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Passenger’s log, Queen Mary 2, August 2019

Passenger’s log, day one: Sunday, August 11, 2019

We took the surprisingly busy train from Brighton to Southampton, with our plentiful luggage in tow. As well as the clothes we’d need for three weeks of hot summer locations in the United States, Jessica and I were also carrying our glad rags for the shipboard frou-frou evenings.

Once the train arrived in Southampton, we transferred our many bags into the back of a taxi and made our way to the terminal. It looked like all the docks were occupied, either with cargo ships, cruise ships, or—in the case of the Queen Mary 2—the world’s last ocean liner to be built.

Check in. Security. Then it was time to bid farewell to dry land as we boarded the ship. We settled into our room—excuse me, stateroom—on the eighth deck. That’s the deck that also has the lifeboats, but our balcony is handily positioned between two boats, giving us a nice clear view.

We’d be sailing in a few hours, so that gave us plenty of time to explore the ship. We grabbed a suprisingly tasty bite to eat in the buffet restaurant, and then went out on deck (the promenade deck is deck seven, just one deck below our room).

It was a blustery day. All weekend, the UK newspaper headlines had been full of dramatic stories of high winds. Not exactly sailing weather. But the Queen Mary 2 is solid, sturdy, and just downright big, so once we were underway, the wind was hardly noticable …indoors. Out on the deck, it could get pretty breezy.

By pure coincidence, we happened to be sailing on a fortuituous day: the meeting of the queens. The Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Victoria, and the Queen Mary 2 were all departing Southampton at the same time. It was a veritable Cunard convoy. With the yacht race on as well, it was a very busy afternoon in the Solent.

We stayed out on the deck as our ship powered out of Southampton, and around the Isle of Wight, passing a refurbished Palmerston sea fort on the way.

Alas, Jessica had a migraine brewing all day, so we weren’t in the mood to dive into any social activities. We had a low-key dinner from the buffet—again, surprisingly tasty—and retired for the evening.

Passenger’s log, day two: Monday, August 12, 2019

Jessica’s migraine passed like a fog bank in the night, and we woke to a bright, blustery day. The Queen Mary 2 was just passing the Scilly Isles, marking the traditional start of an Atlantic crossing.

Breakfast was blissfully quiet and chilled out—we elected to try the somewhat less-trafficked Carinthia lounge; the location of a decent espresso-based coffee (for a price). Then it was time to feed our minds.

We watched a talk on the Bolshoi Ballet, filled with shocking tales of scandal. Here I am on holiday, and I’m sitting watching a presentation as though I were at a conference. The presenter in me approved of some of the stylistic choices: tasteful transitions in Keynote, and suitably legible typography for on-screen quotes.

Soon after that, there was a question-and-answer session with a dance teacher from the English National Ballet. We balanced out the arts with some science by taking a trip to the planetarium, where the dulcet voice of Neil De Grasse Tyson told the tale of dark matter. A malfunctioning projector somewhat tainted the experience, leaving a segment of the dome unilliminated.

It was a full morning of activities, but after lunch, there was just one time and place that mattered: sign ups for the week’s ballet workshops would take place at 3pm on deck two. We wandered by at 2pm, and there was already a line! Jessica quickly took her place in the queue, hoping that she’d make into the workshops, which have a capacity of just 30 people. The line continued to grow. The Cunard staff were clearly not prepared for the level of interest in these ballet workshops. They quickly introduced some emergency measures: this line would only be for the next two day’s workshops, rather than the whole week. So there’d be more queueing later in the week for anyone looking to take more than one workshop.

Anyway, the most important outcome was that Jessica did manage to sign up for a workshop. After all that standing in line, Jessica was ready for a nice sit down so we headed to the area designated for crafters and knitters. As Jessica worked on the knitting project she had brought along, we had our first proper social interactions of the voyage, getting to know the other makers. There was much bonding over the shared love of the excellent Ravelry website.

Next up: a pub quiz at sea in a pub at sea. I ordered the flight of craft beers and we put our heads together for twenty quickfire trivia questions. We came third.

After that, we rested up for a while in our room, before donning our glad rags for the evening’s gala dinner. I bought a tuxedo just for this trip, and now it was time to put it into action. Jessica donned a ballgown. We both looked the part for the black-and-white themed evening.

We headed out for pre-dinner drinks in the ballroom, complete with big band. At one entrance, there was a receiving line to meet the captain. Having had enough of queueing for one day, we went in the other entrance. With glasses of sparkling wine in hand, we surveyed our fellow dressed-up guests who were looking in equal measure dashingly cool and slightly uncomfortable.

After some amusing words from the captain, it was time for dinner. Having missed the proper sit-down dinner the evening before, this was our first time finding out what table we had. We were bracing ourselves for an evening of being sociable, chit-chatting with whoever we’ve been seated with. Your table assignment was the same for the whole week, so you’d better get on well with your tablemates. If you’re stuck with a bunch of obnoxious Brexiteers, tough luck; you just have to suck it up. Much like Brexit.

We were shown to our table, which was …a table for two! Oh, the relief! Even better, we were sitting quite close to the table of ballet dancers. From our table, Jessica could creepily stalk them, and observe them behaving just like mere mortals.

We settled in for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. I opted for an array of pale-coloured foods; cullen skink, followed by seared scallops, accompanied by a Chablis Premier Cru. All this while wearing a bow tie, to the sounds of a string quartet. It felt like peak Titanic.

After dinner, we had a nightcap in the elegant Chart Room bar before calling it a night.

Passenger’s log, day three: Tuesday, August 13

We were woken early by the ship’s horn. This wasn’t the seven-short-and-one-long blast that would signal an emergency. This was more like the sustained booming of a foghorn. In fact, it effectively was a foghorn, because we were in fog.

Below us was the undersea mountain range of the Maxwell Fracture Zone. Outside was a thick Atlantic fog. And inside, we were nursing some slightly sore heads from the previous evening’s intake of wine.

But as a nice bonus, we had an extra hour of sleep. As long as the ship is sailing west, the clocks get put back by an hour every night. Slowly but surely, we’ll get on New York time. Sure beats jetlag.

After a slow start, we sautered downstairs for some breakfast and a decent coffee. Then, to blow out the cobwebs, we walked a circuit of the promenade deck, thereby swapping out bed head for deck head.

It was then time for Jessica and I to briefly part ways. She went to watch the ballet dancers in their morning practice. I went to a lecture by Charlie Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society, and most edifying it was too (I wonder if I can convince him to come down to give a talk at Brighton Astro sometime?).

After the lecture was done, I tracked down Jessica in the theatre, where she was enraptured by the dancers doing their company class. We stayed there as it segued into the dancers doing a dress rehearsal for their upcoming performance. It was fascinating, not least because it was clear that the dancers were having to cope with being on a slightly swaying moving vessel. That got me wondering: has ballet ever been performed on a ship before? For all I know, it might have been a common entertainment back in the golden age of ocean liners.

We slipped out of the dress rehearsal when hunger got the better of us, and we managed to grab a late lunch right before the buffet closed. After that, we decided it was time to check out the dog kennels up on the twelfth deck. There are 24 dogs travelling on the ship. They are all good dogs. We met Dillinger, a good dog on his way to a new life in Vancouver. Poor Dillinger was struggling with the circumstances of the voyage. But it’s better than being in the cargo hold of an airplane.

While we were up there on the top of the ship, we took a walk around the observation deck right above the bridge. The wind made that quite a tricky perambulation.

The rest of our day was quite relaxed. We did the pub quiz again. We got exactly the same score as we did the day before. We had a nice dinner, although this time a tuxedo was not required (but a jacket still was). Lamb for me; beef for Jessica; a bottle of Gigondas for both of us.

After dinner, we retired to our room, putting our clocks and watches back an hour before climbing into bed.

Passenger’s log, day four: Wednesday, August 14, 2019

After a good night’s sleep, we were sauntering towards breakfast when a ship’s announcement was made. This is unusual. Ship’s announcements usually happen at noon, when the captain gives us an update on the journey and our position.

This announcement was dance-related. Contradicting the listed 5pm time, sign-ups for the next ballet workshops would be happening at 9am …which was in 10 minutes time. Registration was on deck two. There we were, examining the breakfast options on deck seven. Cue a frantic rush down the stairwells and across the ship, not helped by me confusing our relative position to fore and aft. But we made it. Jessica got in line, and she was able to register for the workshop she wanted. Crisis averted.

We made our way back up to breakfast, and our daily dose of decent coffee. Then it was time for a lecture that was equally fascinating for me and Jessica. It was Physics En Pointe by Dr. Merritt Moore, ballet dancer and quantum physicist. This was a scene-setting talk, with her describing her life’s journey so far. She’ll be giving more talks throughout the voyage, so I’m hoping for some juicy tales of quantum entanglement (she works in quantum optics, generating entangled photons).

After that, it was time for Jessica’s first workshop. It was a general ballet technique workshop, and they weren’t messing around. I sat off to the side, with a view out on the middle of the Atlantic ocean, tinkering with some code for The Session, while Jessica and the other students were put through their paces.

Then it was time to briefly part ways again. While Jessica went to watch the ballet dancers doing their company class, I was once again attending a lecture by Charles Barclay of the Royal Astronomical Society. This time it was archaeoastronomy …or maybe it was astroarcheology. Either way, it was about how astronomical knowledge was passed on in pre-writing cultures, with a particular emphasis on neolithic sites like Avebury.

When the lecture was done, I rejoined Jessica and we watched the dancers finish their company class. Then it was time for lunch. We ate from the buffet, but deliberately avoided the heavier items, opting for a relatively light salad and sushi combo. This good deed would later be completely undone with a late afternoon cake snack.

We went to one more lecture. Three in one day! It really is like being at a conference. This one, by John Cooper, was on the Elizabethan settlers of Roanoke Island. So in one day, I managed to get a dose of history, science, and culture.

With the day’s workshops and lectures done, it was once again time to put on our best garb for the evening’s gala dinner. All tux’d up, I escorted Jessica downstairs. Tonight was the premier of the ballet performance. But before that, we wandered around drinking champagne and looking fabulous. I even sat at an otherwise empty blackjack table and promptly lost some money. I was a rubbish gambler, but—and this is important—I was a rubbish gambler wearing a tuxedo.

We got good seats for the ballet and settled in for an hour’s entertainment. There were six pieces, mostly classical. Some Swan Lake, some Nutcracker, and some Le Corsaire. But there was also something more modern in there—a magnificent performance from Akram Khan’s Dust. We had been to see Dust at Sadlers Wells, but I had forgotten quite how powerful it is.

After the performance, we had a quick cocktail, and then dinner. The sommelier is getting chattier and chattier with us each evening. I think he approves of our wine choices. This time, we left the vineyards of France, opting for a Pinot Noir from Central Otago.

After one or two nightcaps, we went back to our cabin and before crashing out, we set our clocks back an hour.

Passenger’s log, day five: Thursday, August 15, 2019

We woke to another foggy morning. The Queen Mary 2 was now sailing through the shallower waters of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Closer and closer to North America.

This would be my fifth day with virtually no internet access. I could buy WiFi internet access at exorbitant satellite prices, but I hadn’t felt any need to do that. I could also get a maritime mobile phone signal—very slow and very expensive.

I’ve been keeping my phone in airplane mode. Once a day, I connect to the mobile network and check just one website— thesession.org—just to make sure nothing’s on fire there. Fortunately, because I made the site, I know that the data transfer will be minimal. Each page of HTML is between 30K and 90K. There are no images to speak of. And because I’ve got the site’s service worker installed on my phone, I know that CSS and JavaScript is coming straight from a cache.

I’m not missing Twitter. I’m certainly not missing email. The only thing that took some getting used to was not being able to look things up. On the first few days of the crossing, both Jessica and I found ourselves reaching for our phones to look up something about ships or ballet or history …only to remember that we were enveloped in a fog of analogue ignorance, with no sign of terra firma digitalis.

It makes the daily quiz quite challenging. Every morning, twenty questions are listed on sheets of paper that appear at the entrance to the library. This library, by the way, is the largest at sea. As Jessica noted, you can tell a lot about the on-board priorities when the ship’s library is larger than the ship’s casino.

Answers to the quiz are to be handed in by 4pm. In the event of a tie, the team who hands in their answers earliest wins. You’re not supposed to use the internet, but you are positively encouraged to look up answers in the library. Jessica and I have been enjoying this old-fashioned investigative challenge.

With breakfast done before 9am, we had a good hour to spend in the library researching answers to the day’s quiz before Jessica needed to be at her 10am ballet workshop. Jessica got started with the research, but I quickly nipped downstairs to grab a couple of tickets for the planetarium show later that day.

Tickets for the planetarium shows are released every morning at 9am. I sauntered downstairs and arrived at the designated ticket-release location a few minutes before nine, where I waited for someone to put the tickets out. When no tickets appeared five minutes after nine, I wasn’t too worried. But when there were still no tickets at ten past nine, I grew concerned. By quarter past nine, I was getting a bit miffed. Had someone forgotten their planetarium ticket duties?

I found a crewmember at a nearby desk and asked if anyone was going to put out planetarium tickets. No, I was told. The tickets all went shortly after 9am. But I’ve been here since before 9am, I said! Then it dawned on me. The ship’s clocks didn’t go back last night after all. We just assumed they did, and dutifully changed our watches and phones accordingly.

Oh, crap—Jessica’s workshop! I raced back up five decks to the library where Jessica was perusing reference books at her leisure. I told her the bad news. We dashed down to the workshop ballroom anyway, but of course the class was now well underway. After all the frantic dashing and patient queueing that Jessica did yesterday to scure her place on the workshop! Our plans for the day were undone by our being too habitual with our timepieces. No ballet workshop. No planetarium show. I felt like such an idiot.

Well, we still had a full day of activities. There was a talk with ballet dancer, James Streeter (during which we found out that the captain had deployed all the ships stabilisers during the previous evening’s performance). We once again watched the ballet dancers doing their company class for an hour and a half. We went for afternoon tea, complete with string quartet and beautiful view out on the ocean, now mercifully free of fog.

We attended another astronomy lecture, this time on eclipses. But right before the lecture was about to begin, there was a ship-wide announcement. It wasn’t midday, so this had to be something unusual. The captain informed us that a passenger was seriously ill, and the Canadian coastguard was going to attempt a rescue. The ship was diverting closer to Newfoundland to get in helicopter range. The helicopter wouldn’t be landing, but instead attempting a tricky airlift in about twenty minutes time. And so we were told to literally clear the decks. I assume the rescue was successful, and I hope the patient recovers.

After that exciting interlude, things returned to normal. The lecture on eclipses was great, focusing in particular on the magificent 2017 solar eclipse across America.

It’s funny—Jessica and I are on this crossing because it was a fortunate convergence of ballet and being on a ship. And in 2017 we were in Sun Valley, Idaho because of a fortunate convergence of ballet and experiencing a total eclipse of the sun.

I’m starting to sense a theme here.

Anyway, after all the day’s dancing and talks were done, we sat down to dinner, where Jessica could once again surreptitiously spy on the dancers at a nearby table. We cemented our bond with the sommelier by ordering a bottle of the excellent Lebanese Château Musar.

When we got back to our room, there was a note waiting for us. It was an invitation for Jessica to take part in the next day’s ballet workshop! And, looking at the schedule for the next day, there was going to be repeats of the planetarium shows we missed today. All’s well that ends well.

Before going to bed, we did not set our clocks back.

Passenger’s log, day six: Friday, August 16, 2019

This morning was balletastic:

  • Jessica’s ballet workshop.
  • Watching the ballet dancers doing their company class.
  • Watching a rehearsal of the ballet performance.

The workshop was quite something. Jennie Harrington—who retired from dancing with Dust—took the 30 or so attendees through some of the moves from Akram Khan’s masterpiece. It looked great!

While all this was happening inside the ship, the weather outside was warming up. As we travel further south, the atmosphere is getting balmier. I spent an hour out on a deckchair, dozing and reading.

At one point, a large aircraft buzzed us—the Canadian coastguard perhaps? We can’t be that far from land. I think we’re still in international waters, but these waters have a Canadian accent.

After soaking up the salty sea air out on the bright deck, I entered the darkness of the planetarium, having successfully obtained tickets that morning by not having my watch on a different time to the rest of the ship.

That evening, there was a gala dinner with a 1920s theme. Jessica really looked the part—like a real flapper. I didn’t really make an effort. I just wore my tuxedo again. It was really fun wandering the ship and seeing all the ornate outfits, especially during the big band dance after dinner. I felt like I was in a photo on the wall of the Overlook Hotel.

Dressed for the 1920s.

Passenger’s log, day seven: Saturday, August 17, 2019

Today was the last full day of the voyage. Tomorrow we disembark.

We had a relaxed day, with the usual activities: a lecture or two; sitting in on the ballet company class.

Instead of getting a buffet lunch, we decided to do a sit-down lunch in the restaurant. That meant sitting at a table with other people, which could’ve been awkward, but turned out to be fine. But now that we’ve done the small talk, that’s probably all our social capital used up.

The main event today was always going to be the reprise and final performance from the English National Ballet. It was an afternoon performance this time. It was as good, if not better, the second time around. Bravo!

Best of all, after the performance, Jessica got to meet James Streeter and Erina Takahashi. Their performance from Dust was amazing, and we gushed with praise. They were very gracious and generous with their time. Needless to say, Jessica was very, very happy.

Shortly before the ballet performance, the captain made another unscheduled announcement. This time it was about a mechanical issue. There was a potential fault that needed to be investigated, which required stopping the ship for a while. Good news for the ballet dancers!

Jessica and I spent some time out on the deck while the ship was stopped. It’s was a lot warmer out there compared to just a day or two before. It was quite humid too—that’ll help us start to acclimatise for New York.

We could tell that we were getting closer to land. There are more ships on the horizon. From the amount of tankers we saw today, the ship must have passed close to a shipping lane.

We’re going to have a very early start tomorrow—although luckily the clocks will go back an hour again. So we did as much of our re-packing as we could this evening.

With the packing done, we still had some time to kill before dinner. We wandered over to the swanky Commodore Club cocktail bar at the fore of the ship. Our timing was perfect. There were two free seats positioned right by a window looking out onto the beautiful sunset we were sailing towards. The combination of ocean waves, gorgeous sunset, and very nice drinks ensured we were very relaxed when we made our way down to dinner.

Sailing into the sunset.

At the entrance of the dining hall—and at the entrance of any food-bearing establishment on board—there are automatic hand sanitiser dispensers. And just in case the automated solution isn’t enough, there’s also a person standing there with a bottle of hand sanitiser, catching your eye and just daring you to refuse an anti-bacterial benediction. As the line of smartly dressed guests enters the restaurant, this dutiful dispenser of cleanliness anoints the hands of each one; a priest of hygiene delivering a slightly sticky sacrament.

The paranoia is justified. A ship is a potential petri dish at sea. In my hometown of Cobh in Ireland, the old cemetery is filled with the bodies of foreign sailors whose ships were quarantined in the harbour at the first sign of cholera or smallpox. While those diseases aren’t likely to show up on the Queen Mary 2, if norovirus were to break out on the ship, it could potentially spread quickly. Hence the war on hand-based microbes.

Maybe it’s because I’ve just finished reading Ed Yong’s excellent book I contain multitudes, but I can’t help but wonder about our microbiomes on board this ship. Given enough time, would the microbiomes of the passengers begin to sync up? Maybe on a longer voyage, but this crossing almost certainly doesn’t afford enough time for gut synchronisation. This crossing is almost done.

Passenger’s log, day eight: Sunday, August 18, 2019

Jessica and I got up at 4:15am. This is an extremely unusual occurance for us. But we were about to experience something very out of the ordinary.

We dressed, looked unsuccessfully for coffee, and made our way on to the observation deck at the top of the ship. Land ho! The lights of New Jersey were shining off the port side of the ship. The lights of long island were shining off the starboard side. And dead ahead was the string of lights marking the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

The Queen Mary 2 was deliberately designed to pass under this bridge …just. The bridge has a clearance of 228 feet. The Queen Mary 2 is 236.2 feet, keel to funnel. That’s a difference of just 8.2 feet. Believe me, that doesn’t look like much when you’re on the top deck of the ship, standing right by the tallest mast.

The distant glow of New York was matched by the more localised glow of mobile phone screens on the deck. Passengers took photos constantly. Sometimes they took photos with flash, demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of how you photograph distant objects.

The distant object that everyone was taking pictures of was getting less and less distant. The Statue of Liberty was coming up on our port side.

I probably should’ve felt more of a stirring at the sight of this iconic harbour sculpture. The familiarity of its image might have dulled my appreciation. But not far from the statue was a dark area, one of the few pieces of land without lights. This was Ellis Island. If the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of welcome for your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, then Ellis Island was where the immigration rubber met the administrative road. This was where countless Irish migrants first entered the United States of America, bringing with them their songs, their stories, and their unhealthy appreciation for potatoes.

Before long, the sun was rising and the Queen Mary 2 was parallel parking at the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn. We went back belowdecks and gathered our bags from our room. Rather than avail of baggage assistance—which would require us to wait a few hours before disembarking—we opted for “self help” dismembarkation. Shortly after 7am, our time on board the Queen Mary 2 was at an end. We were in the first group of passengers off the ship, and we sailed through customs and immigration.

Within moments of being back on dry land, we were in a cab heading for our hotel in Tribeca. The cab driver took us over the Brooklyn Bridge, explaining along the way how a cash payment would really be better for everyone in this arrangement. I didn’t have many American dollars, but after a bit of currency haggling, we agreed that I could give him the last of the Canadian dollars I had in my wallet from my recent trip to Vancouver. He’s got family in Canada, so this is a win-win situation.

It being a Sunday morning, there was no traffic to speak of. We were at our hotel in no time. I assumed we wouldn’t be able to check in for hours, but at least we’d be able to leave our bags there. I was pleasantly surprised when I was told that they had a room available! We checked in, dropped our bags, and promptly went in search of coffee and breakfast. We were tired, sure, but we had no jetlag. That felt good.

I connected to the hotel’s WiFi and went online for the first time in eight days. I had a lot of spam to delete, mostly about cryptocurrencies. I was back in the 21st century.

After a week at sea, where the empty horizon was visible in all directions, I was now in a teeming mass of human habitation where distant horizons are rare indeed. After New York, I’ll be heading to Saint Augustine in Florida, then Chicago, and finally Boston. My arrival into Manhattan marks the beginning of this two week American odyssey. But this also marks the end of my voyage from Southampton to New York, and with it, this passenger’s log.

Trad time

Fifteen years ago, I went to the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay:

I’m back from the west of Ireland. I was sorry to leave. I had a wonderful, music-filled time.

I’m not sure why it took me a decade and a half to go back, but that’s what I did last week. Myself and Jessica once again immersed ourselves in Irish tradtional music. I’ve written up a trip report over on The Session.

On the face of it, fifteen years is a long time. Last time I made the trip to county Clare, I was taking pictures on a point-and-shoot camera. I had a phone with me, but it had a T9 keyboard that I could use for texting and not much else. Also, my hair wasn’t grey.

But in some ways, fifteen years feels like the blink of an eye.

I spent my mornings at the Willie Clancy Summer School immersed in the history of Irish traditional music, with Paddy Glackin as a guide. We were discussing tradition and change in generational timescales. There was plenty of talk about technology, but we were as likely to discuss the influence of the phonograph as the influence of the internet.

Outside of the classes, there was a real feeling of lengthy timescales too. On any given day, I would find myself listening to pre-teen musicians at one point, and septegenarian masters at another.

Now that I’m back in the Clearleft studio, I’m finding it weird to adjust back in to the shorter timescales of working on the web. Progress is measured in weeks and months. Technologies are deemed outdated after just a year or two.

The one bridging point I have between these two worlds is The Session. It’s been going in one form or another for over twenty years. And while it’s very much on and of the web, it also taps into a longer tradition. Over time it has become an enormous repository of tunes, for which I feel a great sense of responsibility …but in a good way. It’s not something I take lightly. It’s also something that gives me great satisfaction, in a way that’s hard to achieve in the rapidly moving world of the web. It’s somewhat comparable to the feelings I have for my own website, where I’ve been writing for eighteen years. But whereas adactio.com is very much focused on me, thesession.org is much more of a community endeavour.

I question sometimes whether The Session is helping or hindering the Irish music tradition. “It all helps”, Paddy Glackin told me. And I have to admit, it was very gratifying to meet other musicians during Willie Clancy week who told me how much the site benefits them.

I think I benefit from The Session more than anyone though. It keeps me grounded. It gives me a perspective that I don’t think I’d otherwise get. And in a time when it feels entirely to right to question whether the internet is even providing a net gain to our world, I take comfort in being part of a project that I think uses the very best attributes of the World Wide Web.

Design perception

Last week I wrote a post called Dev perception:

I have a suspicion that there’s a silent majority of developers who are working with “boring” technologies on “boring” products in “boring” industries …you know, healthcare, government, education, and other facets of everyday life that any other industry would value more highly than Uber for dogs.

The sentiment I expressed resonated with a lot of people. Like, a lot of people.

I was talking specifically about web development and technology choices, but I think the broader point applies to other disciplines too.

Last month I had the great pleasure of moderating two panels on design leadership at an event in London (I love moderating panels, and I think I’m pretty darn good at it too). I noticed that the panels comprised representatives from two different kinds of companies.

There were the digital-first companies like Spotify, Deliveroo, and Bulb—companies forged in the fires of start-up culture. Then there were the older companies that had to make the move to digital (transform, if you will). I decided to get a show of hands from the audience to see which kind of company most people were from. The overwhelming majority of attendees were from more old-school companies.

Just as most of the ink spilled in the web development world goes towards the newest frameworks and toolchains, I feel like the majority of coverage in the design world is spent on the latest outputs from digital-first companies like AirBnB, Uber, Slack, etc.

The end result is the same. A typical developer or designer is left feeling that they—and their company—are behind the curve. It’s like they’re only seeing the Instagram version of their industry, all airbrushed and filtered, and they’re comparing that to their day-to-day work. That can’t be healthy.

Personally, I’d love to hear stories from the trenches of more representative, traditional companies. I also think that would help get an important message to people working in similar companies:

You are not alone!

What a day that was

I woke up in Geneva. The celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web were set to begin early in the morning.

It must be said, March 12th 1989 is kind of an arbitrary date. Maybe the date that the first web page went online should mark the birth of the web (though the exact date might be hard to pin down). Or maybe it should be August 6th, 1991—the date that Tim Berners-Lee announced the web to the world (well, to the alt.hypertext mailing list at least). Or you could argue that it should be April 30th, 1993, the date when the technology of the web was officially put into the public domain.

In the end, March 12, 1989 is as good a date as any to mark the birth of the web. The date that Tim Berners-Lee shared his proposal. That’s when the work began.

Exactly thirty years later, myself, Martin, and Remy are registered and ready to attend the anniversay event in the very same room where the existence of the Higgs boson was announced. There’s coffee, and there are croissants, but despite the presence of Lou Montulli, there are no cookies.

Happy birthday, World Wide Web! Love, One third of the https://worldwideweb.cern.ch team at CERN.

The doors to the auditorium open and we find some seats together. The morning’s celebrations includes great panel discussions, and an interview with Tim Berners-Lee himself. In the middle of it all, they show a short film about our hack week recreating the very first web browser.

It was surreal. There we were, at CERN, in the same room as the people who made the web happen, and everyone’s watching a video of us talking about our fun project. It was very weird and very cool.

Afterwards, there was cake. And a NeXT machine—the same one we had in the room during our hack week. I feel a real attachment to that computer.

A NeXT machine from 1989 running the WorldWideWeb browser and my laptop in 2019 running https://worldwideweb.cern.ch

We chatted with lots of lovely people. I had the great pleasure of meeting Peggie Rimmer. It was her late husband, Mike Sendall, who gave Tim Berners-Lee the time (and budget) to pursue his networked hypertext project. Peggie found Mike’s copy of Tim’s proposal in a cupboard years later. This was the copy that Mike had annotated with his now-famous verdict, “vague but exciting”. Angela has those words tattooed on her arm—Peggie got a kick out of that.

Eventually, Remy and I had to say our goodbyes. We had to get to the airport to catch our flight back to London. Taxi, airport, plane, tube; we arrived at the Science Museum in time for the evening celebrations. We couldn’t have been far behind Tim Berners-Lee. He was making a 30 hour journey from Geneva to London to Lagos. We figured seeing him at two out of those three locations was plenty.

This guy again! I think I’m being followed.

By the end of the day we were knackered but happy. The day wasn’t all sunshine and roses. There was a lot of discussion about the negative sides of the web, and what could be improved. A lot of that was from Sir Tim itself. But mostly it was a time to think about just how transformative the web has been in our lives. And a time to think about the next thirty years …and the web we want.

Back at CERN

We got the band back together.

In September of 2013, I had the great pleasure and privilege of going to CERN with a bunch of very smart people. I’m not sure how I managed to slip by. We were there to recreate the experience of using the line-mode browser. As I wrote at the time:

Just to be clear, the line-mode browser wasn’t the world’s first web browser. That honour goes to Tim Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb programme. But whereas WorldWideWeb only ran on NeXT machines, the line-mode browser worked cross-platform and was, therefore, instrumental in demonstrating the power of the web as a universally-accessible medium.

In the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the original (vague but exciting) proposal for what would become the World Wide Web, we’ve been invited back to try to recreate the experience of using that first web browser, the one that one ever ran on NeXT machines.

I missed the first day due to travel madness—flying back from Interaction 19 in Seattle during snowmageddon to Heathrow and then to Geneva—but by the time I arrived, my hackmates had already made a great start in identifying the objectives:

  1. Give people an understanding of the user experience of the WorldWideWeb browser.
  2. Demonstrate that a read/write philosophy was there from the beginning.
  3. Give context—what was going on at the time?

That second point is crucial. WorldWideWeb wasn’t just a web browser; it was a browser/editor. That’s by far the biggest change in terms of the original vision of the web and what we ended up getting from Mosaic onwards.

Remy is working hard on the first point. He documented the first day and now on the second day, he’s made enormous progress already.

I’m focusing on point number three. I want to show the historical context for the World Wide Web. Here’s my plan…

Seeing as we’re coming up on the thirtieth anniversary, I thought it would be interesting to take the year of the proposal (1989) and look back in a time cone of thirty years previous to that at the influences on Tim Berners-Lee. I also want to look at what has happened with the web in the thirty years since the proposal. So the date of the proposal will be a centre point, with the timespan of 1959-1989 converging on it from the past, and the timespan of 1989-2019 diverging from it into the future. I hope it could make for a nice visualisation. Maybe I could try to get it look like data from a particle collision.

We’re here till the weekend and everyone else has already made tremendous progress. Kimberly has been hacking the Gibson …well, that’s what it looked like when she was deep in the code of the NeXT machine we’ve borrowed from Musée Bolo (merci beaucoup!).

We took a little time out for a tour of the data centre. Oh, and at lunch time, we sat with Robert Cailliau and grilled him with questions about the birth of the web. Quite a day!

Now it’s time for me to hit the hay and prepare for another day of hacking in this extraordinary place.

2018 in numbers

I posted to adactio.com 1,387 times in 2018: sparkline

In amongst those notes were:

In my blog posts, the top tags were:

  1. frontend and development (42 posts), sparkline
  2. serviceworkers (27 posts), sparkline
  3. design (20 posts), sparkline
  4. writing and publishing (19 posts), sparkline
  5. javascript (18 posts). sparkline

In my links, the top tags were:

  1. development (305 links), sparkline
  2. frontend (289 links), sparkline
  3. design (178 links), sparkline
  4. css (110 links), sparkline
  5. javascript (106 links). sparkline

When I wasn’t updating this site:

But these are just numbers. To get some real end-of-year thoughts, read posts by Remy, Andy, Ana, or Bill Gates.

HTTPS + service worker + web app manifest = progressive web app

I gave a quick talk at the Delta V conference in London last week called Any Site can be a Progressive Web App. I had ten minutes, but frankly I only needed enough time to say the title of the talk because, well, that was also the message.

There’s a common misconception that making a Progressive Web App means creating a Single Page App with an app-shell architecture. But the truth is that literally any website can benefit from the performance boost that results from the combination of HTTPS + Service Worker + Web App Manifest.

See how I define a progressive web app as being HTTPS + service worker + web app manifest? I’ve been doing that for a while. Here’s a post from last year called Progressing the web:

Literally any website can be a progressive web app:

That last step can be tricky if you’re new to service workers, but it’s not unsurmountable. It’s certainly a lot easier than completely rearchitecting your existing website to be a JavaScript-driven single page app.

Later I wrote a post called What is a Progressive Web App? where I compared the definition to responsive web design.

Regardless of the specifics of the name, what I like about Progressive Web Apps is that they have a clear definition. It reminds me of Responsive Web Design. Whatever you think of that name, it comes with a clear list of requirements:

  1. A fluid layout,
  2. Fluid images, and
  3. Media queries.

Likewise, Progressive Web Apps consist of:

  1. HTTPS,
  2. A service worker, and
  3. A Web App Manifest.

There’s more you can do in addition to that (just as there’s plenty more you can do on a responsive site), but the core definition is nice and clear.

But here’s the thing. Outside of the confines of my own website, it’s hard to find that definition anywhere.

On Google’s developer site, their definition uses adjectives like “reliable”, “fast”, and “engaging”. Those are all great adjectives, but more useful to a salesperson than a developer.

Over on the Mozilla Developer Network, their section on progressive web apps states:

Progressive web apps use modern web APIs along with traditional progressive enhancement strategy to create cross-platform web applications. These apps work everywhere and provide several features that give them the same user experience advantages as native apps. 

Hmm …I’m not so sure about that comparison to native apps (and I’m a little disturbed that the URL structure is /Apps/Progressive). So let’s click through to the introduction:

PWAs are web apps developed using a number of specific technologies and standard patterns to allow them to take advantage of both web and native app features.

Okay. Specific technologies. That’s good to hear. But instead of then listing those specific technologies, we’re given another list of adjectives (discoverable, installable, linkable, etc.). Again, like Google’s chosen adjectives, they’re very nice and desirable, but not exactly useful to someone who wants to get started making a progressive web app. That’s why I like to cut to the chase and say:

  • You need to be running on HTTPS,
  • Then you can add a service worker,
  • And don’t forget to add a web app manifest file.

If you do that, you’ve got a progressive web app. Now, to be fair, there’a lot that I’m leaving out. Your site should be fast. Your site should be responsive (it is, after all, on the web). There’s not much point mucking about with service workers if you haven’t sorted out the basics first. But those three things—HTTPS + service worker + web app manifest—are specifically what distinguishes a progressive web app. You can—and should—have a reliable, fast, engaging website before turning it into a progressive web app.

Jason has been thinking about progressive web apps a lot lately (he should write a book or something), and he said to me:

I agree with you on the three things that comprise a PWA, but as far as I can tell, you’re the first to declare it as such.

I was quite surprised by that. I always assumed that I was repeating the three ingredients of a progressive web app, not defining them. But looking through all the docs out there, Jason might be right. It’s surprising because I assumed it was obvious why those three things comprise a progressive web app—it’s because they’re testable.

Lighthouse, PWA Builder, Sonarwhal and other tools that evaluate your site will measure its progressive web app score based on the three defining factors (HTTPS, service worker, web app manifest). Then there’s Android’s Add to Home Screen prompt. Here finally we get a concrete description of what your site needs to do to pass muster:

  • Includes a web app manifest…
  • Served over HTTPS (required for service workers)
  • Has registered a service worker with a fetch event handler

(Although, as of this month, Chrome will no longer show the prompt automatically—you also have to write some JavaScript to handle the beforeinstallprompt  event).

Anyway, if you’re looking to turn your website into a progressive web app, here’s what you need to do (assuming it’s already performant and responsive):

  1. Switch over to HTTPS. Certbot can help you here.
  2. Add a web app manifest.
  3. Add a service worker to your site so that it responds even when there’s no network connection.

That last step might sound like an intimidating prospect, but help is at hand: I wrote Going Offline for exactly this situation.

Good griddance

I’m not great at estimation, but I still try to do it on any project I’m working, even if it’s just for my own benefit. I break down different bits of the work, and ask myself two questions:

  1. How important is this?
  2. How long will it take?

If I were smart, I’d plot the answers on a graph. I start doing the important stuff, beginning with whatever won’t take too long. Then I’ve got a choice: either do the stuff that’s not all that important, but won’t take long—or do the stuff that will take quite a while, but is quite important. Finally, there’s stuff that’s not important and will take quite a while to do. I leave that to the end. If it never ends up getting done, it’s not the end of the world.

I guess it’s not really about estimation; it’s more about prioritisation.

Anyway, I’m working on a fun little project right now—the website for one of Clearleft’s many excellent events. There was one particular part of the design that I had estimated would take quite a while to do, so I didn’t get around to it until today. It was a layout that I figured would take maybe half a day of wrangling CSS.

I used CSS grid and I was done in five minutes. That’s not an exaggeration. It was literally five minutes.

I thought to myself, “Well, I want these elements to be arranged in two rows of three columns, but I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.”

Normally my next step would be to figure out how to translate those wishes into floats and clears, or maybe flexbox. But this time, there was almost no translation. I could more or less write the CSS like I would write English.

I want these elements to be arranged in rows of three columns.

display: grid;
grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr fr

I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.

grid-row: 1;
grid-column: 3;

That was it. I was done.

I think I may need to recalibrate the estimation part of my brain to account for just how powerful CSS grid is.

Fit For Purpose: Making Sense of the New CSS by Eric Meyer

Time for even more CSS goodness at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Eric’s talk is called Fit For Purpose: Making Sense of the New CSS. Here are my notes…

Eric isn’t going to dive quite as deeply as Rachel, but he is going to share some patterns he has used.

Feature queries

First up: feature queries! Or @supports, if you prefer. You can ask a browser “do you support this feature?” If you haven’t used feature queries, you might be wondering why you have to say the property and the value. Well, think about it. If you asked a browser “do you support display?”, it’s not very useful. So you have to say “do you support display: grid?”

Here’s a nice pattern from Lea Verou for detecting support for custom properties:

@supports (--css: variables)

Here’s a gotcha:

@supports (clip-path: polygon())

That won’t work because polygon() is invalid. This will work:

@supports (clip-path: polygon(0 0))

So to use feature queries, you need to understand valid values for properties.

You can chain feature queries together, or just pick the least-supported thing you’re testing for and test just for that.

Here’s a pattern Eric used when he only wanted to make text sideways, but only if grid is supported:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
    @supports (writing-mode: sideways-lr) {
        ...
    }
}

That’s functionally equivalent to:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
}
@supports (display:grid) and (writing-mode: sideways-lr) {
    ...
}

Choose whichever pattern makes sense to you. More to the point, choose the pattern that makes sense to your future self when you revisit your code.

Feature queries need to work together with media queries. Sometimes there are effects that you only want to apply on larger viewports. Do you put your feature queries inside your media queries? Or do you put your media queries inside your feature queries?

  • MOSS: Media Outside Support Statements
  • MISO: Media Inside Supports Object

Use MOSS when you have more media switches than support blocks. Use MISO when you only have a few breakpoints but lots of feature queries.

That’s one idea that Eric has. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

And remember, CSS is still CSS. Sometimes you don’t need a feature query at all. You could just use hanging-punctuation without testing for it. Browsers that don’t understand it will just ignore it. CSS has implicit feature queries built in. You don’t have to put your grid layout in a feature query, but you might want to put grid-specific margins and widths inside a feature query for display: grid.

Feature queries really help us get from now to the future.

Flexbox

Let’s move on to flexbox. Flexbox is great for things in a line.

On the An Event Apart site, the profile pictures have social media icons lined up at the bottom. Sometimes there are just a few. Sometimes there are a lot more. This is using flexbox. Why? Because it’s cool. Also, because it’s flexbox, you can create rules about how the icons should behave if one of the icons is taller than the others. (It’s gotten to the point that Eric has forgotten that vertically-centring things in CSS is supposed to be hard. The jokes aren’t funny any more.) Also, what if there’s no photo? Using flexbox, you can say “if there’s no photo, change the direction of the icons to be vertical.” Once again, it’s all about writing less CSS.

Also, note that the profile picture is being floated. That’s the right tool for the job. It feels almost transgressive to use float for exactly the purpose for which it was intended.

On the An Event Apart site, the header is currently using absolute positioning to pull the navigation from the bottom of the page source to the top of the viewport. But now you get overlap at some screen sizes. Flexbox would make it much more robust. (Eric uses the flexbox inspector in Firefox Nightly to demonstrate.)

With flexbox, what works horizontally works vertically. Flexbox allows you to align things, as long as you’re aligning in one direction. Flexbox makes things springy. Everything’s related and pushing against each other in a way that makes sense for this medium. It’s intuitive, even though it takes a bit of getting used to …because we’ve picked up some bad habits. To quote Yoda, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” A lot of the barrier is getting over what we’ve internalised. Eric envies the people starting out now. They get to start fresh. It’s like when people who never had to table layouts see code from that time period: it (quite rightly) doesn’t make any sense. That’s what it’s going to be like when people starting out today see the float-based layouts from Bootstrap and the like.

Grid

That’s going to happen with grid too. We must unlearn what we have learned from twenty years of floats and positioning. What makes it worth is:

  1. Flexbox and grid are pretty easy to get used to, and
  2. It’s amazing what you can do!

Eric quotes from an article called How We adopted CSS Grid at Scale:

…we agreed to use CSS Grid at the layout level and Flexbox at the component level (arranging child items of components). Although there’s some overlap and in some cases both could be used interchangeably, abiding by this rule helped us avoid any confusion in gray areas.

Don’t be afraid to set these kind of arbitrary limits that aren’t technological, but are necessary for the team to work well together.

Eric hacked his Wordpress admin interface to use grid instead of floats for an activity component (a list of dates and titles). He initially turned each list item into a separate grid. The overall list didn’t look right. What Eric really needed was a subgrid capability, so that the mini grids (the list items) would relate to one another within the larger grid (the list). But subgrid doesn’t exist yet.

In this case, there’s a way to fake it using display: contents. Eric made the list a grid and used display: contents on the list items. It’s as though you’re saying that the contents of the li are really the contents of the ul. That works in this particular case.

The feature queries for that looked like:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
    @supports (display: contents) {
        ...
    }
}

Eric is also using the grid “ASCII art” (named areas) technique on his personal site. This works independent of source order. For that reason, make sure your source order makes sense.

Using media queries, Eric defines entirely different layouts simply by using different ASCII art. He’s switching templates.

For a proposed redesign of the An Event Apart site, Eric used CSS grid as a prototyping tool. He took a PDF, sliced it up, exported JPGs, and then used grid to lay out those images in a flexible grid. Rapid prototyping! The Firefox grid inspector really helps here. In less than an hour, he had a working layout. He could test whether the layout was sensible and robust. Then he swapped out the sliced images for real content. That took maybe another hour (mostly because it was faster to re-type the text than try to copy and paste from a PDF). CSS makes it that damn easy now!

So even if you’re not going to put things like grid into production, they can still be enormously useful as design tools (and you’re getting to grips with this new stuff).

See also:

Ubiquity and consistency

I keep thinking about this post from Baldur Bjarnason, Over-engineering is under-engineering. It took me a while to get my head around what he was saying, but now that (I think) I understand it, I find it to be very astute.

Let’s take a single interface element, say, a dropdown menu. This is the example Laura uses in her article for 24 Ways called Accessibility Through Semantic HTML. You’ve got two choices, broadly speaking:

  1. Use the HTML select element.
  2. Create your own dropdown widget using JavaScript (working with divs and spans).

The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.

But…

You don’t get complete control. Because the browser is doing the heavy lifting, you can’t craft the details of the dropdown to look identical on different browser/OS combinations.

That’s where the second option comes in. By scripting your own dropdown, you get complete control over the appearance and behaviour of the widget. The disadvantage is that, because you’re now doing all the work instead of the browser, it’s up to you to do all the work—that means lots of JavaScript, thinking about edge cases, and making the whole thing accessible.

This is the point that Baldur makes: no matter how much you over-engineer your own custom solution, there’ll always be something that falls between the cracks. So, ironically, the over-engineered solution—when compared to the simple under-engineered native browser solution—ends up being under-engineered.

Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:

It is impossible to style select option. But is that really necessary? Is it worth abandoning the native browser behavior for a complete rewrite in JavaScript of the functionality?

The answer, as ever, is it depends. It depends on your priorities. If your priority is having consistent control over the details, then foregoing native browser functionality in favour of scripting everything yourself aligns with your goals.

But I’m reminded of something that Eric often says:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

Ubiquity; universality; accessibility—however you want to label it, it’s what lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s the idea that anyone should be able to access a resource, regardless of technical or personal constraints. It’s an admirable goal, and what’s even more admirable is that the web succeeds in this goal! But sometimes something’s gotta give, and that something is control. Rian again:

The days that a website must be pixel perfect and must look the same in every browser are over. There are so many devices these days, that an identical design for all is not doable. Or we must take a huge effort for custom form elements design.

So far I’ve only been looking at the micro scale of a single interface element, but this tension between ubiquity and consistency plays out at larger scales too. Take page navigations. That’s literally what browsers do. Click on a link, and the browser fetches that URL, displaying progress at it goes. The alternative, as exemplified by single page apps, is to do all of that for yourself using JavaScript: figure out the routing, show some kind of progress, load some JSON, parse it, convert it into HTML, and update the DOM.

Personally, I tend to go for the first option. Partly that’s because I like to apply the rule of least power, but mostly it’s because I’m very lazy (I also have qualms about sending a whole lotta JavaScript down the wire just so the end user gets to do something that their browser would do for them anyway). But I get it. I understand why others might wish for greater control, even if it comes with a price tag of fragility.

I think Jake’s navigation transitions proposal is fascinating. What if there were a browser-native way to get more control over how page navigations happen? I reckon that would cover the justification of 90% of single page apps.

That’s a great way of examining these kinds of decisions and questioning how this tension could be resolved. If people are frustrated by the lack of control in browser-native navigations, let’s figure out a way to give them more control. If people are frustrated by the lack of styling for select elements, maybe we should figure out a way of giving them more control over styling.

Hang on though. I feel like I’ve painted a divisive picture, like you have to make a choice between ubiquity or consistency. But the rather wonderful truth is that, on the web, you can have your cake and eat it. That’s what I was getting at with the three-step approach I describe in Resilient Web Design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

Like, say…

  1. The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
  2. Use a select element.
  3. Use JavaScript to replace that native element with a widget of your own devising.

Or…

  1. The user needs to navigate to another page.
  2. Use an a element with an href attribute.
  3. Use JavaScript to intercept that click, add a nice transition, and pull in the content using Ajax.

The pushback I get from people in the control/consistency camp is that this sounds like more work. It kinda is. But honestly, in my experience, it’s not that much more work. Also, and I realise I’m contradicting the part where I said I’m lazy, but that’s why it’s called work. This is our job. It’s not about what we prefer; it’s about serving the needs of the people who use what we build.

Anyway, if I were to rephrase my three-step process in terms of under-engineering and over-engineering, it might look something like this:

  1. Start with user needs.
  2. Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
  3. Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.

Ubiquity, then consistency.

The meaning of AMP

Ethan quite rightly points out some semantic sleight of hand by Google’s AMP team:

But when I hear AMP described as an open, community-led project, it strikes me as incredibly problematic, and more than a little troubling. AMP is, I think, best described as nominally open-source. It’s a corporate-led product initiative built with, and distributed on, open web technologies.

But so what, right? Tom-ay-to, tom-a-to. Well, here’s a pernicious example of where it matters: in a recent announcement of their intent to ship a new addition to HTML, the Google Chrome team cited the mood of the web development community thusly:

Web developers: Positive (AMP team indicated desire to start using the attribute)

If AMP were actually the product of working web developers, this justification would make sense. As it is, we’ve got one team at Google citing the preference of another team at Google but representing it as the will of the people.

This is just one example of AMP’s sneaky marketing where some finely-shaved semantics allows them to appear far more reasonable than they actually are.

At AMP Conf, the Google Search team were at pains to repeat over and over that AMP pages wouldn’t get any preferential treatment in search results …but they appear in a carousel above the search results. Now, if you were to ask any right-thinking person whether they think having their page appear right at the top of a list of search results would be considered preferential treatment, I think they would say hell, yes! This is the only reason why The Guardian, for instance, even have AMP versions of their content—it’s not for the performance benefits (their non-AMP pages are faster); it’s for that prime real estate in the carousel.

The same semantic nit-picking can be found in their defence of caching. See, they’ve even got me calling it caching! It’s hosting. If I click on a search result, and I am taken to page that has a URL beginning with https://www.google.com/amp/s/... then that page is being hosted on the domain google.com. That is literally what hosting means. Now, you might argue that the original version was hosted on a different domain, but the version that the user gets sent to is the Google copy. You can call it caching if you like, but you can’t tell me that Google aren’t hosting AMP pages.

That’s a particularly low blow, because it’s such a bait’n’switch. One of the reasons why AMP first appeared to be different to Facebook Instant Articles or Apple News was the promise that you could host your AMP pages yourself. That’s the very reason I first got interested in AMP. But if you actually want the benefits of AMP—appearing in the not-search-results carousel, pre-rendered performance, etc.—then your pages must be hosted by Google.

So, to summarise, here are three statements that Google’s AMP team are currently peddling as being true:

  1. AMP is a community project, not a Google project.
  2. AMP pages don’t receive preferential treatment in search results.
  3. AMP pages are hosted on your own domain.

I don’t think those statements are even truthy, much less true. In fact, if I were looking for the right term to semantically describe any one of those statements, the closest in meaning would be this:

A statement used intentionally for the purpose of deception.

That is the dictionary definition of a lie.

Update: That last part was a bit much. Sorry about that. I know it’s a bit much because The Register got all gloaty about it.

I don’t think the developers working on the AMP format are intentionally deceptive (although they are engaging in some impressive cognitive gymnastics). The AMP ecosystem, on the other hand, that’s another story—the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP pages in the carousel and in search results; that’s messed up.

Still, I would do well to remember that there are well-meaning people working on even the fishiest of projects.

Except for the people working at the shitrag that is The Register.

(The other strong signal that I overstepped the bounds of decency was that this post attracted the pond scum of Hacker News. That’s another place where the “well-meaning people work on even the fishiest of projects” rule definitely doesn’t apply.)

Notifications

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.

Words

I like words. I like the way they can be tethered together to produce a satisfying sentence.

Jessica likes words even more than I do (that’s why her website is called “wordridden”). She studied linguistics and she’s a translator by trade—German into English. Have a read of her post about translating Victor Klemperer to get an inkling of how much thought and care she puts into it.

Given the depth of enquiry required for a good translation, I was particularly pleased to read this remark by John Le Carré:

No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.

That’s from an article called Why we should learn German, but it’s really about why we should strive for clarity in our use of language:

Clear language — lucid, rational language — to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.

It reminds me of one of my favourite Orwell essays, Politics and the English Language:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

But however much I agree with Le Carré’s reprise of Orwell’s call for clarity, I was brought up short by this:

Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, “Let me be very clear”, these days I reach for my revolver.

Le Carré’s text was part of a speech given in Berlin, where everyone would get the reference to the infamous Nazi quote—Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning—and I’m sure it was meant with a sly wink. But words matter.

Words are powerful. Words can be love and comfort — and words can be weapons.

eLife goes live

The World Wide Web was forged in the crucible of science. Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, a remarkable place where the pursuit of knowledge—rather than the pursuit of profit—is the driving force.

I often wonder whether the web as we know it—an open, decentralised system—could’ve been born anywhere else. These days it’s easy to focus on the success stories of the web in the worlds of commerce and social networking, but I still find there’s something that really “clicks” with the web and the science (Zooniverse being a classic example).

At Clearleft we’ve been lucky enough to work on science-driven projects like the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust. It’s incredibly rewarding to work on projects where the bottom line is measured in knowledge-sharing rather than moolah. So when we were approached by eLife to help them with an upcoming redesign, we jumped at the chance.

We usually help organisations through our expertise in user-centred design, but in this case the design and UX were already in hand. The challenge was in the implementation. The team at eLife knew that they wanted a modular pattern library to keep their front-end components documented and easily reusable. Given Clearleft’s extensive experience with building pattern libraries, this was a match made in heaven (or whatever the scientific non-theistic equivalent of heaven is).

A group of us travelled up from Brighton to Cambridge to kick things off with a workshop. Before diving into code, it was important to set out the aims for the redesign, and figure out how a pattern library could best support those aims.

Right away, I was struck by the great working relationship between design and front-end development within eLife—there was a great collaborative spirit to the endeavour.

Some goals for the redesign soon emerged:

  • Promote the HTML reading experience as a 1st choice for readers.
  • Align the online experience with the eLife visual identity.

That led to some design principles:

  • Focus on content not site furniture.
  • Remove visual clutter and provide no more than the user needs at any stage of the experience.
  • Aid discovery of value added content beyond the manuscript.

Those design principles then informed the front-end development process. Together we came up with a priority of concerns:

  1. Access
  2. Maintainability
  3. Performance
  4. Taking advantage of browser capabilities
  5. Visual appeal

It’s interesting that maintainability was such a high priority that it superseded even performance, but we also proposed a hypothesis at the same time:

Maintainability doesn’t negatively impact performance.

The combination of the design principles and priorities led us to formulate approaches that could be used throughout the project:

  • Progressive enhancement.
  • Small-screen first responsive images.
  • Only add libraries as needed.

Then we dived into the tech stack: build tools, version control approaches, and naming methodologies. BEM was the winner there.

None of those decisions were set in stone, but they really helped to build a solid foundation for the work ahead. Graham camped out in Cambridge for a while, embedding himself in the team there as they began the process of identifying, naming, and building the components.

The work continued after Clearleft’s involvement wrapped up, and I’m happy to say that it all paid off. The new eLife site has just gone live. It’s looking—and performing—beautifully.

What a great combination: the best of the web and the best of science!

eLife is a non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science.

Open source

Building and maintaining an open-source project is hard work. That observation is about as insightful as noting the religious affiliation of the pope or the scatological habits of woodland bears.

Nolan Lawson wrote a lengthy post describing what it feels like to be an open-source maintainer.

Outside your door stands a line of a few hundred people. They are patiently waiting for you to answer their questions, complaints, pull requests, and feature requests.

You want to help all of them, but for now you’re putting it off. Maybe you had a hard day at work, or you’re tired, or you’re just trying to enjoy a weekend with your family and friends.

But if you go to github.com/notifications, there’s a constant reminder of how many people are waiting

Most of the comments on the post are from people saying “Yup, I hear ya!”

Jan wrote a follow-up post called Sustainable Open Source: The Maintainers Perspective or: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love Open Source:

Just because there are people with problems in front of your door, that doesn’t mean they are your problems. You can choose to make them yours, but you want to be very careful about what to care about.

There’s also help at hand in the shape of Open Source Guides created by Nadia Eghbal:

A collection of resources for individuals, communities, and companies who want to learn how to run and contribute to an open source project.

I’m sure Mark can relate to all of the tales of toil that come with being an open-source project maintainer. He’s been working flat-out on Fractal, sometimes at work, but often at home too.

Fractal isn’t really a Clearleft project, at least not in the same way that something like Silverback or UX London is. We’re sponsoring Fractal as much as we can, but an open-source project doesn’t really belong to anyone; everyone is free to fork it and take it. But I still want to make sure that Mark and Danielle have time at work to contribute to Fractal. It’s hard to balance that with the bill-paying client work though.

I invited Remy around to chat with them last week. It was really valuable. Mind you, Remy was echoing many of the same observations made in Nolan’s post about how draining this can be.

So nobody here is under any illusions that this open-source lark is to be entered into lightly. It can be a gruelling exercise. But then it can also be very, very rewarding. One kind word from somebody using your software can make your day. I was genuinely pleased as punch when Danish agency Shift sent Mark a gift to thank him for all his hard work on Fractal.

People can be pretty darn great (which I guess is an underlying principle of open source).

Unlabelled search fields

Adam Silver is writing a book on forms—you may be familiar with his previous book on maintainable CSS. In a recent article (that for some reason isn’t on his blog), he looks at markup patterns for search forms and advocates that we should always use a label. I agree. But for some reason, we keep getting handed designs that show unlabelled search forms. And no, a placeholder is not a label.

I had a discussion with Mark about this the other day. The form he was marking up didn’t have a label, but it did have a button with some text that would work as a label:

<input type="search" placeholder="…">
<button type="submit">
Search
</button>

He was wondering if there was a way of using the button’s text as the label. I think there is. Using aria-labelledby like this, the button’s text should be read out before the input field:

<input aria-labelledby="searchtext" type="search" placeholder="…">
<button type="submit" id="searchtext">
Search
</button>

Notice that I say “think” and “should.” It’s one thing to figure out a theoretical solution, but only testing will show whether it actually works.

The W3C’s WAI tutorial on labelling content gives an example that uses aria-label instead:

<input type="text" name="search" aria-label="Search">
<button type="submit">Search</button>

It seems a bit of a shame to me that the label text is duplicated in the button and in the aria-label attribute (and being squirrelled away in an attribute, it runs the risk of metacrap rot). But they know what they’re talking about so there may well be very good reasons to prefer duplicating the value with aria-label rather than pointing to the value with aria-labelledby.

I thought it would be interesting to see how other sites are approaching this pattern—unlabelled search forms are all too common. All the markup examples here have been simplified a bit, removing class attributes and the like…

The BBC’s search form does actually have a label:

<label for="orb-search-q">
Search the BBC
</label>
<input id="orb-search-q" placeholder="Search" type="text">
<button>Search the BBC</button>

But that label is then hidden using CSS:

position: absolute;
height: 1px;
width: 1px;
overflow: hidden;
clip: rect(1px, 1px, 1px, 1px);

That CSS—as pioneered by Snook—ensures that the label is visually hidden but remains accessible to assistive technology. Using something like display: none would hide the label for everyone.

Medium wraps the input (and icon) in a label and then gives the label a title attribute. Like aria-label, a title attribute should be read out by screen readers, but it has the added advantage of also being visible as a tooltip on hover:

<label title="Search Medium">
  <span class="svgIcon"><svg></svg></span>
  <input type="search">
</label>

This is also what Google does on what must be the most visited search form on the web. But the W3C’s WAI tutorial warns against using the title attribute like this:

This approach is generally less reliable and not recommended because some screen readers and assistive technologies do not interpret the title attribute as a replacement for the label element, possibly because the title attribute is often used to provide non-essential information.

Twitter follows the BBC’s pattern of having a label but visually hiding it. They also have some descriptive text for the icon, and that text gets visually hidden too:

<label class="visuallyhidden" for="search-query">Search query</label>
<input id="search-query" placeholder="Search Twitter" type="text">
<span class="search-icon>
  <button type="submit" class="Icon" tabindex="-1">
    <span class="visuallyhidden">Search Twitter</span>
  </button>
</span>

Here’s their CSS for hiding those bits of text—it’s very similar to the BBC’s:

.visuallyhidden {
  border: 0;
  clip: rect(0 0 0 0);
  height: 1px;
  margin: -1px;
  overflow: hidden;
  padding: 0;
  position: absolute;
  width: 1px;
}

That’s exactly the CSS recommended in the W3C’s WAI tutorial.

Flickr have gone with the aria-label pattern as recommended in that W3C WAI tutorial:

<input placeholder="Photos, people, or groups" aria-label="Search" type="text">
<input type="submit" value="Search">

Interestingly, neither Twitter or Flickr are using type="search" on the input elements. I’m guessing this is probably because of frustrations with trying to undo the default styles that some browsers apply to input type="search" fields. Seems a shame though.

Instagram also doesn’t use type="search" and makes no attempt to expose any kind of accessible label:

<input type="text" placeholder="Search">
<span class="coreSpriteSearchIcon"></span>

Same with Tumblr:

<input tabindex="1" type="text" name="q" id="search_query" placeholder="Search Tumblr" autocomplete="off" required="required">

…although the search form itself does have role="search" applied to it. Perhaps that helps to mitigate the lack of a clear label?

After that whistle-stop tour of a few of the web’s unlabelled search forms, it looks like the options are:

  • a visually-hidden label element,
  • an aria-label attribute,
  • a title attribute, or
  • associate some text using aria-labelledby.

But that last one needs some testing.

Update: Emil did some testing. Looks like all screen-reader/browser combinations will read the associated text.

Accessible progressive disclosure revisited

I wrote a little while back about making an accessible progressive disclosure pattern. It’s very basic—just a few ARIA properties and a bit of JavaScript sprinkled onto some basic HTML. The HTML contains a button element that toggles the aria-hidden property on a chunk of markup.

Earlier this week I had a chance to hang out with accessibility experts Derek Featherstone and Devon Persing so I took the opportunity to pepper them with questions about this pattern. My main question was “Should I automatically focus the toggled content?”

Derek’s response was very perceptive. He wanted to know why I was using a button. Good question. When you think about it, what I’m doing is pointing from one element to another. On the web, we point with links.

There are no hard’n’fast rules about this kind of thing, but as Derek put it, it helps to think about whether the action involves controlling something (use a button) or taking the user somewhere (use a link). At first glance, the progressive disclosure pattern seems to be about controlling something—toggling the appearance of another element. But if I’m questioning whether to automatically focus that element, then really I’m asking whether I want to take the user to that place in the document—in other words, linking to it.

I decided to update the markup. Here’s what I had before:

<button aria-controls="content">Reveal</button>
<div id="content"></div>

Here’s what I have now:

<a href="#content" aria-controls="content">Reveal</a>
<div id="content"></div>

The logic in the JavaScript remains exactly the same:

  1. Find any elements that have an aria-controls attribute (these were buttons, now they’re links).
  2. Grab the value of that aria-controls attribute (an ID).
  3. Hide the element with that ID by applying aria-hidden="true" and make that element focusable by adding tabindex="-1".
  4. Set aria-expanded="false" on the associated link (this attribute can be a bit confusing—it doesn’t mean that this element is not expanded; it means the element it controls is not expanded).
  5. Listen for click events on those links.
  6. Toggle the aria-hidden and aria-expanded when there’s a click event.
  7. When aria-hidden is set to false on an element (thereby revealing it), focus that element.

You can see it in action on CodePen.

See the Pen Accessible toggle (link) by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

New edition

Six years ago I wrote a book and the brand new plucky upstart A Book Apart published it.

Six years! That’s like a geological age in internet years.

People liked the book. That’s very gratifying. I’m quite proud of it, and it always gives me a warm glow when someone tells me they enjoyed reading it.

Jeffrey asked me a while back about updating the book for a second edition—after all, six years is crazy long time for a web book to be around. I said no, because I just wouldn’t have the time, but mostly because—as the old proverb goes—you can step in the same river twice. Proud as I am of HTML5 For Web Designers, I consider it part of my past.

“What about having someone else update it?” Well, that made me nervous. I feel quite protective of my six year old.

“What about Rachel Andrew?” Ah, well, that’s a different story! Absolutely—if there’s one person I trust to bring the up to date, it’s Rachel.

She’s done a fine, fine job. The second edition of HTML5 For Web Designers is now available.

I know what you’re going to ask: how much difference is there between the two editions? Well, in the introduction to the new edition, I’m very pleased to say that Rachel has written:

I’ve been struck by how much has remained unchanged in that time.

There’s a new section on responsive images. That’s probably the biggest change. The section on video has been expanded to include captioning. There are some updates and tweaks to the semantics of some of the structural elements. So it’s not a completely different book; it’s very much an update rather than a rewrite.

If you don’t have a copy of HTML5 For Web Designers and you’ve been thinking that maybe it’s too out-of-date to bother with, rest assured that it is now bang up to date thanks to Rachel.

Jeffrey has written a lovely new foreword for the second edition:

HTML5 for Web Designers is a book about HTML like Elements of Style is a book about commas. It’s a book founded on solid design principles, and forged at the cutting edge of twenty-first century multi-device design and development.

101000

The travelling time is underway. I’m in Denmark right now, leading an HTML5 workshop at NoMA, the Nordic Multimedia Academy, and thanks to some excellent questions from the students, it’s all going smoothly.

Last week I was in Belgium for the Phare conference, which also went smoothly. I enjoyed giving my presentation and I really enjoyed the excellent hospitality of the Ghentians.

While I was in Belgium, the occasion of my fortieth birthday arrived with a sense of long-foreseen inevitability. I spent it in Bruges.

Four zero. The big four oh. Two squared times ten. The answer to life, the universe and everything minus two.

The photons that were reflected from Earth at the time of my birth are arriving at GJ 1214 b. Or, to put in another way, the light that left GJ 1214 at the moment of my birth is entering our solar system, perhaps even reaching the retinas of human beings somewhere on this planet who happen to be looking into just the right part of the sky at just the right time.