Journal tags: 20

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Accent all areas

Whenever a new version of Chrome comes out, there’s an accompanying blog post listing what’s new. Chrome 93 just came out and, sure enough, Pete has written a blog post about it.

But what I think is the most exciting addition to the browser isn’t listed.

What is this feature that’s got me so excited?

Okay, I’ve probably oversold it now because actually, it looks like a rather small trivial addition. It’s the accent-color property in CSS.

Up until now, accent colour was controlled by the operating system. If you’re on a Mac, go to “System Preferences” and then “General”. There you’ll see an option to change your accent colour. Try picking a different colour. You’ll see that change cascade down into the other form fields in that preference pane: checkboxes, radio buttons, and dropdowns.

Your choice will also cascade down into web pages. Any web page that uses native checkboxes, radio buttons and other interface elements will inherit that colour.

This is how interface elements are supposed to work. The browser inherits the look’n’feel of the inputs from the operating system.

That’s the theory anyway. In practice, form elements—such as dropdowns—can look different from browser to browser, something that shouldn’t be happening if the browsers are all inheriting from the operating system.

Anyway, it’s probably this supposed separation of responsibility between browser and operating system which has led to the current situation with form fields and CSS. Authors can style form fields up to a point, but there’s always a line that you don’t get to cross.

The accent colour of a selected radio button or a checkbox has historically been on the other side of that line. You either had to accept that you couldn’t change the colour, or you had to make your own checkbox or radio button interface. You could use CSS to hide the native element and replace it with an image instead.

That feels a bit over-engineered and frankly kind of hacky. It reminds me of the bad old days of image replacement for text before we had web fonts.

Now, with the accent-color property in CSS, authors can over-ride the choice that the user has set at the operating system level.

On the one hand, this doesn’t feel great to me. Who are we to make that decision? Shouldn’t the user’s choice take primacy over our choices?

But then again, where do we draw the line? We’re allowed over-ride link colours. We’re allowed over-ride font choices.

Ultimately I think it’s a good thing that authors can now specify an accent colour. What makes me think that is the behaviour that authors have shown if they don’t have this ability—they do it anyway, and in a hackier manner. This is why I think the work of the Open UI group is so important. If developers don’t get a standardised way to customise native form controls, they’ll just recreate their own over-engineered versions.

The purpose of Open UI to the web platform is to allow web developers to style and extend built-in web UI controls, such as select dropdowns, checkboxes, radio buttons, and date/color pickers.

Trying to stop developers from styling checkboxes and radio buttons is like trying to stop teenagers from having sex. You might as well accept that it’s going to happen and give them contraception so they can at least do it safely.

So I welcome this new CSS condom.

You can see accent-color in action in this demo. Change the value of the accent-color property to see the form fields update:

:root {
  accent-color: rebeccapurple;
}

Applying it at the document level like that will make it universal, but you can also use the property on an element-by-element basis using whatever selector you want.

That demo works in Chrome and Edge 93, the current release. It also works in Firefox 92, which literally just landed (like as I was writing this blog post, support for accent-color magically arrived!).

As for Safari, well, who knows? If Apple published a roadmap, then developers would have a clue when to expect a property like this to land. But we mere mortals cannot be trusted with such important hush-hush information.

In the meantime, keep an eye on Can I Use. And lack of support on one browser is no reason not to use accent-color anyway. It’s a progressive enhancement. Add it to your CSS today and it will work in more browsers in the future.

SafarIE

I was moaning about Safari recently. Specifically I was moaning about the ridiculous way that browser updates are tied to operating system updates.

But I felt bad bashing Safari. It felt like a pile-on. That’s because a lot of people have been venting their frustrations with Safari recently:

I think it’s good that people share their frustrations with browsers openly, although I agree with Baldur Bjarnason that’s good to avoid Kremlinology and the motivational fallacy when blogging about Apple.

It’s also not helpful to make claims like “Safari is the new Internet Explorer!” Unless, that is, you can back up the claim.

On a recent episode of the HTTP 203 podcast, Jake and Surma set out to test the claim that Safari is the new IE. They did it by examining Safari according to a number of different measurements and comparing it to the olden days of Internet Explorer. The result is a really fascinating trip down memory lane along with a very nuanced and even-handed critique of Safari.

And the verdict? Well, you’ll just to have to listen to the podcast episode.

If you’d rather read the transcript, tough luck. That’s a real shame because, like I said, it’s an excellent and measured assessment. I’d love to add it to the links section of my site, but I can’t do that in good conscience while it’s inaccessible to the Deaf community.

When I started the Clearleft podcast, it was a no-brainer to have transcripts of every episode. Not only does it make the content more widely available, but it also makes it easier for people to copy and paste choice quotes.

Still, I get it. A small plucky little operation like Google isn’t going to have the deep pockets of a massive corporation like Clearleft. But if Jake and Surma were to open up a tip jar, I’d throw some money in to get HTTP 203 transcribed (I recommend getting Tina Pham to do it—she’s great!).

I apologise for my note of sarcasm there. But I share because I care. It really is an excellent discussion; one that everyone should be able to access.

Update: the bug with that episode of the HTTP 203 podcast has been fixed. Here’s the transcript! And all future episodes will have transcripts too:

Hosting online events

Back in 2014 Vitaly asked me if I’d be the host for Smashing Conference in Freiburg. I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be an easy gig. All of the advantages of speaking at a conference without the troublesome need to actually give a talk.

As it turned out, it was quite a bit of work:

It wasn’t just a matter of introducing each speaker—there was also a little chat with each speaker after their talk, so I had to make sure I was paying close attention to each and every talk, thinking of potential questions and conversation points. After two days of that, I was a bit knackered.

Last month, I hosted an other event, but this time it was online: UX Fest. Doing the post-talk interviews was definitely a little weirder online. It’s not quite the same as literally sitting down with someone. But the online nature of the event did provide one big advantage…

To minimise technical hitches on the day, and to ensure that the talks were properly captioned, all the speakers recorded their talks ahead of time. That meant I had an opportunity to get a sneak peek at the talks and prepare questions accordingly.

UX Fest had a day of talks every Thursday in June. There were four talks per Thursday. I started prepping on the Monday.

First of all, I just watched all the talks and let them wash me over. At this point, I’d often think “I’m not sure if I can come up with any questions for this one!” but I’d let the talks sit there in my subsconscious for a while. This was also a time to let connections between talks bubble up.

Then on the Tuesday and Wednesday, I went through the talks more methodically, pausing the video every time I thought of a possible question. After a few rounds of this, I inevitably ended up with plenty of questions, some better than others. So I then re-ordered them in descending levels of quality. That way if I didn’t get to the questions at the bottom of the list, it was no great loss.

In theory, I might not get to any of my questions. That’s because attendees could also ask questions on the day via a chat window. I prioritised those questions over my own. Because it’s not about me.

On some days there was a good mix of audience questions and my own pre-prepared questions. On other days it was mostly my own questions.

Either way, it was important that I didn’t treat the interview like a laundry list of questions to get through. It was meant to be a conversation. So the answer to one question might touch on something that I had made a note of further down the list, in which case I’d run with that. Or the conversation might go in a really interesting direction completely unrelated to the questions or indeed the talk.

Above all, these segments needed to be engaging and entertaining in a personable way, more like a chat show than a post-game press conference. So even though I had done lots of prep for interviewing each speaker, I didn’t want to show my homework. I wanted each interview to feel like a natural flow.

To quote the old saw, this kind of spontaneity takes years of practice.

There was an added complication when two speakers shared an interview slot for a joint Q&A. Not only did I have to think of questions for each speaker, I also had to think of questions that would work for both speakers. And I had to keep track of how much time each person was speaking so that the chat wasn’t dominated by one person more than the other. This was very much like moderating a panel, something that I enjoy very much.

In the end, all of the prep paid off. The conversations flowed smoothly and I was happy with some of the more thought-provoking questions that I had researched ahead of time. The speakers seemed happy too.

Y’know, there are not many things I’m really good at. I’m a mediocre developer, and an even worse designer. I’m okay at writing. But I’m really good at public speaking. And I think I’m pretty darn good at this hosting lark too.

Notified

I got a notification on my phone on Monday.

For most people this would be an unremarkable occurence. For me it’s quite unusual. I’ve written before about my relationship with notifications:

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.

In short, I allow notifications from humans but never from machines. I am sometimes horrified when I see other people’s phones lighting up with notifications about email, tweets, or—God help us—news stories. I try not to be judgemental, but honestly, how does anyone live like that?

The next version of iOS will feature focus modes allowing you to toggle when certain notifications are allowed. That’s a welcome addition, but it’s kind of horrifying that it’s even necessary. It’s like announcing a new padded helmet that will help reduce the pain the next time you choose to hit your own head with a hammer. It doesn’t really address the underlying problem.

Anyway, I made an exception to my rule about not allowing notifications from non-humans. Given the exceptional circumstances of The Situation, I have allowed notifications from the NHS COVID-19 app.

And that’s why I got a notification on my phone on Monday.

It said that I had come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and that I would need to self-isolate until midnight on Friday. I haven’t been out of the house much at all—and never indoors—so I think it must be because I checked into a seafront bar last week for an outdoor drink; the QR code for the venue would’ve encompased both the indoor and outdoor areas.

Even though it wasn’t part of the advice for self-isolation, I got a lateral flow test to see if I was actually infected.

I did the test and I can confidentally say that I would very much like to never repeat that experience.

The test was negative. But I’m still going to stick to the instructions I’ve been given. In fact, that’s probably why testing isn’t part of the recommended advice; I can imagine a lot of people getting a negative test and saying, “I’m sure I’m fine—I don’t need to self-isolate.”

So I won’t be leaving the house until Saturday. This is not a great inconvenience. It’s not like I had many plans. But…

This is why, for the final day of UX Fest, I will be performing my hosting duties from the comfort of my own home instead of the swankier, more professional environment of the Clearleft studio. I hope I don’t bring the tone down too much.

I also had to turn down an invitation to play some tunes with two fully vaccinated fellow musicians on Friday. It felt a bit strange to explain why. “I’d love to, but my phone says I have to stay in.”

I feel like I’m in that Bruce Sterling short story Maneki Neko, obedientally taking orders from my pokkecon.

Deceptive dark patterns

When I was braindumping my thoughts prompted by last week’s UX Fest conference, I wrote about dark patterns.

Well, actually I wrote about deceptive dark patterns. That was a deliberate choice.

The phrase “dark pattern” is …problematic. We really don’t need to be associating darkness with negativity any more than we already do in our language and culture.

This is something I discussed with Melissa Smith after her talk on this topic. The consensus in general seems to be that the terminology is far from ideal, but it’s a bit late to change it now (I’m sure if Harry were coining the term today, he would choose a different phrase).

The defining characteristic of a “dark” pattern is that intentionally deceptive. How about we shift the terminology to talk about deceptive patterns?

Now, I get that inertia is a powerful force and it would be confusing to try do to a find-and-replace on all the resources that already exist on documenting “dark” patterns. So here’s a compromise:

From here on out, let’s start using the adjective “deceptive” in addition to the existing adjective “dark.” That’s what I did in my blog post. I only used the phrase “deceptive dark patterns.”

If we do that consistently, then after a while we’ll be able to drop one of those adjectives—“dark”—and refer to “deceptive patterns.”

Personally I’d love it if we could change the terminology overnight—and I’m quite heartened by the speed at which we changed our Github branches from “master” to “main”—but being pragmatic, I think this approach stands a greater chance of success.

Who’s with me?

Weighing up UX

You can listen to an audio version of Weighing up UX.

This is the month of UX Fest 2021—this year’s online version of UX London. The festival continues with masterclasses every Tuesday in June and a festival day of talks every Thursday (tickets for both are still available). But it all kicked off with the conference part last week: three back-to-back days of talks.

I have the great pleasure of hosting the event so not only do I get to see a whole lot of great talks, I also get to quiz the speakers afterwards.

Right from day one, a theme emerged that continued throughout the conference and I suspect will continue for the rest of the festival too. That topic was metrics. Kind of.

See, metrics come up when we’re talking about A/B testing, growth design, and all of the practices that help designers get their seat at the table (to use the well-worn cliché). But while metrics are very useful for measuring design’s benefit to the business, they’re not really cut out for measuring user experience.

People have tried to quantify user experience benefits using measurements like NetPromoter Score, which is about as useful as reading tea leaves or chicken entrails.

So we tend to equate user experience gains with business gains. That makes sense. Happy users should be good for business. That’s a reasonable hypothesis. But it gets tricky when you need to make the case for improving the user experience if you can’t tie it directly to some business metric. That’s when we run into the McNamara fallacy:

Making a decision based solely on quantitative observations (or metrics) and ignoring all others.

The way out of this quantitative blind spot is to use qualitative research. But another theme of UX Fest was just how woefully under-represented researchers are in most organisations. And even when you’ve gone and talked to users and you’ve got their stories, you still need to play that back in a way that makes sense to the business folks. These are stories. They don’t lend themselves to being converted into charts’n’graphs.

And so we tend to fall back on more traditional metrics, based on that assumption that what’s good for user experience is good for business. But it’s a short step from making that equivalency to flipping the equation: what’s good for the business must, by definition, be good user experience. That’s where things get dicey.

Broadly speaking, the talks at UX Fest could be put into two categories. You’ve got talks covering practical subjects like product design, content design, research, growth design, and so on. Then you’ve got the higher-level, almost philosophical talks looking at the big picture and questioning the industry’s direction of travel.

The tension between these two categories was the highlight of the conference for me. It worked particularly well when there were back-to-back talks (and joint Q&A) featuring a hands-on case study that successfully pushed the needle on business metrics followed by a more cautionary talk asking whether our priorities are out of whack.

For example, there was a case study on growth design, which emphasised the importance of A/B testing for validation, immediately followed by a talk on deceptive dark patterns. Now, I suspect that if you were to A/B test a deceptive dark pattern, the test would validate its use (at least in the short term). It’s no coincidence that a company like Booking.com, which lives by the A/B sword, is also one of the companies sued for using distressing design patterns.

Using A/B tests alone is like using a loaded weapon without supervision. They only tell you what people do. And again, the solution is to make sure you’re also doing qualitative research—that’s how you find out why people are doing what they do.

But as I’ve pondered the lessons from last week’s conference, I’ve come to realise that there’s also a danger of focusing purely on the user experience. Hear me out…

At one point, the question came up as to whether deceptive dark patterns were ever justified. What if it’s for a good cause? What if the deceptive dark pattern is being used by an organisation actively campaigning to do good in the world?

In my mind, there was no question. A deceptive dark pattern is wrong, no matter who’s doing it.

(There’s also the problem of organisations that think they’re doing good in the world: I’m sure that every talented engineer that worked on Google AMP honestly believed they were acting in the best interests of the open web even as they worked to destroy it.)

Where it gets interesting is when you flip the question around.

Suppose you’re a designer working at an organisation that is decidedly not a force for good in the world. Say you’re working at Facebook, a company that prioritises data-gathering and engagement so much that they’ll tolerate insurrectionists and even genocidal movements. Now let’s say there’s talk in your department of implementing a deceptive dark pattern that will drive user engagement. But you, being a good designer who fights for the user, take a stand against this and you successfully find a way to ensure that Facebook doesn’t deploy that deceptive dark pattern.

Yay?

Does that count as being a good user experience designer? Yes, you’ve done good work at the coalface. But the overall business goal is like a deceptive dark pattern that’s so big you can’t take it in. Is it even possible to do “good” design when you’re inside the belly of that beast?

Facebook is a relatively straightforward case. Anyone who’s still working at Facebook can’t claim ignorance. They know full well where that company’s priorities lie. No doubt they sleep at night by convincing themselves they can accomplish more from the inside than without. But what about companies that exist in the grey area of being imperfect? Frankly, what about any company that relies on surveillance capitalism for its success? Is it still possible to do “good” design there?

There are no easy answers and that’s why it so often comes down to individual choice. I know many designers who wouldn’t work at certain companies …but they also wouldn’t judge anyone else who chooses to work at those companies.

At Clearleft, every staff member has two levels of veto on client work. You can say “I’m not comfortable working on this”, in which case, the work may still happen but we’ll make sure the resourcing works out so you don’t have anything to do with that project. Or you can say “I’m not comfortable with Clearleft working on this”, in which case the work won’t go ahead (this usually happens before we even get to the pitching stage although there have been one or two examples over the years where we’ve pulled out of the running for certain projects).

Going back to the question of whether it’s ever okay to use a deceptive dark pattern, here’s what I think…

It makes no difference whether it’s implemented by ProPublica or Breitbart; using a deceptive dark pattern is wrong.

But there is a world of difference in being a designer who works at ProPublica and being a designer who works at Breitbart.

That’s what I’m getting at when I say there’s a danger to focusing purely on user experience. That focus can be used as a way of avoiding responsibility for the larger business goals. Then designers are like the soldiers on the eve of battle in Henry V:

For we know enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.

Two decades of thesession.org

On June 3rd, 2001, I launched thesession.org. Happy twentieth birthday to The Session!

Although actually The Session predates its domain name by a few years. It originally launched as a subdirectory here on adactio.com with the unwieldly URL /session/session.shtml

A screenshot of the first version of The Session

That incarnation was more like a blog. I’d post the sheetmusic for a tune every week with a little bit of commentary. That worked fine until I started to run out of tunes. That’s when I made the site dynamic. People could sign up to become members of The Session. Then they could also post tunes and add comments.

A screenshot of the second version of The Session

That’s the version that is two decades old today.

The last really big change to the site happened in 2012. As well as a complete redesign, I introduced lots of new functionality.

A screenshot of the current version of The Session

In all of those incarnations, the layout was fluid …long before responsive design swept the web. That was quite unusual twenty years ago, but I knew it was the webby thing to do.

What’s also unusual is just keeping a website going for twenty years. Keeping a community website going for twenty years is practically unheard of. I’m very proud of The Session. Although, really, I’m just the caretaker. The site would literally be nothing without all the contributions that people have made.

I’ve more or less adopted a Wikipedia model for contributions. Some things, like tune settings, can only be edited by the person who submitted it But other things, like the track listing of a recording, or the details of a session, can be edited by any member of the site. And of course anyone can add a comment to any listing. There’s a certain amount of risk to that, but after testing it for two decades, it’s working out very nicely.

What’s really nice is when I get to meet my fellow members of The Session in meatspace. If I’m travelling somewhere and there’s a local session happening, I always get a warm welcome. I mean, presumably everyone would get a warm welcome at those sessions, but I’ve also had my fair share of free pints thanks to The Session.

I feel a great sense of responsibility with The Session. But it’s not a weight of responsibility—the way that many open source maintainers describe how their unpaid labour feels. The sense of responsibility I feel drives me. It gives me a sense of purpose.

The Session is older than any client work I’ve ever done. It’s older than any books I’ve written. It’s even older than Clearleft by a few years. Heck, it’s even older than this blog (just).

I’m 50 years old now. The Session is 20 years old. That’s quite a chunk of my life. I think it’s fair to say that it’s part of me now. Of all the things I’ve made so far in my life, The Session is the one I’m proudest of.

I’m looking forward to stewarding the site through the next twenty years.

Hosting UX Fest

I quite enjoy interviewing people. I don’t mean job interviews. I mean, like, talk show interviews. I’ve had a lot of fun over the years moderating panel discussions: @media Ajax in 2007, SxSW in 2008, Mobilism in 2011, the Progressive Web App Dev Summit and EnhanceConf in 2016.

I’ve even got transcripts of some panels I’ve moderated:

I enjoyed each and every one. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the speakers at every Responsive Day Out. Hosting events like that is a blast, but what with The Situation and all, there hasn’t been much opportunity for hosting conferences.

Well, I’m going to be hosting an event next month: UX Fest. It’s this year’s online version of UX London.

An online celebration of digital design, taking place throughout June 2021.

I am simultaneously excited and nervous. I’m excited because I’ll have the chance to interview a whole bunch of really smart people. I’m nervous because it’s all happening online and that might feel quite different to an in-person discussion.

But I have an advantage. While the interviews will be live, the preceding talks will be pre-recorded. That means I have to time watch and rewatch each talk, spot connections between them, and think about thought-provoking questions for each speaker.

So that’s what I’m doing between now and the beginning of June. If you’d like to bear witness to the final results, I encourage you to get a ticket for UX Fest. You can come to the three-day conference in the first week of June, or you can get a ticket for the festival spread out over the following three Thursdays in June, or you can get a combo ticket for both and save some money.

There’s an inclusion programme for the conference and festival days:

Anyone from an underrepresented group is invited to apply. We especially invite and welcome Black, indigenous & people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities.

Here’s the application form.

There’ll also be a whole bunch of hands-on masterclasses throughout June that you can book individually. I won’t be hosting those though. I’ll have plenty to keep me occupied hosting the conference and the festival.

I hope you’ll join me along with Krystal Higgins, David Dylan Thomas, Catt Small, Scott Kubie, Temi Adeniyi, Teresa Torres, Tobias Ahlin and many more wonderful speakers—it’s going to fun!

Good form

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.

From there, it’s a sequence of short forms, clearly labelled. Semantic accessible HTML, some CSS, and nothing more. If your browser doesn’t support JavaScript (or you’ve disabled it for privacy reasons), that won’t make any difference to your experience. This is the design system in action and it’s an absolute pleasure to experience.

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.

Ten down, one to go

The Long Now Foundation is dedicated to long-term thinking. I’ve been a member for quite a few years now …which, in the grand scheme of things, is not very long at all.

One of their projects is Long Bets. It sets out to tackle the problem that “there’s no tax on bullshit.” Here’s how it works: you make a prediction about something that will (or won’t happen) by a particular date. So far, so typical thought leadery. But then someone else can challenge your prediction. And here’s the crucial bit: you’ve both got to place your monies where your mouths are.

Ten years ago, I made a prediction on the Long Bets website. It’s kind of meta:

The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.

I made the prediction on February 22nd, 2011 when my mind was preoccupied with digital preservation.

One year later I was on stage in Wellington, New Zealand, giving a talk called Of Time And The Network. I mentioned my prediction in the talk and said:

If anybody would like to take me up on that bet, you can put your money down.

Matt was also speaking at Webstock. When he gave his talk, he officially accepted my challenge.

So now it’s a bet. We both put $500 into the pot. If I win, the Bletchly Park Trust gets that money. If Matt wins, the money goes to The Internet Archive.

As I said in my original prediction:

I would love to be proven wrong.

That was ten years ago today. There’s just one more year to go until the pleasingly alliterative date of 2022-02-22 …or as the Long Now Foundation would write it, 02022-02-22 (gotta avoid that Y10K bug).

It is looking more and more likely that I will lose this bet. This pleases me.

Speaking online

I really, really missed speaking at conferences in 2020. I managed to squeeze in just one meatspace presentation before everything shut down. That was in Nottingham, where myself and Remy reprised our double-bill talk, How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days.

That was pretty much all the travelling I did in 2020, apart from a joyous jaunt to Galway to celebrate my birthday shortly before the Nottingham trip. It’s kind of hilarious to look at a map of the entirety of my travel in 2020 compared to previous years.

Mind you, one of my goals for 2020 was to reduce my carbon footprint. Mission well and truly accomplished there.

But even when travel was out of the question, conference speaking wasn’t entirely off the table. I gave a brand new talk at An Event Apart Online Together: Front-End Focus in August. It was called Design Principles For The Web and I’ve just published a transcript of the presentation. I’m really pleased with how it turned out and I think it works okay as an article as well as a talk. Have a read and see what you think (or you can listen to the audio if you prefer).

Giving a talk online is …weird. It’s very different from public speaking. The public is theoretically there but you feel like you’re just talking at your computer screen. If anything, it’s more like recording a podcast than giving a talk.

Luckily for me, I like recording podcasts. So I’m going to be doing a new online talk this year. It will be at An Event Apart’s Spring Summit which runs from April 19th to 21st. Tickets are available now.

I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to talk about. Web stuff, obviously, but maybe a big picture overview this time: the past, present, and future of the web.

Time to prepare a conference talk.

2020

In 2020, I didn’t have the honour and privilege of speaking at An Event Apart in places like Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis. I didn’t experience that rush that comes from sharing ideas with a roomful of people, getting them excited, making them laugh, sparking thoughts. I didn’t enjoy the wonderful and stimulating conversations with my peers that happen in the corridors, or over lunch, or at an after-party. I didn’t have a blast catching up with old friends or making new ones.

But the States wasn’t the only country I didn’t travel to. Closer to home, I didn’t have the opportunity to take the Eurostar and connecting trains to cities like Cologne, Lisbon, and Stockholm. I didn’t sample the food and drink of different countries.

In the summer, I didn’t travel to the west coast of Ireland for the second in year in a row for the annual Willie Clancy festival of traditional Irish music. I didn’t spend each day completely surrounded by music. I didn’t play in some great sessions. I didn’t hear some fantastic and inspiring musicians.

Back here in Brighton, I didn’t go to the session in The Jolly Brewer every Wednesday evening and get lost in the tunes. I didn’t experience that wonderful feeling of making music together and having a pint or two. And every second Sunday afternoon, I didn’t pop along to The Bugle for more jigs and reels.

I didn’t walk into work most days, arrive at the Clearleft studio, and make a nice cup of coffee while chit-chatting with my co-workers. I didn’t get pulled into fascinating conversations about design and development that spontaneously bubble up when you’re in the same space as talented folks.

Every few months, I didn’t get a haircut.

Throughout the year, I didn’t make any weekend trips back to Ireland to visit my mother.

2020 gave me a lot of free time. I used that time to not write a book. And with all that extra time on my hands, I read fewer books than I had read in 2019. Oh, and on the side, I didn’t learn a new programming language. I didn’t discover an enthusiasm for exercise. I didn’t get out of the house and go for a brisk walk on most days. I didn’t start each day prepping my sourdough.

But I did stay at home, thereby slowing the spread of a deadly infectious disease. I’m proud of that.

I did play mandolin. I did talk to my co-workers through a screen. I did eat very well—and very local and seasonal. I did watch lots of television programmes and films. I got by. Sometimes I even took pleasure in this newly-enforced lifestyle.

I made it through 2020. And so did you. That’s an achievement worth celebrating—congratulations!

Let’s see what 2021 doesn’t bring.

2020 in numbers

I posted to adactio.com 1442 times in 2020. sparkline

March was the busiest month with 184 posts. sparkline

This month, December, was the quietest with 68 posts. sparkline

Overall I published:

In amongst those notes are 128 photos. But the number I’m happiest with is 200. From to March 18th to October 3rd, I posted a tune a day for 200 days straight.

Elsewhere in 2020:

For obvious reasons, in 2020 I had far fewer check ins, did far less speaking and almost no travel.

Books I read in 2020

I only read twenty books this year. Considering the ample amount of free time I had, that’s not great. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Yes, I may have spent more time watching television than reading, but I’m cutting myself some slack. It was 2020, for crying out loud.

Anyway, here’s my annual round-up with reviews. Anything with three stars is good. Four stars is really good. Five stars is practically unheard of. As usual, I tried to get an equal balance of fiction and non-fiction.

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

An enjoyable sequal to Ninefox Gambit. There are some convoluted politics but that all seems positively straightforward after the brain-bending calendrical warfare introduced in the first book.

The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society by Norbert Wiener

★★★☆☆

The ur-text on systems and feedback. Reading it now is like reading a historical artifact but many of the ideas are timeless. It’s a bit dense in parts and it tries to cover life, the universe and everything, but when you remember that it was written in 1950, it’s clearly visionary.

The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★☆☆

Simultaneously a ripping yarn and a spiritual meditation. It’s Vietnam and the environmental movement rolled into one (like what Avatar attempted, but this actually works).

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

★★★★☆

Here’s my full review.

A Short History Of Irish Traditional Music by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

★★☆☆☆

A perfectly fine and accurate history of the music, but it’s a bit like reading Wikipedia. Still, it was quite the ego boost to see The Session listed in the appendix.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

★★★☆☆

McEwan’s first foray into science fiction is a good tale but a little clumsily told. It’s like he really wants to show how much research he put into his alternative history. There are moments when characters practically turn to the camera to say, “Imagine how the world would’ve turned out if…” It’s far from McEwan’s best but even when he’s not on top form, his writing is damn good.

The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch

★★★☆☆

I’ve attempted to read this before. I may have even read it all before and had everything just leak out of my head. The problem is with me, not David Deutsch who does a fine job of making complex ideas approachable. This is like a unified theory of everything.

Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

The third and final part of Aldiss’s epic is just as enjoyable as the previous two. The characters aren’t the main attraction here. It’s all about the planetary ballet.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

★★★★☆

A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.

A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★☆

There’s a real pleasure in finally reading books that you should’ve read years ago. I can only imagine how wonderful it would’ve been to read these as a teenager. It’s an immersive world but there’s something melancholy about the writing that makes the experience of reading less escapist and more haunting.

Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

★★★★★

Absolutely superb! I liked Angela Saini’s previous book, Inferior, but I loved this. It’s a harrowing read at times, but written with incredible clarity and empathy. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Purple People by Kate Bulpitt

★★★★☆

Full disclosure: Kate is a friend of mine, so I probably can’t evaluate her book in a disinterested way. That said, I enjoyed the heck out of this and I think you will too. It’s very hard to classify and I think that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Technically, it’s sci-fi I suppose—an alternative history tale, probably—but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s all about the characters, and they’re all vividly realised. Honestly, I’m not sure how best to describe it—other then it being like the inside of Kate’s head—but the description of it being “a jolly dystopia” comes close. Take a chance and give it a go.

How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford

★★★☆☆

Good stuff from Adam Rutherford, though not his best. If I hadn’t already read Angela Saini’s Superior I might’ve rated this higher, but it pales somewhat by comparison. Still, it was interesting to see the same subject matter tackled in two different ways.

Agency by William Gibson

★★☆☆☆

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Agency, but there’s nothing particularly great about it either. It’s just there. Maybe I’m being overly harsh because the first book, The Peripheral, was absolutely brilliant. This reminded me of reading Gibson’s Spook Country, which left me equally unimpressed. That book was sandwiched between the brilliant Pattern Recognition and the equally brilliant Zero History. That bodes well for the forthcoming third book in this series. This second book just feels like filler.

Last Night’s Fun: In And Out Of Time With Irish Music by Ciaran Carson

★★★☆☆

It’s hard to describe this book. Memoir? Meditation? Blog? I kind of like that about it, but I can see how it divides opinion. Some people love it. Some people hate it. I thought it was enjoyable enough. But it doesn’t matter what I think. This book is doing its own thing.

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

The third book in the Machineries of Empire series has much less befuddlement. It’s even downright humourous in places. If you liked Ninefox Gambit and Raven Strategem, you’ll enjoy this too.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

★★★☆☆

The central thesis of this book is refuting the Hobbesian view of humanity as being one crisis away from breakdown. I feel like that argument was made more strongly in Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball. But where this book shines is in its vivid description of past catastrophes and their aftermaths: the San Francisco fire; the Halifax explosion; the Mexico City earthquake; and the culmination with Katrina hitting New Orleans. I was less keen on the more blog-like personal musings but overall, this is well worth reading.

Blindsight by Peter Watts

★★☆☆☆

I like a good tale of first contact, and I had heard that this one had a good twist on the Fermi paradox. But it felt a bit like a short story stretched to the length of a novel. It would make for a good Twilight Zone episode but it didn’t sustain my interest.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I’m still reading this Hugo-winning novella and enjoying it so far.


Alright, time to wrap up this look back at the books I read in 2020 and pick my favourites: one fiction and one non-fiction.

My favourite non-fiction book of the year was easily Superior by Angela Saini. Read it. It’s superb.

What about fiction? Hmm …this is tricky.

You know what? I’m going to go for Purple People by Kate Bulpitt. Yes, she’s a friend (“it’s a fix!”) but it genuinely made an impression on me: it was an enjoyable romp while I was reading it, and it stayed with me afterwards too.

Head on over to Bookshop and pick up a copy.

Words I wrote in 2020

Once again I wrote over a hundred blog posts this year. While lots of other activities dropped off significantly while my main focus was to just keep on keepin’ on, I still found solace and reward in writing and publishing. Like I said early on in The Situation, my website is an outlet for me:

While you’re stuck inside, your website is not just a place you can go to, it’s a place you can control, a place you can maintain, a place you can tidy up, a place you can expand. Most of all, it’s a place you can lose yourself in, even if it’s just for a little while.

Here are some blog posts that turned out alright:

  • Architects, gardeners, and design systems. Citing Frank Chimero, Debbie Chachra, and Lisa O’Neill.
  • Hydration. Progressive enhancement. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  • Living Through The Future. William Gibson, Arthur C.Clarke, Daniel Dafoe, Stephen King, Emily St. John Mandel, John Wyndham, Martin Cruz-Smith, Marina Koren and H.G. Wells.
  • Principles and priorities. Using design principles to embody your priorities.
  • Hard to break. Brittleness is the opposite of resilience. But they both share something in common.
  • Intent. Black lives matter.
  • Accessibility. Making the moral argument.
  • T E N Ǝ T. A spoiler-filled look at the new Christopher Nolan film.
  • Portals and giant carousels. Trying to understand why people think they need to make single page apps.
  • Clean advertising. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that behavioural advertising is more effective than contextual advertising.

I find it strangely comforting that even in a year as shitty as 2020, I can look back and see that there were some decent blog posts in there. Whatever 2021 may bring, I hope to keep writing and publishing through it all. I hope you will too.

The Correct Material

I’ve been watching The Right Stuff on Disney Plus. It’s a modern remake of the ’80s film of the ’70s Tom Wolfe book of ’60s events.

It’s okay. The main challenge, as a viewer, is keeping track of which of the seven homogenous white guys is which. It’s like Merry, Pippin, Ant, Dec, and then some.

It’s kind of fun watching it after watching For All Mankind which has some of the same characters following a different counterfactual history.

The story being told is interesting enough (although Tom has pointed out that removing the Chuck Yeager angle really diminishes the narrative). But ultimately the tension is manufactured around a single event—the launch of Freedom 7—that was very much in the shadow of Gargarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight.

There are juicier stories to be told, but those stories come from Russia.

Some of these stories have been told in film. The Spacewalker told the amazing story of Alexei Leonov’s mission, though it messes with the truth about what happened with the landing and recovery—a real shame, considering that the true story is remarkable enough.

Imagine an alternative to The Right Stuff that relayed the drama of Soyuz 1—it’s got everything: friendship, rivalries, politics, tragedy…

I’d watch the heck out of that.

The Web History podcast

From day one, I’ve been a fan of Jay Hoffman’s project The History Of The Web—both the newsletter and the evolving timeline.

Recently Jay started publishing essays on web history over on CSS Tricks:

  1. Birth
  2. Browsers
  3. The Website
  4. Search

Round about that time, Chris floated the idea of having people record themselves reading blog posts. I immediately volunteered my services for the web history essays.

So now you can listen to me reading Jay’s words:

  1. Birth
  2. Browsers
  3. The Website
  4. Search

Each chapter is round about half an hour long so that’s a solid two hours or so of me yapping.

Should you wish to take the audio with you wherever you go, I’ve made a podcast feed for you. Pop that in your podcatching software of choice. Here it is on Apple Podcasts. Here it is on Spotify.

And if you just can’t get enough of my voice, there’s always the Clearleft podcast …although that’s mostly other people talking, thank goodness.

Web browsers on iOS

Safari is the only browser on iOS devices.

I don’t mean it’s the only browser that ships with iOS devices. I mean it’s the only browser that can be installed on iOS devices.

You can install something called Chrome. You can install something called Firefox. Those aren’t different web browsers. Under the hood they’re using Safari’s rendering engine. They have to. The app store doesn’t allow other browsers to be listed. The apps called Chrome and Firefox are little more than skinned versions of Safari.

If you’re a web developer, there are two possible reactions to hearing this. One is “Duh! Everyone knows that!”. The other is “What‽ I never knew that!”

If you fall into the first category, I’m guessing you’ve been a web developer for a while. The fact that Safari is the only browser on iOS devices is something you’ve known for years, and something you assume everyone else knows. It’s common knowledge, right?

But if you’re relatively new to web development—heck, if you’ve been doing web development for half a decade—you might fall into the second category. After all, why would anyone tell you that Safari is the only browser on iOS? It’s common knowledge, right?

So that’s the situation. Safari is the only browser that can run on iOS. The obvious follow-on question is: why?

Apple at this point will respond with something about safety and security, which are certainly important priorities. So let me rephrase the question: why on iOS?

Why can I install Chrome or Firefox or Edge on my Macbook running macOS? If there are safety or security reasons for preventing me from installing those browsers on my iOS device, why don’t those same concerns apply to my macOS device?

At one time, the mobile operating system—iOS—was quite different to the desktop operating system—OS X. Over time the gap has narrowed. At this point, the operating systems are converging. That makes sense. An iPhone, an iPad, and a Macbook aren’t all that different apart from the form factor. It makes sense that computing devices from the same company would share an underlying operating system.

As this convergence continues, the browser question is going to have to be decided in one direction or the other. As it is, Apple’s laptops and desktops strongly encourage you to install software from their app store, though it is still possible to install software by other means. Perhaps they’ll decide that their laptops and desktops should only be able to install software from their app store—a decision they could justify with safety and security concerns.

Imagine that situation. You buy a computer. It comes with one web browser pre-installed. You can’t install a different web browser on your computer.

You wouldn’t stand for it! I mean, Microsoft got fined for anti-competitive behaviour when they pre-bundled their web browser with Windows back in the 90s. You could still install other browsers, but just the act of pre-bundling was seen as an abuse of power. Imagine if Windows never allowed you to install Netscape Navigator?

And yet that’s exactly the situation in 2020.

You buy a computing device from Apple. It might be a Macbook. It might be an iPad. It might be an iPhone. But you can only install your choice of web browser on one of those devices. For now.

It is contradictory. It is hypocritical. It is indefensible.

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.

Future Sync 2020

I was supposed to be in Plymouth yesterday, giving the opening talk at this year’s Future Sync conference. Obviously, that train journey never happened, but the conference did.

The organisers gave us speakers the option of pre-recording our talks, which I jumped on. It meant that I wouldn’t be reliant on a good internet connection at the crucial moment. It also meant that I was available to provide additional context—mostly in the form of a deluge of hyperlinks—in the chat window that accompanied the livestream.

The whole thing went very smoothly indeed. Here’s the video of my talk. It was The Layers Of The Web, which I’ve only given once before, at Beyond Tellerrand Berlin last November (in the Before Times).

As well as answering questions in the chat room, people were also asking questions in Sli.do. But rather than answering those questions there, I was supposed to respond in a social medium of my choosing. I chose my own website, with copies syndicated to Twitter.

Here are those questions and answers…

The first few questions were about last years’s CERN project, which opens the talk:

Based on what you now know from the CERN 2019 WorldWideWeb Rebuild project—what would you have done differently if you had been part of the original 1989 Team?

I responded:

Actually, I think the original WWW project got things mostly right. If anything, I’d correct what came later: cookies and JavaScript—those two technologies (which didn’t exist on the web originally) are the source of tracking & surveillance.

The one thing I wish had been done differently is I wish that JavaScript were a same-origin technology from day one:

https://adactio.com/journal/16099

Next question:

How excited were you when you initially got the call for such an amazing project?

My predictable response:

It was an unbelievable privilege! I was so excited the whole time—I still can hardly believe it really happened!

https://adactio.com/journal/14803

https://adactio.com/journal/14821

Later in the presentation, I talked about service workers and progressive web apps. I got a technical question about that:

Is there a limit to the amount of local storage a PWA can use?

I answered:

Great question! Yes, there are limits, but we’re generally talking megabytes here. It varies from browser to browser and depends on the available space on the device.

But files stored using the Cache API are less likely to be deleted than files stored in the browser cache.

More worrying is the announcement from Apple to only store files for a week of browser use:

https://adactio.com/journal/16619

Finally, there was a question about the over-arching theme of the talk…

Great talk, Jeremy. Do you encounter push-back when using the term “Progressive Enhancement”?

My response:

Yes! …And that’s why I never once used the phrase “progressive enhancement” in my talk. 🙂

There’s a lot of misunderstanding of the term. Rather than correct it, I now avoid it:

https://adactio.com/journal/9195

Instead of using the phrase “progressive enhancement”, I now talk about the benefits and effects of the technique: resilience, universality, etc.

Future Sync Distributed 2020