Archive: December 16th, 2020

Fluffy sheep grazing on the hillside in the low winter sunlight.

Fluffy sheep grazing on the hillside in the low winter sunlight.

npm ruin dev

This was originally published on CSS Tricks in December 2020 as part of a year-end round-up of responses to the question “What is one thing you learned about building websites this year?”

In 2020, I rediscovered the enjoyment of building a website with plain ol’ HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—no transpilin’, no compilin’, no build tools other than my hands on the keyboard.

Seeing as my personal brand could be summed up “so late to the game that the stadium has been demolished”, I decided to start a podcast in 2020. It’s the podcast of my agency, Clearleft, and it has been given the soaringly imaginative title of The Clearleft Podcast. I’m really pleased with how the first season turned out. I’m also really pleased with the website I put together for it.

The website isn’t very big, though it will grow with time. I had a think about what the build process for the site should be and after literally seconds of debate, I settled on a build process of none. Zero. Nada.

This turned out to be enormously liberating. It felt very hands-on to write the actual HTML and CSS that will be delivered to end users, without any mediation. I felt like I was getting my hands into the soil of the site.

CSS has evolved so much in recent years—with features like calc() and custom properties—that you don’t have to use preprocessors like Sass. And vanilla JavaScript is powerful, fully-featured, and works across browsers without any compiling.

Don’t get me wrong—I totally understand why complicated pipelines are necessary for complicated websites. If you’re part of a large team, you probably need to have processes in place so that everyone can contribute to the codebase in a consistent way. The more complex that codebase is, the more technology you need to help you automate your work and catch errors before they go live.

But that set-up isn’t appropriate for every website. And all those tools and processes that are supposed to save time sometimes end up wasting time further down the road. Ever had to revisit a project after, say, six or twelve months? Maybe you just want to make one little change to the CSS. But you can’t because a dependency is broken. So you try to update it. But it relies on a different version of Node. Before you know it, you’re Bryan Cranston changing a light bulb. You should be tweaking one line of CSS but instead you’re battling entropy.

Whenever I’m tackling a problem in front-end development, I like to apply the principle of least power: choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose. A classic example would be using a simple HTML button element instead of trying to recreate all the native functionality of a button using a div with lashings of ARIA and JavaScript. This year, I realized that this same principle applies to build tools too.

Instead of reaching for all-singing all-dancing toolchain by default, I’m going to start with a boring baseline. If and when that becomes too painful or unwieldy, then I’ll throw in a task manager. But every time I add a dependency, I’ll be limiting the lifespan of the project.

My new year’s resolution for 2021 will be to go on a diet. No more weighty node_modules folders; just crispy and delicious HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Here Dragons Abound: The Forever Project

I think that working on your own website can be a good Forever Project.

It’s an open-ended topic that you can explore for a long time without running out of challenges.

Also, this is spot-on:

Compare two different situations where you tell a story at a party. In the first situation, you tell the story in a corner to one or two people, who are totally interested and smiling. In the second situation, you tell the story in the center of the party with a large group of people around you, but they’re almost all bored and uninterested, talking amongst themselves and largely ignoring you. The first situation sounds better, right? Well, that’s the non-obvious benefit of blogging. There are a load of people out there blogging, and almost all of them are better writers and better looking than you. Nobody is going to read your blog about frabulizing widgets unless they really care about frabulizing widgets. So it’s not going to be a big audience, but it should be an interested audience. And I think you’ll find that you get 90% of the benefits of socialization from a handful of readers as you would get from a sea of readers.

🎶 One of these blurbs is not like the others, one of these blurbs doesn’t belong…🎶

https://blog.amp.dev/2020/12/14/amp-advisory-committee-2020-election-results/

Audio

I spent the last couple of weekends rolling out a new feature on The Session. It involves playing audio in a web page. No big deal these days, right? But the history involves some old file formats…

The first venerable format is ABC notation. File extension: .abc, mime type: text/vnd.abc. It’s an ingenious text format for musical notation using ASCII. The metadata of the piece of music is defined in JSON-like key/value pairs. Then the contents are encoded with letters: A, B, C, etc. Uppercase and lowercase denote different octaves. Numbers can be used for note lengths.

The format was created by Chris Walshaw in 1997 when dial-up was the norm. With ABC, people were able to swap tunes on email lists or bulletin boards without transferring weighty image or sound files. If you had ABC software on your computer, you could convert that lightweight text file into sheet music …or audio.

That brings me to the second old format: midi files. File extension: .mid, mime-type: audio/midi. Like ABC, it’s a lightweight format for encoding the instructions for music instead of the music itself.

Think of it like SVG: instead of storing the final pixels of an image, SVG stores the instructions for drawing the image instead. The instructions in a midi file are like “play this note for this long on this instrument.” Again, as with ABC, you need some software to turn the instructions into sound.

There was a time when lots of software could play midi files. Quicktime on the Mac, for example. You could even embed midi files in web pages. I mean literally embed them …with the embed element. No Geocities page was complete without an autoplaying midi file.

On The Session, people submit tunes in ABC format. Then, using the amazing ABCJS JavaScript library, the ABC is turned into SVG on the fly! For years I’ve also offered midi files, generated on the server from the ABC notation.

But times have changed. These days it’s hard to find software that plays midi files. Quicktime doesn’t do it anymore. And you’d need to go to the app store on iOS to find a midi file player. It’s time to phase out the midi files on The Session.

I still want to provide automatically-generated audio though. Fortunately ABCJS gives me a way to do this. But instead of using the old technology of midi files, it uses a more modern browser feature: the Web Audio API.

The end result sounds like a midi file, but the underlying technique is more like a synthesiser. There’s a separate mp3 file for each note. The JavaScript figures out how long each “sample” needs to be played for, strings them all together, and outputs them with Web Audio. So you’ve got cutting-edge browser technology recreating a much older file format. Paul Rosen—the creator of ABCJS—has a presentation explaining how it all works under the hood.

Not only is there a separate short mp3 file for each note in seven octaves, but if you want the sound of a different instrument, you need samples for all seven octaves in that instrument. They’re called soundfonts.

Paul provides soundfonts for ABCJS. It’s a repo that was forked from this repo from Benjamin Gleitzman. And here’s where it gets small worldy…

The reason why Benjamin has a repo of soundfonts is because he needed to create midi-like audio in the browser. He wanted to do this for a project on September 28th and 29th, 2013 …at Science Hack Day San Francisco!

I was there too—working on my own audio-related hack—and I remember the excellent (and winning) hack that Benjamin worked on. It was called Symphony of Satellites and it’s still online along with the promo video. Here’s Benjamin’s post-hackday write-up from seven years ago.

It’s rare that the worlds of the web and Irish music cross over. When I got to meet Paul—creator of ABCJS—at a web conference a couple of years ago it kind of blew my mind. Last weekend when I set out to dabble with a feature on The Session, I certainly didn’t expect to stumble on a connection to Science Hack Day! (Aside: the first Science Hack Day was ten years ago—yowzers!)

Anyway, I was able to get that audio playback working on The Session. Except for some weirdness on iOS that I had to fix. But that’s a hack for another day.

Replying to a tweet from @ChrisFerdinandi

Well, when the link text is “vanilla JavaScript”, who else am I going to link to?  😉