2413 sparkline

Saturday, October 7th, 2017


I’ve written before about how I use apps on my phone:

If I install an app on my phone, the first thing I do is switch off all notifications. That saves battery life and sanity.

The only time my phone is allowed to ask for my attention is for phone calls, SMS, or FaceTime (all rare occurrences). I initiate every other interaction—Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, the web. My phone is a tool that I control, not the other way around.

To me, this seems like a perfectly sensible thing to do. I was surprised by how others thought it was radical and extreme.

I’m always shocked when I’m out and about with someone who has their phone set up to notify them of any activity—a mention on Twitter, a comment on Instagram, or worst of all, an email. The thought of receiving a notification upon receipt of an email gives me the shivers. Allowing those kinds of notifications would feel like putting shackles on my time and attention. Instead, I think I’m applying an old-school RSS mindset to app usage: pull rather than push.

Don’t get me wrong: I use apps on my phone all the time: Twitter, Instagram, Swarm (though not email, except in direst emergency). Even without enabling notifications, I still have to fight the urge to fiddle with my phone—to check to see if anything interesting is happening. I’d like to think I’m in control of my phone usage, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. But I do know that my behaviour would be a lot, lot worse if notifications were enabled.

I was a bit horrified when Apple decided to port this notification model to the desktop. There doesn’t seem to be any way of removing the “notification tray” altogether, but I can at least go into System Preferences and make sure that absolutely nothing is allowed to pop up an alert while I’m trying to accomplish some other task.

It’s the same on iOS—you can control notifications from Settings—but there’s an added layer within the apps themselves. If you have notifications disabled, the apps encourage you to enable them. That’s fine …at first. Being told that I could and should enable notifications is a perfectly reasonable part of the onboarding process. But with some apps I’m told that I should enable notifications Every. Single. Time.

Instagram Swarm

Of the apps I use, Instagram and Swarm are the worst offenders (I don’t have Facebook or Snapchat installed so I don’t know whether they’re as pushy). This behaviour seems to have worsened recently. The needling has been dialed up in recent updates to the apps. It doesn’t matter how often I dismiss the dialogue, it reappears the next time I open the app.

Initially I thought this might be a bug. I’ve submitted bug reports to Instagram and Swarm, but I’m starting to think that they see my bug as their feature.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal, but I would appreciate some respect for my deliberate choice. It gets pretty wearying over the long haul. To use a completely inappropriate analogy, it’s like a recovering alcoholic constantly having to rebuff “friends” asking if they’re absolutely sure they don’t want a drink.

I don’t think there’s malice at work here. I think it’s just that I’m an edge-case scenario. They’ve thought about the situation where someone doesn’t have notifications enabled, and they’ve come up with a reasonable solution: encourage that person to enable notifications. After all, who wouldn’t want notifications? That question, if it’s asked at all, is only asked rhetorically.

I’m trying to do the healthy thing here (or at least the healthier thing) in being mindful of my app usage. They sure aren’t making it easy.

The model that web browsers use for notifications seems quite sensible in comparison. If you arrive on a site that asks for permission to send you notifications (without even taking you out to dinner first) then you have three options: allow, block, or dismiss. If you choose “block”, that site will never be able to ask that browser for permission to enable notifications. Ever. (Oh, how I wish I could apply that browser functionality to all those sites asking me to sign up for their newsletter!)

That must seem like the stuff of nightmares for growth-hacking disruptive startups looking to make their graphs go up and to the right, but it’s a wonderful example of truly user-centred design. In that situation, the browser truly feels like a user agent.

Thursday, September 28th, 2017


Myself and Jessica were on our way over to Ireland for a few days to visit my mother. It’s a straightforward combination of three modes of transport: a car to Brighton train station; a train to Gatwick airport; a plane to Cork.

We got in the taxi to start the transport relay. “Going anywhere nice?” asked the taxi driver. “Ireland”, I said. He mentioned that he had recently come back from a trip to Crete. “Lovely place”, he said. “Great food.” That led to a discussion of travel destinations, food, and exchange rates. The usual taxi banter. We mentioned that we were in Iceland recently, where the exchange rate was eye-watering. “Iceland?”, he said, “Did you see the Northern Lights?” We hadn’t, but we mentioned some friends of ours who travelled to Sweden recently just to see the Aurorae. That led to a discussion of the weirdness of the midnight sun. “Yeah”, he said, “I was in the Barents Sea once and it was like broad daylight in the middle of the night.” We mentioned being in Alaska in Summer, and how odd the daylight at night was, but now my mind was preoccupied. As soon as there was a lull in the conversation I asked “So …what brought you to the Barents Sea?”

He paused. Then said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Then he told us.

“We were on a secret mission. It was the ’80s, the Cold War. The Russians had a new submarine, the Typhoon. Massive, it was. Bigger than anything the Americans had. We were there with the Americans. They had a new camera that could see through smoke and cloud. The Russians wouldn’t know we were filming them. I was on a support ship. But one time, at four in the morning, the Russians shot at us—warning shots across the bow. I remember waking up and it was still so light, and there were this explosions of water right by the ship.”

“Wow!” was all I could say.

“It was so secret, that mission”, he said, “that if you didn’t go on it, you’d have to spend the duration in prison.”

By this time we had reached the station. “Do you believe me?” he asked us. “Yes”, we said. We paid him, and thanked him. Then I added, “And thanks for the story.”

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017


I was in Singapore last week. It was most relaxing. Sure, it’s Disneyland With The Death Penalty but the food is wonderful.

chicken rice fishball noodles laksa grilled pork

But I wasn’t just there to sample the delights of the hawker centres. I had been invited by Mozilla to join them on the opening leg of their Developer Roadshow. We assembled in the PayPal offices one evening for a rapid-fire round of talks on emerging technologies.

We got an introduction to Quantum, the new rendering engine in Firefox. It’s looking good. And fast. Oh, and we finally get support for input type="date".

But this wasn’t a product pitch. Most of the talks were by non-Mozillians working on the cutting edge of technologies. I kicked things off with a slimmed-down version of my talk on evaluating technology. Then we heard from experts in everything from CSS to VR.

The highlight for me was meeting Hui Jing and watching her presentation on CSS layout. It was fantastic! Entertaining and informative, it was presented with gusto. I think it got everyone in the room very excited about CSS Grid.

The Singapore stop was the only I was able to make, but Hui Jing has been chronicling the whole trip. Sounds like quite a whirlwind tour. I’m so glad I was able to join in even for a portion. Thanks to Sandra and Ali for inviting me along—much appreciated.

I’ll also be speaking at Mozilla’s View Source in London in a few weeks, where I’ll be talking about building blocks of the Indie Web:

In these times of centralised services like Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, having your own website is downright disruptive. If you care about the longevity of your online presence, independent publishing is the way to go. But how can you get all the benefits of those third-party services while still owning your own data? By using the building blocks of the Indie Web, that’s how!

‘Twould be lovely to see you there.

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

Sonic sparklines

I’ve seen some lovely examples of the Web Audio API recently.

At the Material conference, Halldór Eldjárn demoed his Poco Apollo project. It generates music on the fly in the browser to match a random image from NASA’s Apollo archive on Flickr. Brian Eno, eat your heart out!

At Codebar Brighton a little while back, local developer Luke Twyman demoed some of his audio-visual work, including the gorgeous Solarbeat—an audio orrery.

The latest issue of the Clearleft newsletter has some links on sound design in interfaces:

I saw Ruth give a fantastic talk on the Web Audio API at CSS Day this year. It had just the right mixture of code and inspiration. I decided there and then that I’d have to find some opportunity to play around with web audio.

As ever, my own website is the perfect playground. I added an audio Easter egg to a while back, and so far, no one has noticed. That’s good. It’s a very, very silly use of sound.

In her talk, Ruth emphasised that the Web Audio API is basically just about dealing with numbers. Lots of the examples of nice usage are the audio equivalent of data visualisation. Data sonification, if you will.

I’ve got little bits of dataviz on my website: sparklines. Each one is a self-contained SVG file. I added a script element to the SVG with a little bit of JavaScript that converts numbers into sound (I kind of wish that the script were scoped to the containing SVG but that’s not the way JavaScript in SVG works—it’s no different to putting a script element directly in the body). Clicking on the sparkline triggers the sound-playing function.

It sounds terrible. It’s like a theremin with hiccups.

Still, I kind of like it. I mean, I wish it sounded nicer (and I’m open to suggestions on how to achieve that—feel free to fork the code), but there’s something endearing about hearing a month’s worth of activity turned into a wobbling wave of sound. And it’s kind of fun to hear how a particular tag is used more frequently over time.

Anyway, it’s just a silly little thing, but anywhere you spot a sparkline on my site, you can tap it to hear it translated into sound.

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

Problem space

Adam Wathan wrote an article recently called CSS Utility Classes and “Separation of Concerns”. In it, he documents his journey through different ways of thinking about CSS. A lot of it is really familiar.

Phase 1: “Semantic” CSS

Ah, yes! If you’ve been in the game for a while then this will be familiar to you. The days when we used to strive to keep our class names to a minimum and use names that described the content. But, as Adam points out:

My markup wasn’t concerned with styling decisions, but my CSS was very concerned with my markup structure.

Phase 2: Decoupling styles from structure

This is the work pioneered by Nicole with OOCSS, and followed later by methodologies like BEM and SMACSS.

This felt like a huge improvement to me. My markup was still “semantic” and didn’t contain any styling decisions, and now my CSS felt decoupled from my markup structure, with the added bonus of avoiding unnecessary selector specificity.


But then Adam talks about the issues when you have two visually similar components that are semantically very different. He shows a few possible solutions and asks this excellent question:

For the project you’re working on, what would be more valuable: restyleable HTML, or reusable CSS?

For many projects reusable CSS is the goal. But not all projects. On the Code For America project, the HTML needed to be as clean as possible, even if that meant more brittle CSS.

Phase 3: Content-agnostic CSS components

Naming things is hard:

The more a component does, or the more specific a component is, the harder it is to reuse.

Adam offers some good advice on naming things for maximum reusability. It’s all good stuff, and this would be the point at which I would stop. At this point there’s a nice balance between reusability, readability, and semantic meaning.

But Adam goes further…

Phase 4: Content-agnostic components + utility classes

Okay. The occasional utility class (for alignment and clearing) can be very handy. This is definitely the point to stop though, right?

Phase 5: Utility-first CSS

Oh God, no!

Once this clicked for me, it wasn’t long before I had built out a whole suite of utility classes for common visual tweaks I needed, things like:

  • Text sizes, colors, and weights
  • Border colors, widths, and positions
  • Background colors
  • Flexbox utilities
  • Padding and margin helpers

If one drink feels good, then ten drinks must be better, right?

At this point there is no benefit to even having an external stylesheet. You may as well use inline styles. Ah, but Adam has anticipated this and counters with this difference between inline styles and having utility classes for everything:

You can’t just pick any value want; you have to choose from a curated list.

Right. But that isn’t a technical solution, it’s a cultural one. You could just as easily have a curated list of allowed inline style properties and values. If you are in an environment where people won’t simply create a new utility class every time they want to style something, then you are also in an environment where people won’t create new inline style combinations every time they want to style something.

I think Adam has hit on something important here, but it’s not about utility classes. His suggestion of “utility-first CSS” will only work if the vocabulary is strictly adhered to. For that to work, everyone touching the code needs to understand the system and respect the boundaries of it. That understanding and respect is far, far more important than any particular way of structuring HTML and CSS. No technical solution can replace that sort of agreement …not even slapping !important on every declaration to make them immutable.

I very much appreciate the efforts that people have put into coming up with great naming systems and methodologies, even the ones I don’t necessarily agree with. They’re all aiming to make that overlap of HTML and CSS less painful. But the really hard problem is where people overlap.

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Brian Aldiss

After the eclipse I climbed down from the hilltop and reconnected with the world. That’s when I heard the news. Brian Aldiss had passed away.

He had a good innings. A very good innings. He lived to 92 and was writing right up to the end.

I’m trying to remember the first thing I read by Brian Aldiss. I think it might have been The Billion Year Spree, his encyclopaedia of science fiction. The library in my hometown had a copy when I was growing up, and I was devouring everything SF-related.

Decades later I had the great pleasure of meeting the man. It was 2012 and I was in charge of putting together the line-up for that year’s dConstruct. I had the brilliant Lauren Beukes on the line-up all the way from South Africa and I thought it would be fun to organise some kind of sci-fi author event the evening before. Well, one thing led to another: Rifa introduced me to Tim Aldiss, who passed along a request to his father, who kindly agreed to come to Brighton for the event. Then Brighton-based Jeff Noon came on board. The end result was an hour and a half in the company of three fantastic—and fantastically different—authors.

I had the huge honour of moderating the event. Here’s the transcript of that evening and here’s the audio.

That evening and the subsequent dConstruct talks—including the mighty James Burke—combined to create one of the greatest weekends of my life. Seriously. I thought it was just me, but Chris has also written about how special that author event was.

Brian Aldiss, Jeff Noon, and Lauren Beukes on the Brighton SF panel, chaired by Jeremy Keith

Brian Aldiss was simply wonderful that evening. He regaled us with the most marvellous stories, at times hilarious, at other times incredibly touching. He was a true gentleman.

I’m so grateful that I’ll always have the memory of that evening. I’m also very grateful that I have so many Brian Aldiss books still to read.

I’ve barely made a dent into the ludicrously prolific output of the man. I’ve read just some of his books:

  • Non-stop—I’m a sucker for generation starship stories,
  • Hothouse—ludicrously lush and trippy,
  • Greybeard—a grim vision of a childless world before Children Of Men,
  • The Hand-reared Boy—filthy, honest and beautifully written,
  • Heliconia Spring—a deep-time epic …and I haven’t even read the next two books in the series!

Then there are the short stories. Hundreds of ‘em! Most famously Super-Toys Last All Summer Long—inspiration for the Kubrick/Spielberg A.I. film. It’s one of the most incredibly sad stories I’ve ever read. I find it hard to read it without weeping.

Passed by a second-hand book stall on the way into work. My defences were down. Not a bad haul for a fiver.

Whenever a great artist dies, it has become a cliché to say that they will live on through their work. In the case of Brian Aldiss and his astounding output, it’s quite literally true. I’m looking forward to many, many years of reading his words.

My sincerest condolences to his son Tim, his partner Alison, and everyone who knew and loved Brian Aldiss.

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

60 seconds over Idaho

I lived in Germany for the latter half of the nineties. On August 11th, 1999, parts of Germany were in the path of a total eclipse of the sun. Freiburg—the town where I was living—wasn’t in the path, so Jessica and I travelled north with some friends to Karlsruhe.

The weather wasn’t great. There was quite a bit of cloud coverage, but at the moment of totality, the clouds had thinned out enough for us to experience the incredible sight of a black sun.

(The experience was only slightly marred by the nearby idiot who took a picture with the flash on right before totality. Had my eyesight not adjusted in time, he would still be carrying that camera around with him in an anatomically uncomfortable place.)

Eighteen years and eleven days later, Jessica and I climbed up a hill to see our second total eclipse of the sun. The hill is in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Here comes the sun.

Travelling thousands of miles just to witness something that lasts for a minute might seem disproportionate, but if you’ve ever been in the path of totality, you’ll know what an awe-inspiring sight it is (if you’ve only seen a partial eclipse, trust me—there’s no comparison). There’s a primitive part of your brain screaming at you that something is horribly, horribly wrong with the world, while another part of your brain is simply stunned and amazed. Then there’s the logical part of your brain which is trying to grasp the incredible good fortune of this cosmic coincidence—that the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon and also happens to be 400 times the distance away.

This time viewing conditions were ideal. Not a cloud in the sky. It was beautiful. We even got a diamond ring.

I like to think I can be fairly articulate, but at the moment of totality all I could say was “Oh! Wow! Oh! Holy shit! Woah!”


Our two eclipses were separated by eighteen years, but they’re connected. The Saros 145 cycle has been repeating since 1639 and will continue until 3009, although the number of total eclipses only runs from 1927 to 2648.

Eighteen years and twelve days ago, we saw the eclipse in Germany. Yesterday we saw the eclipse in Idaho. In eighteen years and ten days time, we plan to be in Japan or China.

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

Unacceptable usage

Fortune magazine published a list of all the companies who say hate groups can’t use their services anymore:

  • GoDaddy,
  • Google,
  • Apple,
  • Cloudflare,
  • Airbnb,
  • PayPal,
  • Discover Financial Services,
  • Visa,
  • Spotify,
  • Discord, and
  • GoFundMe.

Digital Ocean aren’t listed in the article but they’ve also cut off the oxygen to hate groups that were using their platform.

There’s another company that I wish were on that list: Shopify. They provide Breitbart with its online store. That’s despite clause three of their Acceptable Usage Policy:

Hateful Content: You may not offer goods or services, or post or upload Materials, that condone or promote violence against people based on race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, medical condition or veteran status.

The flimsy free speech defence looks even more spineless in light of the actions of other companies.

I’m incredibly disappointed in Shopify. I’m starting to have misgivings about appearing at events or on podcasts sponsored by Shopify—being two degrees of separation away from the hatefulness of Breitfart doesn’t sit well with me.

I sincerely hope that Shopify will change their stance, enforce their own terms of service, and dropify hate speech.

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

Material 2017

I’m in Iceland. Everything you’ve heard is true. It’s a beautiful fascinating place, and I had a wonderful day of exploration yesterday.

But I didn’t just come to the land of ice and snow—of the midnight sun where the hot springs blow—just to take in the scenery. I’m also here for the Material conference, which just wrapped up. It was very small, and very, very good.

Reading the description of the event, it would definitely be a tough sell trying to get your boss to send you to this. And yet I found it to be one of the most stimulating conferences I’ve attended in a while. It featured talks about wool, about art, about psychology, about sound, about meditation, about photography, about storytelling, and yes, about the web.

That sounds like a crazy mix of topics, but what was really crazy was the way it all slotted together. Brian weaved together a narrative throughout the day, drawing together strands from all of the talks and injecting his own little provocations into the mix too. Is the web like sound? Is the web like litmus paper? Is the web like the nervous system of a blue whale? (you kinda had to be there)

I know it’s a cliché to talk about a conference as being inspirational, but I found myself genuinely inspired by what I heard today. I don’t mean inspired in the self-help feel-good kind of way; I mean the talks inspired thoughts, ideas, and questions.

I think the small-scale intimacy of the event really added something. There were about fifty of us in attendance, and we all ate lunch together, which added to the coziness. I felt some of the same vibe that Brooklyn Beta and Reboot used to generate—a place for people to come together that isn’t directly connected to day-to-day work, but not entirely disconnected either; an adjacent space where seemingly unconnected disciplines get threaded together.

If this event happens again next year, I’ll be back.

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017


I really should know better than to 386 myself, but this manifesto from a (former) Googler has me furious.

Oh, first of all, let me just get past any inevitable whinging that I’m not bothering to refute the bullshit contained therein. In the spirit of Brandolini’s law, here are some thorough debunkings:

Okay, with that out of the way, let me get to what really grinds my gears about this.

First off, there’s the contents of the document itself. It is reprehensible. It sets out to prove a biological link between a person’s gender and their ability to work at Google. It fails miserably, as shown in the links above, but it is cleverly presented as though it were an impartial scientific evaluation (I’m sure it’s complete coincidence that the author just happens to be a man). It begins by categorically stating that the author is all for diversity. This turns out to be as accurate as when someone starts a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but…”

The whole thing is couched in scientism that gives it a veneer of respectability. That leads me to the second thing I’m upset about, and that’s the reaction to the document.

Y’know, it’s one thing when someone’s clearly a troll. It’s easy—and sensible—to dismiss their utterances and move on. But when you see seemingly-smart people linking to the manifestbro and saying “he kind of has a point”, it’s way more infuriating. If you are one of those people (and when I say people, I mean men), you should know that you have been played.

The memo is clearly not a screed. It is calm, clear, polite, and appears perfectly reasonable. “Look,” it says, “I’m just interested in the objective facts here. I’m being reasonable, and if you’re a reasonable person, then you will give this a fair hearing.”

That’s a very appealing position. What reasonable person would reject it? And so, plenty of men who consider themselves to be reasonable and objective are linking to the document and saying it deserves consideration. Strangely, those same men aren’t considering the equally reasonable rebuttals (linked to above). That’s confirmation bias.

See? I can use terms like that to try to make myself sound smart too. Mind you, confirmation bias is not the worst logical fallacy in the memo. That would the Texas sharpshooter fallacy (which, admittedly, is somewhat related to confirmation bias). And, yes, I know that by even pointing out the logical fallacies, I run the risk of committing the fallacy fallacy. The memo is reprehensible not for the fallacies it contains, but for the viewpoint it sets out to legitimise.

The author cleverly wraps a disgusting viewpoint in layers of reasonable-sounding arguments. “Can’t we have a reasonable discussion about this? Like reasonable people? Shouldn’t we tolerate other points of view?” Those are perfectly sensible questions to ask if the discussion is about tabs vs. spaces or Star Wars vs. Star Trek. But those questions cease to be neutral if the topic under discussion is whether some human beings are genetically unsuited to coding.

This is how we get to a situation where men who don’t consider themselves to be sexist in any way—who consider themselves to be good people—end up posting about the Google memo in their workplace Slack channels as though it were a topic worthy of debate. It. Is. Not.

“A-ha!” cry the oh-so-logical and thoroughly impartial men, “If a topic cannot even be debated, you must be threatened by the truth!”

That is one possible conclusion, yes. Or—and this is what Occam’s razor would suggest—it might just be that I’m fucking sick of this. Sick to my stomach. I am done. I am done with even trying to reason with people who think that they’re the victimised guardians of truth and reason when they’re actually just threatened by the thought of a world that doesn’t give them special treatment.

I refuse to debate this. Does that make me inflexible? Yep, sure does. But, y’know, not everything is worthy of debate. When the very premise of the discussion is harmful, all appeals to impartiality ring hollow.

If you read the ex-Googler’s memo and thought “seems reasonable to me”, I hope you can see how you have been played like a violin. Your most virtuous traits—being even-handed and open-minded—have been used against you. I hope that you will try to use those same traits to readdress what has been done. If you read through the rebuttals linked to above and still think that the original memo was reasonable, I fear the damage is quite deep.

It may seem odd that a document that appears to be so reasonable is proving to be so very divisive. But it’s that very appearance of impartiality that gives it its power. It is like an optical illusion for the mind. Some people—like me—read it and think, “this is clearly wrong and harmful.” Other people—who would never self-identify as sexist in any way—read it and think, “seems legit.”

I’m almost—almost—glad that it was written. It’s bringing a lot of buried biases into the light.

By the way, if you are one of those people who still thinks that the memo was “perfectly reasonable” or “made some good points”, and we know each other, please get in touch so that I can re-evaluate our relationship.

The saddest part about all of this is that there are men being incredibly hurtful and cruel to the women they work with, without even realising what they’re doing. They may even think think they are actively doing good.

Take this tweet to Jen which was no doubt intended as a confidence boost:

See how it is glibly passed off as though it were some slight disagreement, like which flavour of ice cream is best? “Well, we’ll agree to disagree about half the population being biologically unsuitable for this kind of work.” And then that’s followed by what is genuinely—in good faith—intended as a compliment. But the juxtaposition of the two results in the message “Hey, you’re really good …for a woman.”

That’s what I find so teeth-grindingly frustrating about all this. I don’t think that guy is a troll. If he were, I could just block and move on. He genuinely thinks he’s a good person who cares about objective truth. He has been played.

A nasty comment from a troll is bad. It’s hurtful in a blunt, shocking way. But there’s a different kind of hurt that comes from a casual, offhand, even well-meaning comment that’s cruel in a more deep-rooted way.

This casual cruelty. This insidious, creeping, never-ending miasma of sexism. It is well and truly intolerable.

This is not up for debate.