA is a subset of SPA. We need to improve our messaging— Jake Archibald (@jaffathecake) June 4, 2016
Here’s the most egregious example: an article on Hacker Noon called Before You Build a PWA You Need a SPA.
No! Not true! Literally any website can be a progressive web app:
Alas, I think that many of the initial poster-children for progressive web apps gave the impression that you had to make a completely separate app/site at a different URL. It was like a return to the bad old days of
m. sites for mobile. The Washington Post’s progressive web app (currently offline) went so far as to turn away traffic from the “wrong” browsers. This is despite the fact that the very first item in the list of criteria for a progressive web app is:
Responsive: to fit any form factor
Now, I absolutely understand that the immediate priority is to demonstrate that a progressive web app can compete with a native mobile app in terms of features (and trounce it in terms of installation friction). But I’m worried that in our rush to match what native apps can do, we may end up ditching the very features that make the web a universally-accessible medium. Killing URLs simply because native apps don’t have URLs is a classic example of throwing the baby out with the bath water:
Up until now I’ve been a big fan of Progressive Web Apps. I understood them to be combining the best of the web (responsiveness, linkability) with the best of native (installable, connectivity independent). Now I see that balance shifting towards the native end of the scale at the expense of the web’s best features. I’d love to see that balance restored with a little less emphasis on the “Apps” and a little more emphasis on the “Web.” Now that would be progressive.
If the goal of the web is just to compete with native, then we’ve set the bar way too low.
So if you’ve been wary of investing the technologies behind progressive web apps because you’re “just” building a website, please try to see past the name. As Frances says:
It’s marketing, just like HTML5 had very little to do with actual HTML. PWAs are just a bunch of technologies with a zingy-new brandname.
Literally any website can—and should—be a progressive web app. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I was at an event last year where I heard Chris Heilmann say that you shouldn’t make your blog into a progressive web app. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He repeats that message in this video chat:
When somebody, for example, turns their blog into a PWA, I don’t see the point. I don’t want to have that icon on my homepage. This doesn’t make any sense to me.
Excuse me!? Just because you don’t want to have someone’s icon on your home screen, that person shouldn’t be using state-of-the-art technologies!? Excuse my French, but Fuck. That. Shit!
Our imaginations have become so limited by what native mobile apps currently do that we can’t see past merely imitating the status quo like a sad cargo cult.
I don’t want the web to equal native; I want the web to surpass it. I, for one, would prefer a reality where my home screen isn’t filled with the icons of startups and companies that have fulfilled the criteria of the gatekeepers. But a home screen filled with the faces of people who didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to publish? That’s what I want!
Like Frances says:
Remember, this is for everyone.
Monday, June 26th, 2017
AMP is a symptom that someone, somewhere, thinks the web is failing so badly (so slow, so unresponsive) for a portion of the world that they want to take all the content and package it back up in a sterile, un-webby, branded box. That makes me so sad. PWAs, to me, are a potential treatment.
Sunday, June 25th, 2017
The first of Neil Bomkamp’s series of short films—testbeds for potential feature films.
A website should not fight the browser. Let the browser provide the chrome, and simply provide the content.
This post is about Medium, but I think there’s a lesson here for progressive web apps too. A progressive web app should not fight the browser. Are you listening, Google?
A great collection of learned lessons from implementing service workers.
I really, really like it when people share their own personal experiences and “gotchas!” like this.
Bram hopes for a way to define aspect ratios natively in CSS. We can sort of manage it now, but all the solutions are pretty hacky.
A look at the feedback needed for a slider control that feels “right”.
You can get most of the behavioural (though not styling) suggestions in HTML by doing this:
<form> <input type="range" min="0" max="100" value="50" onchange="amount.value=this.value" onmousemove="amount.value=this.value"> <output name="amount">50</output> </form>
This is a fun game (I scored a measly 73/100). The idea is to develop a feeling for the balance between font-size, line-height, and line length …just like the three sides of an equilateral triangle.
Too many of them still set line-height, font size and line width as independent features when in fact they should all be considered together. The equilateral triangle is a perfect representation of how the three features work in harmony.
Can an opinionated flat design still have depth and truly be free of drop shadows?
Scott proposes a technique that mimics atmospheric perspective—y’know, when things in the distance look hazier than things in the foreground.
The fact is, we are surrounded by a world that is full of depth, and very little of it is defined by shadow. If we are going to replace drop shadows in our visual UI metaphors, we should look at other options that create depth in the world around us.
Saturday, June 24th, 2017
Friday, June 23rd, 2017
One week to Patterns Day
Patterns Day is one week from today—Friday, June 30th. I’m really looking forward to seeing you in Brighton.
If you’re arriving by train, the venue is a short walk away from the train station. The Duke Of York’s Picture House is at Preston Circus. You’ll recognise the building by its distinctive pair of artificial can-can legs emerging from the roof.
Registration starts at 9am. Show up with some ID, speak friend, and enter. Patterns Day is going to be a bit different to most conferences. Instead of getting a schwag bag and a name badge on a lanyard, you’re going to get a sticker to slap on yourself. The sticker identifies you as an attendee so please don’t lose it.
Once you’re registered, please help yourself to the free coffee, tea, and pastries. I’ll open up the show shortly before 10am with some introductory remarks, and then we’ll be all set for our first speaker at 10am. Here’s how the schedule is shaping up (but always subject to change):
There won’t be any conference WiFi. This is by design.
There’ll be a nice long lunch break from 12:30pm to 2pm. You’ll find plenty of tasty options in the neighbourhood. I’ve listed just a few on the Patterns Day website:
There’ll be more coffee and tea throughout the day, and maybe a nice bag of popcorn in the afternoon.
We’ll finish up before 5pm, at which point we can collectively retire to a nearby pub to continue our discussions. Or we can head to the seafront to douse our melting brains in the English channel. Let’s play it by ear.
I can’t wait to welcome you to Patterns Day, and I’m positively aquiver with anticipation of the talks we’re going to hear from the fantastic line-up of speakers: Laura, Ellen, Sareh, Rachel, Alice, Jina, Paul, and Alla.
See you soon!
Thursday, June 22nd, 2017
How the IETF redefined the process of creating standards.
To some visionary pioneers, such as Ted Nelson, who had been developing a purist hypertext paradigm called Xanadu for decades, the browser represented an undesirably messy direction for the evolution of the Internet. To pragmatists, the browser represented important software evolving as it should: in a pluralistic way, embodying many contending ideas, through what the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) calls “rough consensus and running code.”
Oh No! Our Stylesheet Only Grows and Grows and Grows! (The Append-Only Stylesheet Problem) | CSS-Tricks
I think Chris is on to something here when he identifies one of the biggest issues with CSS growing out of control:
The developers are afraid of the CSS.
A handy tool with some pre-made CSS clip paths that you can then tweak to your heart’s desire.
Analysing what the web is. It’s not the technology stack.
To count as being part of the web, your app or page must:
- Be linkable, and
- Allow any client to access it.
I think that’s a pretty good definition.
Mind you, I think this is a bit rich in an article published on The Verge:
The HTML web may be slow and annoying and processor intensive, but before we rush too fast into replacing it, let’s not lose what’s good about it.
Still, we can agree on this:
Preserving the web, or more specifically the open principles behind it, means protecting one of the few paths for innovation left in the modern tech world that doesn’t have a giant company acting as a gatekeeper.
Breaking down programming tasks into smaller chunks …and naming things.
I’ll take a piece of paper and write the function names I’m going to implement. Or I’ll do it directly in my code editor, with real functions or comments.
It allows you to focus on one problem at a time. When you’re writing those function names, you are thinking about what the code should be doing. When you’re implementing the functions, you are thinking about how the code should do it.
Mike examines the real power of CSS custom properties compared to Sass variables—they can change at runtime.
I’m convinced that in almost all cases, responsive design logic should now be contained in variables. There is a strong argument too, that when changing any value, whether in a media query or an element scope, it belongs in a variable. If it changes, it is by definition a variable and this logic should be separated from design.
Wednesday, June 21st, 2017
Reading Grass by Sheri S. Tepper.
Going to Bristol. brb
Tuesday, June 20th, 2017
Beautifully designed and typeset eBooks of royalty-free works—yours for the taking and reading.
There’s a styleguide if you want to get involved on the production side too.
Monday, June 19th, 2017
Sunday, June 18th, 2017
A great one-page intro to microformats (h-card in particular), complete with a parser that exports JSON. Bookmark this for future reference.
Beyond Curie is a design project that highlights badass women in science, technology, engineering + mathematics.
Saturday, June 17th, 2017
Bumming around London with some friends (in Shoreditch now). What should we do today?
Friday, June 16th, 2017
Thursday, June 15th, 2017
Wednesday, June 14th, 2017
A pretty good summary of some key indie web ideas.
Going to Amsterdam. brb
Tuesday, June 13th, 2017
The schedule for Patterns Day
There are only seventeen more days until Patterns Day. Squee!
I’ve got a plan now for how the day is going to run. Here’s the plan:
There was a great response to my call for sponsors. Thanks to Amazon Video, we’ll have video recordings of all the talks. Thanks to Deliveroo, we’ll have coffee and tea throughout the day …and pastries in the morning! …and popcorn in the afternoon!!
You’re on your own for lunch. I’ve listed some options on the website, but I should add some more.
I have to say, looking at the schedule for the day, I’m very excited about this line-up. To say I’m looking forward to it would be quite the understatement. I can’t wait!
Monday, June 12th, 2017
- People v. Dronimos
- Writers v. A.I. Rowling
- The Algorithm Defense
The following film describes an unusual motion picture now being produced in London for release all over the world, starting in early 1967.
A really great introduction to web components by Monica. But I couldn’t help but be disheartened by this:
Web components tend to have dependencies on other web components, so you need a package manager to herd all them cats.
For me, this kind of interdependence lessens the standalone nature of web components—it just doesn’t feel quite so encapsulated to me. I know that this can be solved with build tools, but now you’ve got two problems (and one more dependency).
The transcript of Josh’s fantastic talk on machine learning, voice, data, APIs, and all the other tools of algorithmic design:
The design and presentation of data is just as important as the underlying algorithm. Algorithmic interfaces are a huge part of our future, and getting their design right is critical—and very, very hard to do.
Josh put together ten design principles for conceiving, designing, and managing data-driven products. I’ve added them to my collection.
- Favor accuracy over speed
- Allow for ambiguity
- Add human judgment
- Advocate sunshine
- Embrace multiple systems
- Make it easy to contribute (accurate) data
- Root out bias and bad assumptions
- Give people control over their data
- Be loyal to the user
- Take responsibility
Sunday, June 11th, 2017
With New Browser Tech, Apple Preserves Privacy and Google Preserves Trackers | Electronic Frontier Foundation
It’s interesting to see how excessive surveillance is (finally!) being treated as damage and routed around. Apple seem to get it—they’re tackling the tracking issue. Meanwhile Google are focusing purely on the visibility and UX of invasive advertising, without taking steps against tracking.
There’s a huge opportunity here for Chrome’s competitors—if Firefox and Safari protect users from unwarranted tracking, that could be enough to get people to switch, regardless of the feature sets of the browsers.
Saturday, June 10th, 2017
Friday, June 9th, 2017
A conference in my old stomping grounds of Freiburg on archives, preservation, and long-term thinking:
It will present the state of art in long-term archiving as well as the present problems in preservation of information and scientific data in archives and libraries. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that, since all conceivable systems are finite but can be quite large, a choice on the contents has to be made. This requires thinking of the human condition: Who we are, what we are and what do we find worth to preserve.
Talking with the tall man about poetry
When I started making websites in the 1990s, I had plenty of help. The biggest help came from the ability to view source on any web page—the web was a teacher of itself. I also got plenty of help from people who generously shared their knowledge and experience. There was Jeffrey’s Ask Dr. Web, Steve Champeon’s WebDesign-L mailing list, and Jeff Veen’s articles on Webmonkey. Years later, I was able to meet those people. That was a real privilege.
I’ve known Jeff for over a decade now. He’s gone from Adaptive Path to Google to TypeKit to Adobe to True Ventures, and it’s always fascinating to catch up with him and get his perspective on life, the universe, and everything.
He started up a podcast called Presentable about a year ago. It’s worth having a dig through the archives to have a listen to his chats with people like Andy, Jason, Anna, and Jessica. I was honoured when Jeff asked me to be on the show.
We ended up having a really good chat. It’s out now as Episode 25: The Tenuous Resilience of the Open Web. I really enjoyed having a good ol’ natter, and I hope you might enjoy listening to it.
‘Sfunny, but I feel like a few unplanned themes came up a few times. We ended up talking about art, but also about the scientific aspects of design. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the title of Jeff’s classic book, The Art and Science of Web Design.
We also talked about my most recent book, Resilient Web Design, and that’s when I noticed another theme. When discussing the web-first nature of publishing the book, I described the web version as the canonical version and all the other formats as copies that were generated from that. That sounds a lot like how I describe the indie web—something else we discussed—where you have the canonical instance on your own site but share copies on social networks: Publish on Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere—POSSE.
We also talked about technologies, and it’s entirely possible that we sound like two old codgers on the front porch haranguing those damn kids on the lawn. You can be the judge of that. The audio is available for your huffduffing pleasure. If you enjoy listening to it half as much as I enjoyed doing it, then I enjoyed it twice as much as you.
Thursday, June 8th, 2017
“This is not natural UKIP territory”—said with classic BBC understatement describing Brighton.
Dave muses on the challenges of maintaining a pattern library:
- Rolling out a Pattern Library is infinitely harder than building one.
- If you don’t have pages, it’s doesn’t solve the problem.
- Vertical spacing will make or break you.
- The Pattern Library is dead if it’s not prioritized.
Wednesday, June 7th, 2017
This is what Jessica has been working on for the past year—working very hard, I can attest.
This wrap-up post is a fascinating insight into the translation process.
As you might expect, lots of sites just don’t work, but there are plenty of sites that work just fine—Google search, Amazon, Wikipedia, BBC News, The New York Times. Not bad!
Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
Sometimes our job titles and distinctions feel like the plastic grass in a sushi bento; flimsy and only there for decoration.
Your website’s only as strong as the weakest device you’ve tested it on.
A great description of one of the most powerful features in CSS Grid.
This function opens the door to us being able to write much more powerful and succinct CSS by allowing us to set, as a value for a grid track, a function including both a minimum and maximum value.
A style guide for voice interfaces.
This is an excellent move by Apple—interpreting cross-site tracking as damage and routing around it.
Monday, June 5th, 2017
eLife goes live
The World Wide Web was forged in the crucible of science. Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, a remarkable place where the pursuit of knowledge—rather than the pursuit of profit—is the driving force.
I often wonder whether the web as we know it—an open, decentralised system—could’ve been born anywhere else. These days it’s easy to focus on the success stories of the web in the worlds of commerce and social networking, but I still find there’s something that really “clicks” with the web and the science (Zooniverse being a classic example).
At Clearleft we’ve been lucky enough to work on science-driven projects like the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust. It’s incredibly rewarding to work on projects where the bottom line is measured in knowledge-sharing rather than moolah. So when we were approached by eLife to help them with an upcoming redesign, we jumped at the chance.
We usually help organisations through our expertise in user-centred design, but in this case the design and UX were already in hand. The challenge was in the implementation. The team at eLife knew that they wanted a modular pattern library to keep their front-end components documented and easily reusable. Given Clearleft’s extensive experience with building pattern libraries, this was a match made in heaven (or whatever the scientific non-theistic equivalent of heaven is).
A group of us travelled up from Brighton to Cambridge to kick things off with a workshop. Before diving into code, it was important to set out the aims for the redesign, and figure out how a pattern library could best support those aims.
Right away, I was struck by the great working relationship between design and front-end development within eLife—there was a great collaborative spirit to the endeavour.
Some goals for the redesign soon emerged:
- Promote the HTML reading experience as a 1st choice for readers.
- Align the online experience with the eLife visual identity.
That led to some design principles:
- Focus on content not site furniture.
- Remove visual clutter and provide no more than the user needs at any stage of the experience.
- Aid discovery of value added content beyond the manuscript.
Those design principles then informed the front-end development process. Together we came up with a priority of concerns:
- Taking advantage of browser capabilities
- Visual appeal
It’s interesting that maintainability was such a high priority that it superseded even performance, but we also proposed a hypothesis at the same time:
Maintainability doesn’t negatively impact performance.
The combination of the design principles and priorities led us to formulate approaches that could be used throughout the project:
- Progressive enhancement.
- Small-screen first responsive images.
- Only add libraries as needed.
Then we dived into the tech stack: build tools, version control approaches, and naming methodologies. BEM was the winner there.
None of those decisions were set in stone, but they really helped to build a solid foundation for the work ahead. Graham camped out in Cambridge for a while, embedding himself in the team there as they began the process of identifying, naming, and building the components.
The work continued after Clearleft’s involvement wrapped up, and I’m happy to say that it all paid off. The new eLife site has just gone live. It’s looking—and performing—beautifully.
What a great combination: the best of the web and the best of science!
eLife is a non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science.
If you use the ProcessWire Content Management System, Johannes has written a handy plug-in that allows you to specify which files should be cached by a service worker.
Sunday, June 4th, 2017
One of the topics I enjoy discussing at Indie Web Camps is how we can use design to display activity over time on personal websites. That’s how I ended up with sparklines on my site—it was the a direct result of a discussion at Indie Web Camp Nuremberg a year ago:
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.
Perhaps the most interesting visual example of my activity over time is on my Github profile. Halfway down the page there’s a calendar heatmap that uses colour to indicate the amount of activity. What I find interesting is that it’s using two axes of time over a year: days of the month across the X axis and days of the week down the Y axis.
I wanted to try something similar, but showing activity by time of day down the Y axis. A month of activity feels like the right range to display, so I set about adding a calendar heatmap to monthly archives. I already had the data I needed—timestamps of posts. That’s what I was already using to display sparklines. I wrote some code to loop over those timestamps and organise them by day and by hour. Then I spit out a table with days for the columns and clumps of hours for the rows.
I’m using colour (well, different shades of grey) to indicate the relative amounts of activity, but I decided to use size as well. So it’s also a bubble chart.
It doesn’t work very elegantly on small screens: the table is clipped horizontally and can be swiped left and right. Ideally the visualisation itself would change to accommodate smaller screens.
Still, I kind of like the end result. Here’s last month’s activity on my site. Here’s the same time period ten years ago. I’ve also added month heatmaps to the monthly archives for my journal, links, and notes. They’re kind of like an expanded view of the sparklines that are shown with each month.
From one year ago, here’s the daily distribution of
And then here’s the the daily distribution of everything in that month all together.
I realise that the data being displayed is probably only of interest to me, but then, that’s one of the perks of having your own website—you can do whatever you feel like.
When I was in Düsseldorf for this year’s excellent Beyond Tellerrand conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Nadieh Bremer, data visualisation designer extraordinaire. I asked her a question which is probably the equivalent of asking a chef what their favourite food is: “what’s your favourite piece of data visualisation?”
There are plenty of popular answers to this question—the Minard map, Jon Snow’s cholera map—but we had just been chatting about Nadieh’s previous life in astronomy, so one answer popped immediately to mind: the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.
I remember when I was first recommended to read Kim Stanley Robinson. I was chatting with Jon Tan about science fiction, and I was bemoaning the fact that dystopias seem to be the default setting. Asking "what’s the worst that could happen?" is the over-riding pre-occupation of most sci-fi. Black Mirror is the perfect example of this. Mind you, that’s probably why the ambiguous San Junipero is one of my favourites—utopia? dystopia? dystutopia? You decide.
Anyway, Jon told me I should check out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias; one book describes a dystopia, one book describes a utopia, and the other—his debut, The Wild Shore—is more ambiguous. I liked the sound of that, but I decided that if I were going to read Kim Stanley Robinson, I should start with his most famous work, the Mars trilogy.
So I read Red Mars. I liked it, but I found it tough going. It’s not exactly a light read. I still haven’t read Green Mars or Blue Mars, though I plan to. I can see why Red Mars is regarded as a classic of hard sci-fi, but it left me somewhat cold. Jessica read The Years of Rice and Salt and had a similar reaction—good premise, thoroughly researched, but tough going.
When I heard about 2312, I couldn’t resist its promise of a jaunt around the solar system. Again, I enjoyed it, but the plot—such as it was—didn’t grab me. I loved the ideas presented in the book. Heck, it inspired one of my Science Hack Day projects. Still, I found that its literary conceit wasn’t enough to carry the book—a character from Saturn who’s saturnian in nature meets a character from Mercury who’s mercurial in nature.
So I was kind of bracing myself for Aurora. Again, the subject matter really appealed to me. I’m a sucker for generation starships. Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop was a fun read, although in typical Aldiss style, it was weird to the point of psychedelia (even if it looks positively tame next to the batshit crazy world of Hothouse). I was looking forward to reading Robinson’s hard science take on the space ark idea, but I was worried about how much of a slog the writing might be. I read some reviews and listened to some podcasts, and my heart sank when I heard about how the story is partly told by the ship’s AI, who is simultaneously trying to work out how to tell a story. It sounded just like one of those ideas that would be fine for a brief period, but which I could imagine Kim Stanley Robinson dragging out for hundreds of page.
Imagine my surprise when Aurora turned out to be an absolute pleasure. Not only does it have the thoroughly-researched hard science angle of Robinson’s other books, it’s also a rip-roaring tale, in my opinion. I had read of misgivings with the structure of the book—complaints that the story climaxes before the book is halfway done—but I think that misses the point of the story. This is not your typical tale of colonisation. Far from it. Kim Stanley Robinson is quite open about the underlying idea here, that there are certain endeavours that are simply beyond our capacity.
I know that sounds like a very pessimistic view, but I found the book to be a real testament to human ingenuity. But it certainly ruffled quite a few feathers. Like I said, the default setting for most sci-fi is to go negative, but for a sci-fi writer to claim outright that something cannot be done is audacious, and flies in the face of sci-fi tradition.
Gregory Benford wrote a review over on one of my favourite blogs, Centauri Dreams. He takes Robinson to task for stacking the deck against the crew of the ship in Aurora—an inversion of the usual deus ex machina plot devices. I find that criticism puzzling when another review, also on Centauri Dreams, by Stephen Baxter, James Benford and Joseph Miller, takes the book to task for being scientifically naïve.
For me, Aurora was perfectly balanced. It simultaneously captured the wonder of scientific exploration and our own insignificance in the universe. Best of all, it featured central characters that I was utterly invested in—one human, and one artificial. Given my previous experiences with Kim Stanley Robinson books, that was perhaps its greatest achievement. Whereas I might have previously recommended something like 2312, I would have certainly caveated the recommendation. But I wholeheartedly recommend Aurora. It’s easily the best Kim Stanley Robinson book I’ve read so far, and one of the finest science fiction books of recent years. It makes a great companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves—not only are they both dealing with space arks, they’ve also got some in-depth descriptions of angular momentum in action, and they’re both thoroughly enjoyable stories that stretch beyond a single human lifespan.
I’m looking forward to digging back through Kim Stanley Robinson’s back catalogue, and I’m very intrigued by his newest book, New York 2140. From listening to his Long Now talk at The Interval, it sounds like the book has as much to say about near-future economics as it does about climate change.
It’s ironic though. Kim Stanley Robinson was first recommended to me because he was one of the few sci-fi writers unafraid to depict a utopia. But his writing never clicked with me until I read Aurora, whose central message sounds like the ultimate downer …that some scientific achievements will forever remain out of reach for humanity.
Saturday, June 3rd, 2017
This was my favourite talk from this year’s Interaction conference—packed full of insights, and delivered superbly.
It prompted so many thoughts, I found myself asking a question during the Q&A.
Friday, June 2nd, 2017
I’m about to write something about AppCache. I’m thinking of doing it in the style of H.P. Lovecraft.
…a full one-third of my window is covered by a pop-over trying to get me to sign in or sign up for Facebook. I will go out of my way to avoid linking to websites that are hostile to users with pop-overs. (For example, I’ve largely stopped linking to anything from Wired, because they have such an aggressive anti-ad-block detection scheme. Fuck them.)
Facebook forbids search engines from indexing Facebook posts. Content that isn’t indexable by search engines is not part of the open web.
And then there’s this:
And in the same way they block indexing by search engines, Facebook forbids The Internet Archive from saving copies of posts.
Thursday, June 1st, 2017
Perfect viewing conditions for the ISS flyover tonight—it was intensely bright against the clear night sky.
Oh my goodness! Maciej is channelling Jason Scott:
Delicious has over a billion bookmarks and is a fascinating piece of web history. Even Yahoo, for whom mismanagement is usually effortless, had to work hard to keep Delicious down. I bought it in part so it wouldn’t disappear from the web.