Languages, platforms, and systems that break from the norms of computing.
Wednesday, March 31st, 2021
Most work is pretty mundane. Even work on meaningful things. The most profound stuff is built one mostly boring brick at a time. Even the most creative ideas, the best art, the breakthroughs have to be assembled, and assembly isn’t typically what fires people up.
You don’t get to the exhilarating end without going through the mundane middle. And the beginning and end are the shortest parts — the middle is most of it.
Many, if not all, of our world’s most wicked problems are rooted in the excessive hiding of complexity behind illusions of simplicity—the relentless shielding of messy details in favor of easy-to-use interfaces.
But there’s always a tradeoff between complexity, truth, and control. The more details are hidden, the harder it is to understand how the system actually works. (And the harder it is to control). The map becomes less and less representative of the territory. We often trade completeness and control for simplicity. We’d rather have a map that’s easy to navigate than a map that shows us every single detail about the territory. We’d rather have a simple user interface than an infinitely flexible one that exposes a bunch of switches and settings. We don’t want to have to think too hard. We just want to get where we’re going.
Seamful and seamless design are reframed here as ethical and deceptive design:
Ethical design is like a glove. It obscures the underlying structure (i.e. your hand) but preserves some truth about its shape and how it works. Deceptive design is like a mitten. It obscures the underlying structure and also hides a lot about its shape and how it works.
Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
The principle of most availability
I’ve been thinking some more about the technical experience of booking a vaccination apointment and how much joy it brought me.
All of those technologies are platform-agnostic.
No matter what operating system I’m using, or what email software I’ve chosen, email works. It gets more complicated when you introduce HTML email. My response to that is the same as the old joke; you know the one: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” (“Well, don’t do that.”)
No matter what operating system my phone is using, SMS works. It gets more complicated when you introduce read receipts, memoji, or other additions. See my response to HTML email.
Then there’s the web. No matter what operating system I’m using on a device that could be a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop tower, and no matter what browser I’ve chosen to use, the World Wide Web works.
It feels like the principle of least power in action.
But another way of rephrasing “least power” is “most availability.” Technologies that are old, simple, and boring tend to be more widely available.
I remember when software used to come packaged in boxes and displayed on shelves. The packaging always had a list on the side. It looked like the nutritional information on a food product, but this was a list of “system requirements”: operating system, graphics card, sound card, CPU. I never liked the idea of system requirements. It felt so …exclusionary. And for me, the promise of technology was liberation and freedom to act on my own terms.
Alas, many developers don’t build with this mindset. I mean, I understand why: it means thinking about users with the most boring, least powerful technology. It’s simpler and more exciting to assume that everyone’s got a shared baseline of newer technology. But by doing that, you’re missing out on one of the web’s superpowers: that something served up at the same URL with the same underlying code can simultaneously serve people with older technology and also provide a whizz-bang experience to people with the latest and greatest technology.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the kind of communication technologies that are as universal as email, SMS, and the web.
QR codes are kind of heading in that direction, although I still have qualms because of their proprietary history. But there’s something nice and lo-fi about them. They’re like print stylesheets in reverse (and I love print stylesheets). A funky little bridge between the physical and the digital. I just wish they weren’t so opaque: you never know if scanning that QR code will actually take you to the promised resource, or if you’re about to rickroll yourself.
Telephone numbers kind of fall into the same category as SMS, but with the added option of voice. I’ve always found the prospect of doing something with, say, Twilio’s API more interesting than building something inside a walled garden like Facebook Messenger or Alexa.
I know very little about chat apps or voice apps, but I don’t think there’s a cross-platform format that works with different products, right? I imagine it’s like the situation with native apps which require a different codebase for each app store and operating system. And so there’s a constant stream of technologies that try to fulfil the dream of writing once and running everywhere: React Native, Flutter.
They’re trying to solve a very clear and obvious problem: writing the same app more than once is really wasteful. But that’s the nature of the game when it comes to runtime-specific apps. The only alternative is to either deliberately limit your audience …or apply the principle of least power/most availability.
The wastefulness of having to write the same app for multiple platforms isn’t the only thing that puts me off making native apps. The exclusivity works in two directions. There’s the exclusive nature of the runtime that requires a bespoke codebase. There’s also the exclusive nature of the app store. It feels like a return to shelves of packaged software with strict system requirements. You can’t just walk in and put your software on the shelf. That’s the shopkeeper’s job.
There is no shopkeeper for the World Wide Web.
Six years old. Still very astute. Still very true.
I don’t think I agree with Don Knuth’s argument here from a 2014 lecture, but I do like how he sets out his table:
Why do I, as a scientist, get so much out of reading the history of science? Let me count the ways:
- To understand the process of discovery—not so much what was discovered, but how it was discovered.
- To understand the process of failure.
- To celebrate the contributions of many cultures.
- Telling historical stories is the best way to teach.
- To learn how to cope with life.
- To become more familiar with the world, and to know how science fits into the overall history of mankind.
Monday, March 29th, 2021
Replying to a tweet from @harrybr
Have you seen this?
Season two of the Clearleft podcast
Design Leadership. Lots of smart people in this one. And I like that the source material is a real mix: conference talks, a roundtable discussion, and an interview.
Employee Experience Design. More of a deep dive than a broad overview. It’s pretty much a two-hander from Chris and Katie.
Accessibility. This one got a lot of attention, and rightly so in my opinion. It’s got three excellent contributors: Laura, Léonie, and Cassie. My job was to get out of the way and string their knowledge bombs together.
Prototyping. I had three good stories to work with from Benjamin, Lorenzo, and Trys. Then at the last minute I was able to add an interview with Adekunle which ties the whole thing up nicely.
Diversity and Inclusion. I think this might be the highlight of the season. Again, it’s got a mix of source material from conference talks and interviews. The quality of the contributions is exceptionally good. Once again, I found my job was to mostly get out of the way and line things up so they flowed well.
Remote Work. I wish I could see that it was my perfect planning that led to this episode being released exactly one year on from the start of lockdown. But really it was just a very fortunate coincidence. It did give this episode some extra resonance though. And I like that the final episode of the season has the widest range of contributors. It’s like the whole cast came back for the season finale.
I also wrote a bit about what I did behind the scenes for each episode of this season:
- Design Leadership
- Employee Experience Design
- Diversity and Inclusion
- Remote Work
My sincerest thanks to everyone who contributed to this season of the Clearleft podcast, especially everyone outside Clearleft who kindly agreed to be interviewed: Temi, Laura, Léonie, Adekunle, Rifa, and Elaine.
The Clearleft podcast will take a little break now and so will I. But I’m already thinking about topics for the next season. I feel like I’m starting to get a feel for what’s working so you can another six-episode season down the line.
19th Century NFTs of the Victorian transatlantic blockchain:
“A register will be kept of the orders as they are received…”
Ainissa Ramirez recounts the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, the Apollo project of its day.
Good to see Google, Mozilla, and Apple collaborating on fixing cross-browser CSS compatability issues:
- position: sticky
You can track progress here.
Just over a year ago, I pondered some default browser behaviours and how they might be updated.
The first one is happening: Chrome is going to assume
https before checking for
Now what about the other default behaviour that’s almost 15 years old now? When might a viewport width value of
device-width become the default?
Sunday, March 28th, 2021
Replying to a tweet from @dumbledad
The occassional non-Irish tune is okay but you should balance it out with four of five trad Irish submissions.
A good rule of thumb is: would I play this in an Irish session?
Saturday, March 27th, 2021
A lot happened in the first few years. I was born in England but my family back moved to Ireland when I was three. Then my father died not long after that. I was young enough that I don’t really have any specific memories of that time. I have hazy impressionistic images of London in my mind but at this point I don’t know if they’re real or imagined.
Most of this time was spent being a youngster in Cobh, county Cork. All fairly uneventful. Being a teenage boy, I was probably a dickhead more than I realised at the time. It was also the 80s so there was a lot of shittiness happening in the background: The Troubles; Chernobyl; Reagan and Thatcher; the constant low-level expectation of nuclear annihilation. And most of the music was terrible—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
This was the period with the most new experiences. I started my twenties by dropping out of Art College in Cork and moving to Galway to be a full-time slacker. I hitch-hiked and busked around Europe. I lived in Canada for six months. Eventually I ended up in Freiburg in southern Germany where I met Jessica. The latter half of this decade was spent there, settling down a bit. I graduated from playing music on the street to selling bread in a bakery to eventually making websites. Before I turned 30, Jessica and I got married.
We move to Brighton! I continue to make websites and play music with Salter Cane. Half way through my thirties I co-found Clearleft with Andy and Rich. I also start writing books and speaking at conferences. I find that not only is this something I enjoy, but it’s something I’m actually good at. And it gives me the opportunity to travel and see more of the world.
It’s more of the same for the next ten years. More Clearleft, more writing, more speaking and travelling. Jessica and I got a mortgage on a flat at the start of the decade and exactly ten years later we’ve managed to pay it off, which feels good (I don’t like having any debt hanging over me).
That last decade certainly feels less eventful than, say, that middle decade but then, isn’t that the way with most lives? As Phil says:
If my thirties went by more quickly than my twenties, my forties just zipped by.
You’ve got the formative years in your 20s when you’re trying to figure yourself out so you’re constantly dabbling in a bit of everything (jobs, music, drugs, travel) and then things get straighter. So when it comes to memories, your brain can employ a more rigourous compression algorithm. Instead of storing each year separately, your memories are more like a single year times five or ten. And so it feels like time passes much quicker in later life than it did in those more formative experimental years.
But experimentation can be stressful too—“what if I never figure it out‽” Having more routine can be satisfying if you’re reasonably confident you’ve chosen a good path. I feel like I have (but then, so do most people).
Now it’s time for the next decade. In the short term, the outlook is for more of the same—that’s the outlook for everyone while the world is on pause for The Situation. But once that’s over, who knows? I intend to get back to travelling and seeing the world. That’s probably more to do with being stuck in one place for over a year than having mid-century itchy feet.
I don’t anticipate any sudden changes in lifestyle or career. If anything, I plan to double down on doing things I like and saying “no” to any activities I now know I don’t like. So my future will almost certainly involve more websites, more speaking, maybe more writing, and definitely more Irish traditional music.
I feel like having reached the milestone of 50, I should have at least a few well-earned pieces of advice to pass on. The kind of advice I wish I had received when I was younger. But I’ve racked my brains and this is all I’ve got:
Never eat an olive straight off the tree. You know this already but maybe part of your mind thinks “how bad can it be really?” Trust me. It’s disgusting.
Replying to a tweet from @phillygirl
Actually, I meant fix that ship stuck in the Suez canal. Just ’cause my mind had allocated equal importance to that and The Minecraft Situation.
Very happy that one of them has been resolved!
Replying to a tweet from @phillygirl
Now do the ship.
Imagine the tech utopia of mainstream science fiction. The bustle of self-driving cars, helpful robot assistants, and holograms throughout the sparkling city square immediately marks this world apart from ours, but something else is different, something that can only be described in terms of ambiance. Everything is frictionless here: The streets are filled with commuters, as is the sky, but the vehicles attune their choreography to one another so precisely that there is never any traffic, only an endless smooth procession through space. The people radiate a sense of purpose; they are all on their way somewhere, or else, they have already arrived. There’s an overwhelming amount of activity on display at every corner, but it does not feel chaotic, because there is no visible strife or deprivation. We might appreciate its otherworldly beauty, but we need not question the underlying mechanics of this utopia — everything works because it was designed to work, and in this world, design governs the space we inhabit as surely and exactly as the laws of physics.
Black Mirror meets Henrietta Lacks in this short story by Erik Hoel who I had not heard of until today, when I came across his name here and also in a completely unrelated blog post by Peter Watts about the nature of dreams.
Friday, March 26th, 2021
I’ll say again: deprioritizing AMP in favor of Core Web Vitals is a very good thing. But it’s worth noting that Google’s taken its proprietary document format, and swapped it out for a proprietary set of performance statistics that has even less external oversight.
Thursday, March 25th, 2021
Richard MacManus has started a blog all about the history of web development—this is going straight to my RSS reader!
Most internet history books, websites, podcasts, etc, are from a business perspective. What’s missing, I believe, is an internet history with a technical point of view: which products were developed, the technologies used, how the web has changed over time, developmental trends, and so on.
Simply put, I want to describe how the web actually works and how that has evolved over the past 25-30 years.
Wednesday, March 24th, 2021
Google provided a distinct advantage to sites using AMP – priority placement on the world’s largest traffic source – Google search. I’ve had the pleasure of working with more than twenty thousand publishers in the five years since AMP’s launch, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a single reason that a publisher uses AMP other than to obtain this priority placement. Let me package that up for you – Google, the most dominant search engine globally – used that dominant market position to encourage publishers to adopt technology so that Google could store and serve publisher’s content on Google’s domain. How is that legal? Well, I’m not a lawyer, but it possibly isn’t.
The death of AMP can’t come soon enough.
If you’re currently using AMP, you’ll be able to get rid of that monstrosity in May, and if you aren’t, you’ll now be competing for search positions previously unavailable to you. For publishers, it is a win-win.
Replying to a post on remysharp.com
Personally I prefer code previews to code reviews:
Replying to a tweet from @frank_chimero
Can we talk about their deductive reasoning skills (or lack thereof)?
For example: “Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak …somewhere in this town.”
Somewhere in this town‽
Like, maybe, oh, I don’t know …the jail perhaps?
Given the widespread browser support for
prefers-reduced-motion now, this approach makes a lot of sense.
A good tutorial on making password fields accessible when you’ve got the option to show and hide the input.
Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021
Service worker weirdness in Chrome
I think I’ve found some more strange service worker behaviour in Chrome.
It all started when I was checking out the very nice new redesign of WebPageTest. I figured while I was there, I’d run some of my sites through it. I passed in a URL from The Session. When the test finished, I noticed that the “screenshot” tab said that something was being logged to the console. That’s odd! And the file doing the logging was the service worker script.
I fired up Chrome (which isn’t my usual browser), and started navigating around The Session with dev tools open to see what appeared in the console. Sure enough, there was a failed
fetch attempt being logged. The only time my service worker script logs anything is in the
catch clause of fetching pages from the network. So Chrome was trying to fetch a web page, failing, and logging this error:
The service worker navigation preload request failed with a network error.
But all my pages were loading just fine. So where was the error coming from?
After a lot of spelunking and debugging, I think I’ve figured out what’s happening…
First of all, I’m making use of navigation preloads in my service worker. That’s all fine.
Secondly, the website is a progressive web app. It has a manifest file that specifies some metadata, including
start_url. If someone adds the site to their home screen, this is the URL that will open.
Thirdly, Google recently announced that they’re tightening up the criteria for displaying install prompts for progressive web apps. If there’s no network connection, the site still needs to return a
200 OK response: either a cached copy of the URL or a custom offline page.
So here’s what I think is happening. When I navigate to a page on the site in Chrome, the service worker handles the navigation just fine. It also parses the manifest file I’ve linked to and checks to see if that start URL would load if there were no network connection. And that’s when the error gets logged.
I only noticed this behaviour because I had specified a query string on my start URL in the manifest file. Instead of a
start_url value of
/, I’ve set a
start_url value of
/?homescreen. And when the error shows up in the console, the URL being fetched is
Crucially, I’m not seeing a warning in the console saying “Site cannot be installed: Page does not work offline.” So I think this is all fine. If I were actually offline, there would indeed be an error logged to the console and that
start_url request would respond with my custom offline page. It’s just a bit confusing that the error is being logged when I’m online.
I thought I’d share this just in case anyone else is logging errors to the console in the
catch clause of fetches and is seeing an error even when everything appears to be working fine. I think there’s nothing to worry about.
Update: Jake confirmed my diagnosis and agreed that the error is a bit confusing. The good news is that it’s changing. In Chrome Canary the error message has already been updated to:
DOMException: The service worker navigation preload request failed due to a network error. This may have been an actual network error, or caused by the browser simulating offline to see if the page works offline: see https://w3c.github.io/manifest/#installability-signals
Visualising the growth of the internet.
I love, love, love this experiment from Matt—messin’ around in websites!
Monday, March 22nd, 2021
Vitaly has rounded up a whole load of accessibility posts. I think I’ve linked to most of them at some point, but it’s great to have them all gathered together in one place.
And, no, you don’t need to
npm install any of these. Try “vendoring” them instead (that’s copying and pasting to you and me).
Sunday, March 21st, 2021
This is a balm!
Choose a city, choose a radio station, choose a mode of transport (I like walking) and enjoy exploring.
A slot machine for speculation. Enter a topic and get a near-future scenario on that topic generated automatically.
Replying to a tweet from @scottjehl
Our two talks are going to be very on-message. I’m looking forward to the one-two punch!
Saturday, March 20th, 2021
A profile of Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive:
Tech’s walled gardens might make it harder to get a perfect picture, but the small team of librarians, digital archivists and software engineers at the Internet Archive plan to keep bringing the world the Wayback Machine, the Open Library, the Software Archive, etc., until the end of time. Literally.
I agree with this approach.
Friday, March 19th, 2021
My current score is one minute and 18 seconds. Can you beat it?
Thursday, March 18th, 2021
What’s important is that you test it with real users… and stop using hover menus.
I had this vision of the great bonfire at the end of time, and how there’s this conveyor belt moving towards it, filled with everything we’ve ever made: every word, every image, every artifact of culture and society, getting closer to the fire all the time.
And the job of places like the Library, of most institutions, and of a significant part of culture, is to keep shoving everything back, away from the fire, to find ways to restore and revive and convert it so that it stays accessible and meaningful and useful and beautiful.
And the job of the rest of the culture is to come up with new things to put on the conveyor belt, making that work so much harder. Sorry.
This is terrific! Jeremy shows how you can implement a fairly straightforward service worker for performance gains, but then really kicks it up a notch with a recipe for turning a regular website into a speedy single page app without framework bloat.
Wednesday, March 17th, 2021
Replying to a tweet from @peterme
I got a text this morning at 9:40am. It was from the National Health Service, NHS. It said:
You are now eligible for your free NHS coronavirus vaccination. Please book online at https://www.nhs.uk/covid-vaccination or by calling 119. You will need to provide your name, date of birth and postcode. Your phone number has been obtained from your GP records.
Well, it looks like I timed turning fifty just right!
I typed that URL in on my laptop. It redirected to a somewhat longer URL. There’s a very clear call-to-action to “Book or manage your coronavirus vaccination.” On that page there’s very clear copy about who qualifies for vaccination. I clicked on the “Book my appointments” button.
I consider myself relatively tech-savvy so I’m probably not the best judge of the complexity of the booking system, but it certainly seemed to be as simple as possible (but no simpler). It feels like the principle of least power in action.
SMS to HTML (with a URL as the connective tissue between the two). And if those technologies aren’t available, there’s still a telephone number, and finally, a letter by post.
This experience reminded me of where the web really excels. It felt a bit like the web-driven outdoor dining I enjoyed last summer:
Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.
A native app would’ve been complete overkill. That may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often the overkill option is the default.
Give me a URL—either by SMS or QR code or written down—and make sure that when I arrive at that URL, the barrier to entry is as low as possible.
Maybe I’ll never need to visit that URL again. In the case of the NHS, I hope I won’t need to visit again. I just need to get in, accomplish my task, and get out again. This is where the World Wide Web shines.
In five days time, I will get my first vaccine jab. I’m very thankful. Thank you to the NHS. Thank you to everyone who helped build the booking process. It’s beautiful.
Brian and Joschi are considering an interesting approach for their Material conference:
Maybe we should think about a “crop rotation” method for our event? One year in Iceland to help benefit the local community, then the following year move to Germany so it is easier for people to attend, then a third year of rest and change the format to a virtual or remote event. Then repeat on that three year cycle.
Robin makes a good point here about using dark mode thinking as a way to uncover any assumptions you might have unwittingly baked into your design:
Given its recent popularity, you might believe dark mode is a fad. But from a design perspective, dark mode is exceptionally useful. That’s because a big part of design is about building relationships between colors. And so implementing dark mode essentially forced everyone on the team to think long, hard, and consistently about our front-end design components. In short, dark mode helped our design system not only look good, but make sense.
So even if you don’t actually implement dark mode, acting as though it’s there will give you a solid base to build in.
I did something similar with the back end of Huffduffer and The Session—from day one, I built them as though the interface would be available in multiple languages. I never implemented multi-language support, but just the awareness of it saved me from baking in any shortcuts or assumptions, and enforced a good model/view/controller separation.
For most front-end codebases, the design of your color system shows you where your radioactive styles are. It shows you how things are tied together, and what depends on what.
I really like the approach that Carie takes here. Instead of pointing to specific patterns to use, she provides a framework for evaluating technology. Solutions come and go but this kind of critical thinking is a long-lasting skill.
Remote work on the Clearleft podcast
I didn’t interview anyone specifically for this episode. Instead, whenever I was chatting to someone about some other topic—design systems, prototyping, or whatever—I’d wrap up by asking them to describe their surroundings and ask them how they were adjusting to life at home. After two season’s worth of interviews, I had a decent library of responses. So this episode includes voices you last heard from back in season one: Paul, Charlotte, Amy, and Aarron.
Then the episode shifts. I’ve got excerpts from a panel discussion we held a while back on the future of work. These panel discussions used to happen up in London, but this one was, obviously, online. It’s got a terrific line-up: Jean, Holly, Emma, and Lola, all dialing in from different countries and all sharing their stories openly and honestly. (Fun fact: I first met Lola three years ago at the Pixel Up conference in South Africa and on this day in 2018 we were out on Safari together.)
I’m happy with how this episode turned out. It’s a fitting finish to the season. It’s just seventeen and a half minutes long so take a little time out of your day to have a listen.
As always, if you like what you hear, please spread the word.
Replying to a tweet from @HarschLanguage
Herzlichen Glückwunsch! Sieht sehr schön aus!
I just booked my vaccine appointments—this is a happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Tuesday, March 16th, 2021
Replying to a tweet from @heyjulesfern
This is like the Pluto-Goofy paradox all over again.
Remember how I said I was preparing an online conference talk? Well, I’m happy to say that not only is the talk prepared, but I’ve managed to successfully record it too.
If you want to see the finished results, come along to An Event Apart Spring Summit on April 19th. To sweeten the deal, I’ve got a discount code you can use when you buy any multi-day pass: AEAJEREMY.
Recording the talk took longer than I thought it would. I think it was because I said this:
It feels a bit different to prepare a talk for pre-recording rather than live delivery on stage. In fact, it feels less like preparing a conference talk and more like making a documentary.
Once I got that idea in my head, I think I became a lot fussier about the quality of the recording. “Would David Attenborough allow his documentaries to have the sound of a keyboard audibly being pressed? No! Start again!”
I’m pleased with the final results. And I’m really looking forward to the post-presentation discussion with questions from the audience. The talk gets provocative—and maye a bit ranty—towards the end so it’ll be interesting to see how people react to that.
It feels good to have the presentation finished, but it also feels …weird. It’s like the feeling that conference organisers get once the conference is over. You spend all this time working towards something and then, one day, it’s in the past instead of looming in the future. It can make you feel kind of empty and listless. Maybe it’s the same for big product launches.
The two big projects I’ve been working on for the past few months were this talk and season two of the Clearleft podcast. The talk is in the can and so is the final episode of the podcast season, which drops tomorrow.
On the one hand, it’s nice to have my decks cleared. Nothing work-related to keep me up at night. But I also recognise the growing feeling of doubt and moodiness, just like the post-conference blues.
The obvious solution is to start another big project, something on the scale of making a brand new talk, or organising a conference, or recording another podcast season, or even writing a book.
The other option is to take a break for a while. Seeing as the UK government has extended its furlough scheme, maybe I should take full advantage of it. I went on furlough for a while last year and found it to be a nice change of pace.
Monday, March 15th, 2021
I really enjoyed this 20 minute chat with Eric and Rachel all about web standards, browsers, HTML and CSS.
Based on the problems with accessiBe and its ilk, I have signed my name to this:
- We will never advocate, recommend, or integrate an overlay which deceptively markets itself as providing automated compliance with laws or standards.
- We will always advocate for the remediation of accessibility issues at the source of the original error.
- We will refuse to stay silent when overlay vendors use deception to market their products.
- More specifically, we hereby advocate for the removal of accessiBe, AudioEye, UserWay, User1st, MK-Sense, and all similar products and encourage the site owners who’ve implemented these products to use more robust, independent, and permanent strategies to making their sites more accessible.
Replying to a tweet from @markboulton
I quoted you on this topic in this episode of the Clearleft podcast:
You are cordially invited to join us:
Sunday, March 14th, 2021
This website is hosted across a network of solar powered servers and is sent to you from wherever there is the most sunshine.
Saturday, March 13th, 2021
Reading Broad Band by Claire L. Evans.
Friday, March 12th, 2021
I never knew that the way I add other people’s code to my projects is called “vendoring.” I thought it was just copying and pasting.
Replying to a post on adactio.com
It’s fascinating to imagine the alternate universes of possibilities that might have formed out of the early discussions around the topology of the web:
Developers, particularly in Silicon Valley firms, are definitionally wealthy and enfranchised by world-historical standards. Like upper classes of yore, comfort (“DX”) comes with courtiers happy to declare how important comfort must surely be. It’s bunk, or at least most of it is.
As frontenders, our task is to make services that work well for all, not just the wealthy. If improvements in our tools or our comfort actually deliver improvements in that direction, so much the better. But we must never forget that measurable improvement for users is the yardstick.
Replying to a tweet from @luzernvonlinks
Nein, wir kümmern uns nicht an solche Kleinigkeiten, Herr Haarspalter.
Thursday, March 11th, 2021
It’s official. The extremely niche browser behaviour I documented is a bug.
Replying to a tweet from @wanderview
Thanks so much for filing that bug—much appreciated!
Replying to a tweet from @AndyDavies
Oh, interesting! Image requests shouldn’t make a difference to that bit of the service worker. Thanks for spotting that!
Replying to a tweet from @erikkroes
Web components are spicy iframes.
Frames and iframes are different things.
When service workers met framesets
Oh boy, do I have some obscure browser behaviour for you!
To set the scene…
I’ve been writing here in my online journal for almost twenty years. The official anniversary will be on September 30th. But this website has been even online longer than that, just in a very different form.
Here’s the first version of adactio.com.
Like a tour guide taking you around the ruins of some lost ancient civilisation, let me point out some interesting features:
- Observe the
.shtmlfile extension. That means it was once using Apache’s server-side includes, a simple way of repeating chunks of markup across pages. Scientists have been trying to reproduce the wisdom of the ancients using modern technology ever since.
- See how the layout is
100vh? Well, this was long before viewport units existed. In fact there is no CSS at all on that page. It’s one big
tableelement with 100% width and 100% height.
- So if there’s no CSS, where is the
border-radiuscoming from? Let me introduce you to an old friend—the non-animated GIF. It’s got just enough transparency (though not proper alpha transparency) to fake rounded corners between two solid colours.
if (navigator.appName == "Netscape")
Note that these are not iframes, they are frames. Different thing. You could create single page apps long before Ajax was a twinkle in Jesse James Garrett’s eye.
If you view source, you’ll see a React-like component system. Each
frameset component contains
frame components that are isolated from one another. They’re like web components. Each frame has its own (non-shadow) DOM. That’s because each frame is actually a separate web page. If you right-click on any of the frames, your browser should give the option to view the framed document in its own tab or window.
Now for the part where modern and ancient technologies collide…
If you’re looking at the frameset URL in Firefox or Safari, everything displays as it should in all its ancient glory. But if you’re looking in Google Chrome and you’ve visited adactio.com before, something very odd happens.
Each frame of the frameset displays my custom offline page. The only way that could be served up is through my service worker script. You can verify this by opening the framest URL in an incognito window—everything works fine when no service worker has been registered.
I have no idea why this is happening. My service worker logic is saying “if there’s a request for a web page, try fetching it from the network, otherwise look in the cache, otherwise show an offline page.” But if those page requests are initiated by a
frame element, it goes straight to showing the offline page.
Is this a bug? Or perhaps this is the correct behaviour for some security reason? I have no idea.
I wonder if anyone has ever come across this before. It’s a very strange combination of factors:
- a domain served over HTTPS,
- that registers a service worker,
- but also uses framesets and frames.
I could submit a bug report about this but I fear I would be laughed out of the bug tracker.
Still …the World Wide Web is remarkable for its backward compatibility. This behaviour is unusual because browser makers are at pains to support existing content and never break the web.
Technically a modern website (one that registers a service worker) shouldn’t be using deprecated technology like frames. But browsers still need to be able support those old technologies in order to render old websites.
This situation has only arisen because the same domain—adactio.com—is host to a modern website and a really old one.
Maybe Chrome is behaving strangely because I’ve built my online home on ancient burial ground.
It’s all to do with navigation preloads and the value of
event.preloadResponse, which I believe is only supported in Chrome which would explain the differences between browsers.
According to this post by Jake:
event.preloadResponse is a promise that resolves with a response, if:
- Navigation preload is enabled.
- The request is a GET request.
- The request is a navigation request (which browsers generate when they’re loading pages, including iframes).
event.preloadResponseis still there, but it resolves with
Notice that iframes are mentioned, but not frames.
My code was assuming that if
event.preloadRepsonse exists in my block of code for responding to page requests, then there’d be a response. But if the request was initiated from a frameset, it is a request for a page and
event.preloadRepsonse does exist …but it’s undefined.
I’ve updated my code now to check this assumption (and fall back to
This may technically still be a bug though. Shouldn’t a page loaded from a frameset count as a navigation request?
Replying to a tweet from @rem
TOAST! TOAST! TOAST! TOAST! TOAST! TOAST!
A wonderful look at the kind of links we didn’t get on the World Wide Web.
From the memex and Xanadu right up to web mentions, this ticks all my boxes!
Single page apps are just spicy framesets.
Wednesday, March 10th, 2021
When you stare into the abyss, sometimes the abyss stares back.
Wait. The abyss is on mute. “Abyss! You’re on mute!”
Oh, I’m on mute too.
That explains all the staring.
Your grandmother is not just a starship, she’s a highly individual starship with her own goals and needs!
Diversity and inclusion on the Clearleft podcast
This might be my favourite episode so far. That might be because I’m not in it very much at all. I’ve kept my editorialising to a minimum to focus on the important voices.
Margaret Lee tells a powerful personal story from her talk at Leading Design in New York two years ago, Insights from a Reluctant Leader.
From the same event, there’s Farai Madzima talking about Cultural bias in design(ers). If you’ve seen Farai speak, then you know how engaging he is. This segment also gave me the opportunity to splice in some music. That was a fun technical challenge.
I also talked to Rifa. As well as getting her story for the podcast, it was just really great to catch up with her again. It’s been far too long.
The mission is to make workplaces fairer, happier and more productive. Through bespoke workshops, coaching and consultancy services; we support organisations to make sustainable changes that are relevant for today’s societal and business needs.
It was a real pleasure to take these four fantastic voices and put them together into one narrative thread. I have to say, I’m really pleased with the end result. I hope you’ll give it a listen. It’s 23 minutes long.
And please share this episode if you think it deserves a wider hearing.
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021
March 2020 was the month when the coronavirus really hit the fan for much of Europe and North America.
It’s now March 2021. People are understandably thinking about this time last year. Tantek wrote about this anniversary:
We reached our disembarkation stop and stepped off. I put my mask away. We hugged and said our goodbyes. Didn’t think it would be the last time I’d ride MUNI light rail. Or hug a friend without a second thought.
The next morning, before travelling back to Brighton (where we’ve been ever since), we had breakfast together in a nice café.
Eating toast with @Rem.
Usually when I post toast updates, it’s a deliberate attempt to be banal. It harks back to the early criticism of blogging as just being people sharing what they’re having for lunch.
But now I look back at that little update and it seems like a momentous event worth shouting from the rooftops. Breaking bread with a good friend? What I wouldn’t give to do that again!
I can’t wait until I can be together with my friends again, doing utterly ordinary things together. To “wallow in the habitual, the banal” as the poet Patrick Kavanagh put it.
I miss hanging out with Tantek. I miss hanging out with Remy. I miss hanging out.
But I’m looking forward to being in a very different situation in March 2022, when I can look back at this time as belonging to a different era.
Between now and then, there’ll be a gradual, bumpy, asynchronous reintroduction of the everyday social pleasures. I won’t take them for granted. I’ll be posting about toast and other everyday occurrences “wherever life pours ordinary plenty.”
One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.
Sometimes a colleague will send a link to a Google Doc where they’ve written an article. I can then go through it and suggest changes. Using the “suggest” mode rather than the “edit” mode in Google Docs means that they can accept or reject each suggestion later.
But what works better—and is far more fun—is if we arrange to have a video call while we both have the Google Doc open in our browsers. That way, instead of just getting the suggestions, we can talk through the reasoning behind each one. It feels more like teaching them to fish instead of giving them a grammatically correct fish.
Some of the suggestions are very minor; punctuation, capitalisation, stuff like that. Where it gets really interesting is trying to figure out and explain why some sentence constructions feel better than others.
A fairly straightforward example is long sentences. Not all long sentences are bad, but the longer a sentence gets, the more it runs the risk of overwhelming the reader. So if there’s an opportunity to split one long sentence into two shorter sentences, I’ll usually recommend that.
Here’s an example from Chris’s post, Delivering training remotely – the same yet different. The original sentence read:
I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions on product design and research techniques with the design team at Duck Duck Go.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But maybe this is a little easier to digest:
I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions with the design team at Duck Duck Go. We covered product design and research techniques.
Perhaps this is kind of like the single responsibility principle in programming. Whereas the initial version was one sentence that conveyed two pieces of information (who the training was with and what the training covered), the final version has a separate sentence for each piece of information.
I wouldn’t take that idea too far though. Otherwise you’d end up with something quite stilted and robotic.
Speaking of sounding robotic, I’ve noticed that people sometimes avoid using contractions when they’re writing online: “there is” instead of “there’s” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” Avoiding contractions seems to be more professional, but actually it makes the writing a bit too formal. There’s a danger of sounding like a legal contract. Or a Vulcan.
Sometimes a long sentence can’t be broken down into shorter sentences. In that case, I watch out for how much cognitive load the sentence is doling out to the reader.
Here’s an example from Maite’s post, How to engage the right people when recruiting in house for research. One sentence initially read:
The relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide have a great impact on the quality of the insights that you get.
The verb comes quite late there. As a reader, until I get to “have a great impact”, I have to keep track of everything up to that point. Here’s a rephrased version:
The quality of the insights that you get depends on the relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide.
Okay, there are two changes there. First of all, the verb is now “depends on” instead of “have a great impact on.” I think that’s a bit clearer. Secondly, the verb comes sooner. Now I only have to keep track of the words up until “depends on”. After that, I can flush my memory buffer.
Here’s another changed sentence from the same article. The initial sentence read:
You will have to communicate at different times and for different reasons with your research participants.
I suggested changing that to:
You will have to communicate with your research participants at different times and for different reasons.
To be honest, I find it hard to explain why that second version flows better. I think it’s related to the idea of reducing dependencies. The subject “your research participants” is dependent on the verb “to communicate with.” So it makes more sense to keep them together instead of putting a subclause between them. The subclause can go afterwards instead: “at different times and for different reasons.”
Here’s one final example from Katie’s post, Service Designers don’t design services, we all do. One sentence initially read:
Understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments is key to creating a compelling user experience.
That sentence could be broken into shorter sentences, but it might lose some impact. Still, it can be rephrased so the reader doesn’t have to do as much work. As it stands, until the reader gets to “is key to creating”, they have to keep track of everything before that. It’s like the feeling of copying and pasting. If you copy something to the clipboard, you want to paste it as soon as possible. The longer you have to hold onto it, the more uncomfortable it feels.
So here’s the reworked version:
The key to creating a compelling user experience is understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments.
As a reader, I can digest and discard each of these pieces in turn:
- The key to creating a compelling user experience is…
- understanding the relationships between these moments…
- digital and non-digital…
- designing across and between these moments.
Maybe I should’ve suggested “between these digital and non-digital moments” instead of “between these moments, digital and non-digital”. But then I worry that I’m intruding on the author’s style too much. With the finished sentence, it still feels like a rousing rallying cry in Katie’s voice, but slightly adjusted to flow a little easier.
I must say, I really, really enjoy being a content buddy. I know the word “editor” would be the usual descriptor, but I like how unintimidating “content buddy” sounds.
I am almost certainly a terrible content buddy to myself. Just as I ignore my own advice about preparing conference talks, I’m sure I go against my own editorial advice every time I blurt out a blog post here. But there’s one piece I’ve given to others that I try to stick to: write like you speak.
Replying to a tweet from @slightlylate
Monday, March 8th, 2021
This could give a big boost to web performance!
This is a really interesting take on the intersection between accessibility and progressive enhancement (which I always felt was there, but this expresses it well):
Accessibility aims to optimize an experience across a spectrum of user capabilities. Progressive enhancement aims to optimize an experience across a spectrum of user agent capabilities.
Indeed, if you broaden the definition of “user agent” to include a user’s physiology, I think the concepts become nearly identical.
Preparing an online conference talk
I’m terrible at taking my own advice.
Hana wrote a terrific article called You’re on mute: the art of presenting in a Zoom era. In it, she has very kind things to say about my process for preparing conference talks.
As it happens, I’m preparing a conference talk right now for delivery online. Am I taking my advice about how to put a talk together? I am on me arse.
Perhaps the most important part of the process I shared with Hana is that you don’t get too polished too soon. Instead you get everything out of your head as quickly as possible (probably onto disposable bits of paper) and only start refining once you’re happy with the rough structure you’ve figured out by shuffling those bits around.
But the way I’ve been preparing this talk has been more like watching a progress bar. I started at the start and even went straight into slides as the medium for putting the talk together.
It was all going relatively well until I hit a wall somewhere between the 50% and 75% mark. I was blocked and I didn’t have any rough sketches to fall back on. Everything was a jumbled mess in my brain.
It all came to a head at the start of last week when that jumbled mess in my brain resulted in a very restless night spent tossing and turning while I imagined how I might complete the talk.
This is a terrible way of working and I don’t recommend it to anyone.
The problem was I couldn’t even return to the proverbial drawing board because I hadn’t given myself a drawing board to return to (other than this crazy wall of connections on Kinopio).
My sleepless night was a wake-up call (huh?). The next day I forced myself to knuckle down and pump out anything even if it was shit—I could refine it later. Well, it turns out that just pumping out any old shit was exactly what I needed to do. The act of moving those fingers up and down on the keyboard resulted in something that wasn’t completely terrible. In fact, it turned out pretty darn good.
The idea here is to get everything out of my head.
I should’ve listened to that guy.
At this point, I think I’ve got the talk done. The progress bar has reached 100%. I even think that it’s pretty good. A giveaway for whether a talk is any good is when I find myself thinking “Yes, this has good points well made!” and then five minutes later I’m thinking “Wait, is this complete rubbish that’s totally obvious and doesn’t make much sense?” (see, for example, every talk I’ve ever prepared ever).
Now I just to have to record it. The way that An Event Apart are running their online editions is that the talks are pre-recorded but followed with live Q&A. That’s how the Clearleft events team have been running the conference part of the Leading Design Festival too. Last week there were three days of this format and it worked out really, really well. This week there’ll be masterclasses which are delivered in a more synchronous way.
It feels a bit different to prepare a talk for pre-recording rather than live delivery on stage. In fact, it feels less like preparing a conference talk and more like making a documentary. I guess this is what life is like for YouTubers.
I think the last time I was in a cinema before The Situation was at the wonderful Duke of York’s cinema here in Brighton for an afternoon showing of The Proposition followed by a nice informal chat with the screenwriter, one Nick Cave, local to this parish. It was really enjoyable, and that’s kind of what Leading Design Festival felt like last week.
I wonder if maybe we’ve been thinking about online events with the wrong metaphor. Perhaps they’re not like conferences that have moved online. Maybe they’re more like film festivals where everyone has the shared experience of watching a new film for the first time together, followed by questions to the makers about what they’ve just seen.
You don’t have to use web fonts—there are some pretty nice options if you stick to system fonts (like Georgia, Charter, and Palatino).
The Right Number is a gentle, noncommercial space where your only job is to be yourself. Upon dialing you’ll be connected to a voicemail box and given a brief prompt. You have three minutes to answer however you’d like.
Vasilis offers some research that counters this proposal.
It makes much more sense to start each page with the content people expect on that page. Right? And if you really need navigation (which is terribly overrated if you ask me) you can add it in the footer. Which is the correct place for metadata anyway.
That’s what I’ve done on The Session.
Sunday, March 7th, 2021
I like this proposal, and I like that it’s polyfillable (which is a perfectly cromulent word).
This is easily my favourite use of a machine learning algorithm.
Replying to a tweet from @KittyGiraudel
I found (and updated) just one other instance: https://adactio.com/journal/10000
I’m very taken with Github’s tab-container element—this is exactly how I think web components should be designed!
Expect more poignant one-year anniversary memories this March.
We reached our disembarkation stop and stepped off. I put my mask away. We hugged and said our goodbyes. Didn’t think it would be the last time I’d ride MUNI light rail. Or hug a friend without a second thought.
Replying to a tweet from @brendandawes
And nary a word on the unconscionable profligate waste of energy that is Proof of Work.
e.g. Arcade Machine Dreams: Tractor Beam http://cryptoart.wtf/#address=0xc9d673008b8f08103e7a3e096b6fdd56fc575d49
Will It Funge?
Saturday, March 6th, 2021
Very pleased that BBC iPlayer now has the television adaptation of Dan Simmons’s The Terror.
Or, as @wordridden calls it, Monster And Commander.
Privacy-invasive user tracking is to Google and Facebook what carbon emissions are to fossil fuel companies — a form of highly profitable pollution that for a very long time few people in the mainstream cared about, but now, seemingly suddenly, very many care about quite a bit.
Having only the content I want to see only be shown when I want to see it with the freedom to jump between readers as I please, all with no ads? For me, no other service comes close to the flexibility, robustness, and overall ease-of-use that RSS offers.
Today’s young tech policy professionals are are, quite rightfully, responding to the only internet in the only world they have ever known. The awful one. The one where the internet was and is a handful of billion-pound companies. The one where the internet has only ever been petrol on a fire. The one where the internet has been essential infrastructure like water and heat, not a thing you had to request and master. The closed internet made for them. Not the open internet I got to make.
So if you think that the biggest threat to encryption is elderly politicians who still need their secretaries to print out emails for them, it’s time you found yourself in a meeting with someone under the age of 30 who is going to war against encryption because he has never needed encryption in his life.
Anyone who is unironically into NFTs just sounds like Nathan Barley to me.
“A self-facilitating non-fungible media node, yeah?”
The difference being that Nathan Barley didn’t burn the planet for kicks.
Thursday, March 4th, 2021
Replying to a tweet from @boagworld
It was an honour for me to be there for such a bittersweet momentous finale!
Replying to a tweet from @LeonieWatson
Then it can be both a witty literary reference and a nice short name to go with Bert.
Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021
Replying to a post on adactio.com
Though I did once do a karaoke duet of Jackson with @grigs—he was Johnny; I was June.
Replying to a tweet from @brad_frost
Prototyping on the Clearleft podcast
There’s a bit of a narrative thread in there about airplanes, kicked off by a great story Benjamin tells about testing a physical prototype …of the inside of a transatlantic airliner. Lorenzo recounts his story of mocking up a fake CMS with readily-available tools. And Trys tells of a progressive web app he whipped up for our friends at Suffolk Libraries. There’s even a bit about Hack Farm in there too.
But just to make sure it isn’t too much of a Clearleft love-in, I also interviewed an outside expert: Adekunle Oduye. It was very kind of him to give up his time, especially considering he had just moved house …in a pandemic!
There are some great words of wisdom, immortalised in the transcript:
Prototypical code isn’t production code. It’s quick and it’s often a little bit dirty and it’s not really fit for purpose in that final deliverable. But it’s also there to be inspiring and to gather a team and show that something is possible.
If you’re building something and you’re not really sure if it’s a right solution, use the word prototype versus design, because I feel like when people say design, that’s like the end result.
I always think of a prototype as a prop. It’s something to look at, something to prod. And ideally you’re trying to work out what works and what doesn’t.
If you like what you hear, please spread the word. Tell your Slack colleagues, your Twitter friends, your LinkedIn acquaintances. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can remedy that on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and anywhere that accepts RSS.
Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021
Replying to a tweet from @chriscoyier
Speaking of his novel Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut said it was the only story of his whose moral he knew:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
A very affecting short story by Ben. I look forward to reading more of these.
There’s a voice inside your head that prevents you from sharing ideas—punch it in the face. - Airbag Industries
Violence is never the answer, unless you’re dealing with nazis or your inner critic.
The excuses—or, I’m sorry, reasons—I hear folks say they can’t write include: I’m not very good at writing (you can’t improve if you don’t write often), my website isn’t finished (classic, and also guilty so shut up), and I don’t know what to write about, there’s nothing new for me to add (oh boy).
Monday, March 1st, 2021
Oh, nice! A version of the classic Proxima Nova that’s a variable font that allows you to vary weight, width, and slant.
This is handy—an up-to-date list of tests run on form fields with different combinations of screen readers and browsers.
Replying to a tweet from @SaraSoueidan
I was wondering the same thing a while back:
Still haven’t got an answer though.