Journal

2685 sparkline

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

Custom properties

I made the website for the Clearleft podcast last week. The design is mostly lifted straight from the rest of the Clearleft website. The main difference is the masthead. If the browser window is wide enough, there’s a background image on the right hand side.

I mostly added that because I felt like the design was a bit imbalanced without something there. On the home page, it’s a picture of me. Kind of cheesy. But the image can be swapped out. On other pages, there are different photos. All it takes is a different class name on that masthead.

I thought about having the image be completely random (and I still might end up doing this). I’d need to use a bit of JavaScript to choose a class name at random from a list of possible values. Something like this:

var names = ['jeremy','katie','rich','helen','trys','chris'];
var name = names[Math.floor(Math.random() * names.length)];
document.querySelector('.masthead').classList.add(name);

(You could paste that into the dev tools console to see it in action on the podcast site.)

Then I read something completely unrelated. Cassie wrote a fantastic article on her site called Making lil’ me - part 1. In it, she describes how she made the mouse-triggered animation of her avatar in the footer of her home page.

It’s such a well-written technical article. She explains the logic of what she’s doing, and translates that logic into code. Then, after walking you through the native code, she shows how you could use the Greeksock library to achieve the same effect. That’s the way to do it! Instead of saying, “Here’s a library that will save you time—don’t worry about how it works!”, she’s saying “Here’s it works without a library; here’s how it works with a library; now you can make an informed choice about what to use.” It’s a very empowering approach.

Anyway, in the article, Cassie demonstrates how you can use custom properties as a bridge between JavaScript and CSS. JavaScript reads the mouse position and updates some custom properties accordingly. Those same custom properties are used in CSS for positioning. Voila! Now you’ve got the position of an element responding to mouse movements.

That’s what made me think of the code snippet I wrote above to update a class name from JavaScript. I automatically thought of updating a class name because, frankly, that’s how I’ve always done it. I’d say about 90% of the DOM scripting I’ve ever done involves toggling the presence of class values: accordions, fly-out menus, tool-tips, and other progressive disclosure patterns.

That’s fine. But really, I should try to avoid touching the DOM at all. It can have performance implications, possibly triggering unnecessary repaints and reflows.

Now with custom properties, there’s a direct line of communication between JavaScript and CSS. No need to use the HTML as a courier.

This made me realise that I need to be aware of automatically reaching for a solution just because that’s the way I’ve done something in the past. I should step back and think about the more efficient solutions that are possible now.

It also made me realise that “CSS variables” is a very limiting way of thinking about custom properties. The fact that they can be updated in real time—in CSS or JavaScript—makes them much more powerful than, say, Sass variables (which are more like constants).

But I too have been guilty of underselling them. I almost always refer to them as “CSS custom properties” …but a lot of their potential comes from the fact that they’re not confined to CSS. From now on, I’m going to try calling them custom properties, without any qualification.

Monday, July 6th, 2020

Announcing the Clearleft podcast

I’ve been working on something new for the past few months and now I’d like to share it with you…

The Clearleft Podcast.

Now I know what you’re thinking: aren’t there enough podcasts in the world already? Well, frankly, no. Unless you also concede that there are enough books and records and films in the world already too (to be fair, this is a reasonable thought to have when you’re navigating Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix).

In any case, this podcast is going to be a bit different.

In our field, the usual podcast format is in the form of a conversation: a host or hosts interviewing a guest or guests. Those are great. I’ve certainly enjoyed being the guest on many a great podcast. But I wanted to do something a bit more like an audio documentary.

If you’ve seen a lot of documentaries you’ll know that there are two key factors to getting a great story:

  1. the source material and
  2. the editing.

That’s what makes the Clearleft podcast different.

For the source material, I’ve interviewed my colleagues at Clearleft as well as our peers in other companies. I’ve also gathered great material from conference talks—we’ve got a wealth of wonderful insights from multiple editions of events like UX London, Leading Design, Ampersand, Responsive Day Out, Patterns Day, and dConstruct.

A lot of work has gone into the editing. It probably works out at about an hour of work per minute of podcast. I know that seems excessive, but I really wanted to get a snappy feel for each episode, juxtaposing multiple viewpoints.

The focus of the episode will be around a particular topic rather than a person and will feature lots of different voices woven together. The really challenging part is threading a good narrative. It’s kind of like preparing a conference talk in that respect—I’ve always found the narrative thread to be the hardest but most rewarding part of putting a talk together.

It’s simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking to put this out into the world. But I think you’re going to enjoy it.

Visit the website for the podcast and choose your preferred method of subscribing. There’s the RSS feed, but the Clearleft podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Deezer, TuneIn, Castro, and Overcast.

The first episode will go live later this week. In the meantime, there’s a short trailer to give you a taste of what’s to come.

The episodes will be grouped together into seasons. I reckon a season will around six episodes long. So you can expect the first season to be released over the next six weeks.

Hope you like it!

podcast.clearleft.com

Saturday, July 4th, 2020

Feeds

A little while back, Marcus Herrmann wrote about making RSS more visible again with a /feeds page. Here’s his feeds page. Here’s Remy’s.

Seems like a good idea to me. I’ve made mine:

adactio.com/feeds

As well as linking to the usual RSS feeds (blog posts, links, notes), it’s also got an explanation of how you can subscribe to a customised RSS feed using tags.

Then, earlier today, I was chatting with Matt on Twitter and he asked:

btw do you share your blogroll anywhere?

So now I’ve added another URL:

adactio.com/feeds/subscriptions

That’s got a link to my OPML file, exported from my feed reader, and a list of the (current) RSS feeds that I’m subscribed to.

I like the idea of blogrolls making a comeback. And webrings.

The Machines Stop

The Situation feels like it’s changing. It’s not over, not by a long shot. But it feels like it’s entering a different, looser phase.

Throughout the lockdown, there’s been a strange symmetry between the outside world and the inside of our home. As the outside world slowed to a halt, so too did half the machinery in our flat. Our dishwasher broke shortly before the official lockdown began. So did our washing machine.

We had made plans for repairs and replacements, but as events in the world outside escalated, those plans had to be put on hold. Plumbers and engineers weren’t making any house calls, and rightly so.

We even had the gas to our stovetop cut off for a while—you can read Jessica’s account of that whole affair. All the breakdowns just added to the entropic Ballardian mood.

But the gas stovetop was fixed. And so too was the dishwasher, eventually. Just last week, we got our new washing machine installed. Piece by piece, the machinery of our interier world revived in lockstep with the resucitation of the world outside.

As of today, pubs will be open. I won’t be crossing their thresholds just yet. We know so much more about the spread of the virus now, and gatherings of people in indoor spaces are pretty much the worst environments for transmission.

I’m feeling more sanguine about outdoor spaces. Yesterday, Jessica and I went into town for Street Diner. It was the first time since March that we walked in that direction—our other excursions have been in the direction of the countryside.

It was perfectly fine. We wore masks, and while we were certainly in the minority, we were not alone. People were generally behaving responsibly.

Brighton hasn’t done too badly throughout The Situation. But still, like I said, I have no plans to head to the pub on a Saturday night. The British drinking culture is very much concentrated on weekends. Stay in all week and then on the weekend, lassen die Sau raus!, as the Germans would say.

After months of lockdown, reopening pubs on a Saturday seems like a terrible idea. Over in Ireland, pubs have been open since Monday—a sensible day to soft-launch. With plenty of precautions in place, things are going well there.

I’ve been watching The Situation in Ireland throughout. It’s where my mother lives, so I was understandably concerned. But they’ve handled everything really well. It’s not New Zealand, but it’s also not the disaster that is the UK.

It really has been like watching an A/B test run at the country level. Two very similar populations confronted with exactly the same crisis. Ireland took action early, cancelling the St. Patrick’s Day parade(!) while the UK was still merrily letting Cheltenham go ahead. Ireland had clear guidance. The UK had dilly-dallying and waffling. And when the shit really hit the fan, the Irish taoiseach rolled up his sleeves and returned to medical work. Meanwhile the UK had Dominic Cummings making a complete mockery of the sacrifices that everyone was told to endure.

What’s strange is that people here in the UK don’t seem to realise how the rest of the world, especially other European countries, have watched the response here with shock and horror. The narrative here seems to be that we all faced this thing together, and with our collective effort, we averted the worst. But the numbers tell a very different story. Comparing the numbers here with the numbers in Ireland—or pretty much any other country in Europe—is sobering.

So even though the timelines for reopenings here converge with Ireland’s, The Situation is far from over.

Even without any trips to pubs, restaurants, or other indoor spaces, I’m looking forward to making some more excursions into town. Not that it’s been bad staying at home. I’ve really quite enjoyed staying put, playing music, reading books, and watching television.

I was furloughed from work for a while in June. Normally, my work at this time of year would involve plenty of speaking at conferences. Seeing as that wasn’t happening, it made sense to take advantage of the government scheme to go into work hibernation for a bit.

I was worried I might feel at a bit of a loose end, but I actually really enjoyed it. The weather was good so I spent quite a bit of time just sitting in the back garden, reading (I am very, very grateful to have even a small garden). I listened to music. I watched movies. I surfed the web. Yes, properly surfed the web, going from link to link, get lost down rabbit holes. I tell you, this World Wide Web thing is pretty remarkable. Some days I used it to read up on science or philosophy. I spent a week immersed in Napoleonic history. I have no idea how or why. But it was great.

I’m back at work now, and have been for a couple of weeks. But I wouldn’t mind getting furloughed again. It felt kind of like being retired. I’m quite okay with the propsect of retirement now, as long as we have music and sunshine and the World Wide Web.

That’s the future. For now, The Situation continues, albeit in looser form.

I’ve really enjoyed reading other people’s accounts throughout. My RSS reader is getting a good workout. I always look forward to weeknotes from Alice, Nat, and Phil (this piece from Phil has really stuck with me). Jessica has written fifteen installments—and counting—of A Journal of the Plague Week. I know I’m biased, but I think it’s some mighty fine writing. Start here.

Friday, July 3rd, 2020

Dark mode revisited

I added a dark mode to my website a while back. It was a fun thing to do during Indie Web Camp Amsterdam last year.

I tied the colour scheme to the operating system level. If you choose a dark mode in your OS, my website will adjust automatically thanks to the prefers-color-scheme: dark media query.

But I’ve seen notes from a few friends, not about my site specifically, but about how they like having an explicit toggle for dark mode (as well as the media query). Whenever I read those remarks, I’d think “I’m really not sure I’ve got time to deal with adding that kind of toggle to my site.”

But then I realised, “Jeremy, you absolute muffin! You’ve had a theme switcher on your website for almost two decades now!”

Doh! I had forgotten about that theme switcher. It dates back to the early days of CSS. I wanted my site to be a demonstration of how you could apply different styles to the same underlying markup (this was before the CSS Zen Garden came along). Those themes are very dated now, but if you like you can view my site with a Zeldman theme or a sci-fi theme.

To offer a dark-mode theme for my site, all I had to do was take the default stylesheet, pull out the custom properties from the prefers-color-scheme: dark media query, and done. It took less than five minutes.

So if you want to view my site in dark mode, it’s one of the options in the “Customise” dropdown on every page of the website.

Sunday, June 28th, 2020

Hemimastigophora

Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.

Jessica and I were taking turns at the microscope when we were told that.

Let me back up a bit and explain how we found ourselves in this this situation…

It all started with The Session, the traditional Irish music community site that I run. There’s a big focus on getting together and playing music—something that’s taken a big hit during this global pandemic. Three sections of the website are devoted to face-to-face gatherings: events (like concerts and festivals), sessions, and the most recent addition, trips.

The idea with trips is that you input somewhere you’re going to be travelling to, along with the dates you’ll be there. It’s like a hyper-focused version of Dopplr. The site then shows you if any events are happening, if there are any sessions on, and also if there are any members of the site in that locality (if those members have added their location to their profiles).

Last August, I added the trips I would be taking in the States. There’s be a trip to Saint Augustine to hang out with Jessica’s family, a trip to Chicago to speak at An Event Apart, and a trip to New York for a couple of days because that’s where the ocean liner was going to deposit us after our transatlantic crossing.

A fellow member of The Session named Aaron who is based in New York saw my trip and contacted me to let me know about the session he goes to (he plays tin whistle). Alas, that session didn’t coincide with our short trip. But he also added:

I work at the American Museum of Natural History, and if you have time and interest, I can provide you with vouchers for tickets to as many special exhibits and such as you’d like!

Ooh, that sounded like fun! He also said:

In fact I could give you a quick behind-the-scenes tour if you’re interested.

Jessica and I didn’t have any set plans for our time in New York, so we said why not?

That’s how we ended spending a lovely afternoon being shown around the parts of the museum that the public don’t usually get to see. It’s quite the collection of curiosities back there!

There’s also plenty of research. Aaron’s particular area was looking into an entirely different kingdom of life—neither animal, nor plant, nor fungus. Remarkably, these microscopic creatures were first identified—by a classmate of Aaron’s—by happenstance in 2016:

The hemimastigotes analyzed by the Dalhousie team were found by Eglit during a spring hike with some other students along the Bluff Wilderness Trail outside Halifax a couple of years ago. She often has empty sample vials in her pockets or bags, and scooped a few tablespoons of dirt into one of them from the side of the trail.

That’s like a doctor announcing that they’d come across a hitherto-unknown limb on the human body. The findings were published in the paper, Hemimastigophora is a novel supra-kingdom-level lineage of eukaryotes in 2018.

In the “backstage” area of the American Museum of Natural History, Aaron had samples of them. He put them under the microscope for us. As we took turns looking at them wriggling their flagella, Aaron said:

Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.

Friday, June 26th, 2020

100 tunes

We got a headstart on the lockdown. A week before the UK government finally stopped dilly-dallying (at the expense of tens of thousands of lives), Clearleft became a remote-only company. At the beginning of this stay-at-home time, I started recording a tune a day. I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep it up, but I’ve managed to keep it going the whole time.

Yesterday I recorded my 100th tune.

It’s funny how small efforts can build up into a satisfying corpus. It’s not like I’m attempting anything ambitious, like Matthias, who is doing 100 days of writing. Recording one tune isn’t too much hassle. There are days when it’s frustrating and I have to do multiple takes, but overall it’s not too taxing. But now, when I look at the cumulative result, I’m very happy that I didn’t skip any days.

One hundred is a nice round number, so this could be a good time to stop. I could quit while I’m ahead. But I think I’ll keep going. Again, despite what the official line might be from the UK government (who have lost all trust), I reckon I’ll be staying at home for a while yet. As long as I’m here, I may as well keep playing. I have plenty more tunes to play.

At some point, the daily streak will end. But even then, I think I’ll continue to record tunes like this, even if it becomes more sporadic.

If you like these tunes, as well as being here on my own site, they’re all in a YouTube set. So …like’n’subscribe, or something?

Saturday, June 13th, 2020

Gormless

I sometimes watch programmes on TG4, the Irish language broadcaster that posts most shows online. Even though I’m watching with subtitles on, I figure it can’t be bad for keeping my very rudimentary Irish from atrophying completely.

I’m usually watching music programmes but occassionally I’ll catch a bit of the news (or “nuacht”). Their coverage of the protests in America reminded me of a peculiar quirk of the Irish language. The Black community would be described as “daoine gorm” (pronunced “deenee gurum”), which literally translated would mean “blue people”. In Irish, the skin colour is referred to as “gorm”—blue.

This isn’t one of those linguistic colour differences like the way the Japanese word ao means blue and green. Irish has a perfectly serviceable word for the colour black, “dubh” (pronounced “duv”). But the term “fear dubh” (“far duv”) which literally means “black man” was already taken. It’s used to describe the devil. Not ideal.

In any case, this blue/black confusion in Irish reminded me of a delicious tale of schadenfreude. When I was writing about the difference between intentions and actions, I said:

Sometimes bad outcomes are the result of good intentions. Less often, good outcomes can be the result of bad intentions.

Back in 2017, the Geeky Gaeilgeoir wrote a post called Even Racists Got the Blues. In it, she disects the terrible translation job done by an Irish-American racist sporting a T-shirt that reads:

Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.

That’s completely nonsensical in Irish, but the intent behind the words was to say “Blue Lives Matter.” Except… even if it made grammatical sense, what this idiot actually wrote would translate as:

Black Lives Matter.

What a wonderful chef’s kiss of an own goal!

If only it were a tattoo.

Thursday, June 11th, 2020

CSS custom properties and the cascade

When I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions I said this about the brilliant Lea Verou:

As so often happens when I’m reading something written by Lea—or seeing her give a talk—light bulbs started popping over my head (my usual response to Lea’s knowledge bombs is either “I didn’t know you could do that!” or “I never thought of doing that!”).

Well, it happened again. This time I was reading her post about hybrid positioning with CSS variables and max() . But the main topic of the post wasn’t the part that made go “Huh! I never knew that!”. Towards the end of her article she explained something about the way that browsers evaluate CSS custom properties:

The browser doesn’t know if your property value is valid until the variable is resolved, and by then it has already processed the cascade and has thrown away any potential fallbacks.

I’m used to being able to rely on the cascade. Let’s say I’m going to set a background colour on paragraphs:

p {
  background-color: red;
  background-color: color(display-p3 1 0 0);
}

First I’ve set a background colour using a good ol’ fashioned keyword, supported in browsers since day one. Then I declare the background colour using the new-fangled color() function which is supported in very few browsers. That’s okay though. I can confidently rely on the cascade to fall back to the earlier declaration. Paragraphs will still have a red background colour.

But if I store the background colour in a custom property, I can no longer rely on the cascade.

:root {
  --myvariable: color(display-p3 1 0 0);
}
p {
  background-color: red;
  background-color: var(--myvariable);
}

All I’ve done is swapped out the hard-coded color() value for a custom property but now the browser behaves differently. Instead of getting a red background colour, I get the browser default value. As Lea explains:

…it will make the property invalid at computed value time.

The spec says:

When this happens, the computed value of the property is either the property’s inherited value or its initial value depending on whether the property is inherited or not, respectively, as if the property’s value had been specified as the unset keyword.

So if a browser doesn’t understand the color() function, it’s as if I’ve said:

background-color: unset;

This took me by surprise. I’m so used to being able to rely on the cascade in CSS—it’s one of the most powerful and most useful features in this programming language. Could it be, I wondered, that the powers-that-be have violated the principle of least surprise in specifying this behaviour?

But a note in the spec explains further:

Note: The invalid at computed-value time concept exists because variables can’t “fail early” like other syntax errors can, so by the time the user agent realizes a property value is invalid, it’s already thrown away the other cascaded values.

Ah, right! So first of all browsers figure out the cascade and then they evaluate custom properties. If a custom property evaluates to gobbledygook, it’s too late to figure out what the cascade would’ve fallen back to.

Thinking about it, this makes total sense. Remember that CSS custom properties aren’t like Sass variables. They aren’t evaluated once and then set in stone. They’re more like let than const. They can be updated in real time. You can update them from JavaScript too. It’s entirely possible to update CSS custom properties rapidly in response to events like, say, the user scrolling or moving their mouse. If the browser had to recalculate the cascade every time a custom property didn’t evaluate correctly, I imagine it would be an enormous performance bottleneck.

So even though this behaviour surprised me at first, it makes sense on reflection.

I’ve probably done a terrible job explaining the behaviour here, so I’ve made a Codepen. Although that may also do an equally terrible job.

(Thanks to Amber for talking through this with me and encouraging me to blog about it. And thanks to Lea for expanding my mind. Again.)

Tuesday, June 9th, 2020

Intent

There are intentions and there are outcomes. Sometimes bad outcomes are the result of good intentions. Less often, good outcomes can be the result of bad intentions. But generally we associate the two: we expect good outcomes to come from good intentions and we expect bad outcomes to come from bad intentions.

Perhaps it’s because of this conflation that we place too much emphasis on intentions. If, for example, someone is called out for causing a bad outcome, their first response is often to defend their intentions. That’s understandable. When someone says “you have created a bad outcome”, I understand why the person on the receiving end would receive that feedback as “you intended to create this bad outcome.” Cue a non-apology that clarifies the (good) intention without acknowledging the reality of the outcome (“It was never my intention to…”).

I get it. Intentions do matter …just not as much as we give them credit for. I mean, in general, I’d prefer bad outcomes to be the inadvertent result of good intentions. But in some ways, it really doesn’t matter: a bad outcome is a bad outcome.

Anyway, all of this is just to preface something I’m going to say about myself:

I am almost certainly racist.

I don’t intend to be racist, but like I said, intentions aren’t really what matter. Outcomes are.

Note, for example, the cliché of the gormless close-minded goon who begins a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” before going on to say something clearly racist. It’s as though the racism could be defanged by disavowing bad intent.

The same defence mechanism is used to defend racist traditions. “Oh, it’s not racist—that’s just something we’ve always done.” Again, the defence is for the intention, not the outcome. And again, outcomes matter far, far more than intentions.

I really don’t intend to be racist. But how could I not be? I grew up in a small town in Ireland where literally everyone else looked like me. By the same token, I’m also almost certainly sexist. Growing up as a cisgender male in a patriarchal society guarantees that my mind has been shaped in ways I now wish it weren’t.

Acknowledging my racism—and sexism—doesn’t mean I’m okay with it. On the contrary. It’s a source of shame. But acknowledging my racism is a necessary step to changing it.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter how I feel about any of this. This isn’t meant to be a confessional. What matters are outcomes. Outcomes aren’t really the direct result of intentions—outcomes are the direct result of actions.

Most of my actions lately have been very passive. Listening. Watching. Because my actions are passive, they are indistinguishable from silence. That’s not good. Silence can be interpreted as acquiescence, acceptance. That’s not what I intend …but my intentions don’t matter.

So, even though this isn’t about me or my voice or my intentions, and even though this is something that is so self-evident that it shouldn’t need to be said, I want to say:

Black lives matter.