Journal tags: ar

585

sparkline

On this day

I’m in San Francisco to speak at An Event Apart, which kicks off tomorrow. But I arrived a few days early so that I could attend Indie Web Camp SF.

Yesterday was the discussion day. Most of the attendees were seasoned indie web campers, so quite a few of the discussions went deep on some of the building blocks. It was a good opportunity to step back and reappraise technology decisions.

Today is the day for making, tinkering, fiddling, and hacking. I had a few different ideas of what to do, mostly around showing additional context on my blog posts. I could, for instance, show related posts—other blog posts (or links) that have similar tags attached to them.

But I decided that a nice straightforward addition would be to show a kind of “on this day” context. After all, I’ve been writing blog posts here for eighteen years now; chances are that if I write a blog post on any given day, there will be something in the archives from that same day in previous years.

So that’s what I’ve done. I’ll be demoing it shortly here at Indie Web Camp, but you can see it in action now. If you look at the page for this blog post, you should see a section at the end with the heading “Previously on this day”. There you’ll see links to other posts I’ve written on December 8th in years gone by.

It’s quite a mixed bag. There’s a post about when I used to have a webcam from sixteen years ago. There’s a report from the Flash On The Beach conference from thirteen years ago (I wrote that post while I was in Berlin). And five years ago, I was writing about markup patterns for web components.

I don’t know if anyone other than me will find this feature interesting (but as it’s my website, I don’t really care). Personally, I find it fascinating to see how my writing has changed, both in terms of subject matter and tone.

Needless to say, the further back in time you go, the more chance there is that the links in my blog posts will no longer work. That’s a real shame. But then it’s a pleasant surprise when I find something that I linked to that is still online after all this time. And I can take comfort from the fact that if anyone has ever linked to anything I’ve written on my website, then those links still work.

Accessibility on The Session revisited

Earlier this year, I wrote about an accessibility issue I was having on The Session. Specifically, it was an issue with Ajax and pagination. But I managed to sort it out, and the lesson was very clear:

As is so often the case, the issue was with me trying to be too clever with ARIA, and the solution was to ease up on adding so many ARIA attributes.

Well, fast forward to the past few weeks, when I was contacted by one of the screen-reader users on The Session. There was, once again, a problem with the Ajax pagination, specifically with VoiceOver on iOS. The first page of results were read out just fine, but subsequent pages were not only never announced, the content was completely unavailable. The first page of results would’ve been included in the initial HTML, but the subsequent pages of results are injected with JavaScript (if JavaScript is available—otherwise it’s regular full-page refreshes all the way).

This pagination pattern shows up all over the site: lists of what’s new, search results, and more. I turned on VoiceOver and I was able to reproduce the problem straight away.

I started pulling apart my JavaScript looking for the problem. Was it something to do with how I was handling focus? I just couldn’t figure it out. And other parts of the site that used Ajax didn’t seem to be having the same problem. I was mystified.

Finally, I tracked down the problem, and it wasn’t in the JavaScript at all.

Wherever the pagination pattern appears, there are “previous” and “next” links, marked up with the appropriate rel="prev" and rel="next" attributes. Well, apparently past me thought it would be clever to add some ARIA attributes in there too. My thinking must’ve been something like this:

  • Those links control the area of the page with the search results.
  • That area of the page has an ID of “results”.
  • I should add aria-controls="results" to those links.

That was the problem …which is kind of weird, because VoiceOver isn’t supposed to have any support for aria-controls. Anyway, once I removed that attribute from the links, everything worked just fine.

Just as the solution last time was to remove the aria-atomic attribute on the updated area, the solution this time was to remove the aria-controls attribute on the links that trigger the update. Maybe this time I’ll learn my lesson: don’t mess with ARIA attributes you don’t understand.

Third party

The web turned 30 this year. When I was back at CERN to mark this anniversary, there was a lot of introspection and questioning the direction that the web has taken. Everyone I know that uses the web is in agreement that tracking and surveillance are out of control. It seems only right to question whether the web has lost its way.

But here’s the thing: the technologies that enable tracking and surveillance didn’t exist in the early years of the web—JavaScript and cookies.

Without cookies, the web was stateless. This was by design. Now, I totally understand why cookies—or something like cookies—were needed. Without some way of keeping track of state, there’s no good way for a website to “remember” what’s in your shopping cart, or whether you’ve authenticated yourself.

But why would cookies ever need to work across domains? Authentication, shopping carts and all that good stuff can happen on the same domain. Third-party cookies, on the other hand, seem custom made for tracking and frankly, not much else.

Browsers allow you to disable third-party cookies, though it’s not yet the default. If enough people do it—and complain about the sites that stop working when third-party cookies are disabled—then maybe it can become the default.

Firefox is taking steps in this direction, automatically disabling some third-party cookies—the ones that known trackers. Safari is also taking steps to prevent cross-site tracking. It’s not too late to change the tide of third-party cookies.

Then there’s third-party JavaScript.

In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that third-party JavaScript is even possible. I mean, putting arbitrary code—that can then inject even more arbitrary code—onto your website? That seems like a security nightmare!

I imagine if JavaScript were being specced today, it would almost certainly be restricted to the same origin by default. But I guess the precedent had been set with images and style sheets: they could be embedded regardless of whether their domain names matched yours. Still, this is executable code we’re talking about here: that’s quite a footgun that the web has given site owners. And boy, oh boy, has it been used by the worst people to do the most damage.

Again, as with cookies, if we were to imagine what the web would be like if JavaScript was restricted by a same-domain policy, there are certainly things that would be trickier to do.

  • Embedding video, audio, and maps would get a lot finickier.
  • Analytics would need to be self-hosted. I don’t think that would bother any site owners. An analytics platform like Google Analytics that tracks people across domains is doing it for its own benefit rather than that of site owners.
  • Advertising wouldn’t be creepy and annoying. Instead of what’s so euphemistically called “personalisation”, advertisers would have to rely on serving relevant ads based on the content of the site rather than an invasive psychological profile of the user. (I honestly think that advertisers would benefit from this kind of targetting.)

It’s harder to imagine putting the genie back in the bottle when it comes to third-party JavaScript than it is with third-party cookies. All the same, I wish that browsers made it easier to experiment with it. Just as I can choose to accept all cookies, reject all cookies, or only accept same-origin cookies, I wish I could accept all JavaScript, reject all JavaScript, or only accept same-origin JavaScript.

As it is, browsers are making it harder and harder to exercise any control over JavaScript at all. So we reach for third-party tools. We don’t call them JavaScript managers though. We call them ad blockers. But honestly, most of the ad-blocker users I know—myself included—are not bothered by the advertising; we’re bothered by the tracking. We should really call them surveillance blockers.

If third-party JavaScript weren’t the norm, not only would it make the web more secure, it would make it way more performant. Read the chapter on third parties in this year’s newly-released Web Almanac. The figures are staggering.

93% of pages include at least one third-party resource, 76% of pages issue a request to an analytics domain, the median page requests content from at least 9 unique third-party domains that represent 35% of their total network activity, and the most active 10% of pages issue a whopping 175 third-party requests or more.

I don’t think all the web’s performance ills are due to third-party scripts; developers are doing a bang-up job of making their sites big and bloated with their own self-hosted frameworks and code. But as long as third-party JavaScript is allowed onto a site, there’s a limit to how much good developers can do to improve the performance of their sites.

I go to performance-related conferences and you know who I’ve never seen at those events? The people who write the JavaScript for third-party tracking scripts. Those developers are wielding an outsized influence on the health of the web.

I’m very happy to see the work being done by Mozilla and Apple to normalise the idea of rejecting third-party cookies. I’d love to see the rejection of third-party JavaScript normalised in the same way. I know that it would make my life as a developer harder. But that’s of lesser importance. It would be better for the web.

CSS for all

There have been some great new CSS properties and values shipping in Firefox recently.

Miriam Suzanne explains the difference between the newer revert value and the older inherit, initial and unset values in a video on the Mozilla Developer channel:

display: revert;

In another video, Jen describes some new properties for styling underlines (on links, for example):

text-decoration-thickness:  0.1em;
text-decoration-color: red;
text-underline-offset: 0.2em;
text-decoration-skip-ink: auto;

Great stuff!

As far as I can tell, all of these properties are available to you regardless of whether you are serving your website over HTTP or over HTTPS. That may seem like an odd observation to make, but I invite you to cast your mind back to January 2018. That’s when the Mozilla Security Blog posted about moving to secure contexts everywhere:

Effective immediately, all new features that are web-exposed are to be restricted to secure contexts. Web-exposed means that the feature is observable from a web page or server, whether through JavaScript, CSS, HTTP, media formats, etc. A feature can be anything from an extension of an existing IDL-defined object, a new CSS property, a new HTTP response header, to bigger features such as WebVR.

(emphasis mine)

Buzz Lightyear says to Woody: Secure contexts …secure contexts everywhere!

Despite that “effective immediately” clause, I haven’t observed any of the new CSS properties added in the past two years to be restricted to HTTPS. I’m glad about that. I wrote about this announcement at the time:

I am in total agreement that we should be encouraging everyone to switch to HTTPS. But requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means.

If there were valid security reasons for making HTTPS a requirement, I would be all for enforcing this. But these are two totally separate areas. Enforcing HTTPS by withholding CSS support is no different to enforcing AMP by withholding search placement.

There’s no official word from the Mozilla Security Blog about any change to their two-year old “effective immediately” policy, and the original blog post hasn’t been updated. Maybe we can all just pretend it never happened.

Cat encounters

The latest episode of Ariel’s excellent Offworld video series (and podcast) is all about Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.

Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.

This is a timely discussion. There’s a new book by Daniel Oberhaus published by MIT Press called Extraterrestrial Languages:

If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?

You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:

Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.

Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.

It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.

But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.

The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:

  1. Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
  2. Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.

This is the raycat solution.

Near miss

When I was travelling across the Atlantic ocean on the Queen Mary 2 back in August, I had the pleasure of attending a series of on-board lectures by Charles Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society.

One of those presentations was on the threat of asteroid impacts—always a fun topic! Charles mentioned Spaceguard, the group that tracks near-Earth objects.

Spaceguard is a pretty cool-sounding name for any organisation. The name comes from a work of (science) fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 book Rendezvous with Rama, Spaceguard is the name of a fictional organisation formed after a devastating asteroid impact on northen Italy—an event which is coincidentally depicted as happening on September 11th. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The impact happens on the first page of the book.

At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky.  Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens—at first in utter silence—it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.

Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged.  They were the lucky ones.

Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.

Later in the same lecture, Charles talked about the Torino scale, which is used to classify the likelihood and severity of impacts. Number 10 on the Torino scale means an impact is certain and that it will be an extinction level event.

Torino—Turin—is in northern Italy. “Wait a minute!”, I thought to myself. “Is this something that’s also named for that opening chapter of Rendezvous with Rama?”

I spoke to Charles about it afterwards, hoping that he might know. But he said, “Oh, I just assumed that a group of scientists got together in Turin when they came up with the scale.”

Being at sea, there was no way to easily verify or disprove the origin story of the Torino scale. Looking something up on the internet would have been prohibitively slow and expensive. So I had to wait until we docked in New York.

On our first morning in the city, Jessica and I popped into a bookstore. I picked up a copy of Rendezvous with Rama and re-read the details of that opening impact on northern Italy. Padua, Venice and Verona are named, but there’s no mention of Turin.

Sure enough, when I checked Wikipedia, the history and naming of the Torino scale was exactly what Charles Barclay surmised:

A revised version of the “Hazard Index” was presented at a June 1999 international conference on NEOs held in Torino (Turin), Italy. The conference participants voted to adopt the revised version, where the bestowed name “Torino Scale” recognizes the spirit of international cooperation displayed at that conference toward research efforts to understand the hazards posed by NEOs.

Periodic background sync

Yesterday I wrote about how much I’d like to see silent push for the web:

I’d really like silent push for the web—the ability to update a cache with fresh content as soon as it’s published; that would be nifty! At the same time, I understand the concerns. It feels more powerful than other permission-based APIs like notifications.

Today, John Holt Ripley responded on Twitter:

hi there, just read your blog post about Silent Push for acthe web, and wondering if Periodic Background Sync would cover a few of those use cases?

Periodic background sync looks very interesting indeed!

It’s not the same as silent push. As the name suggests, this is about your service worker waking up periodically and potentially fetching (and caching) fresh content from the network. So the service worker is polling rather than receiving a push. But I’ll take it! It’s definitely close enough for the kind of use-cases I’ve been thinking about.

Interestingly, periodic background sync also ties into the other part of what I was writing about: permissions. I mentioned that adding a site the home screen could be interpreted as a signal to potentially allow more permissions (or at least allow prompts for more permissions).

Well, Chromium has a document outlining metrics for attempting to gauge site engagement. There’s some good thinking in there.

Silent push for the web

After Indie Web Camp in Berlin last year, I wrote about Seb’s nifty demo of push without notifications:

While I’m very unwilling to grant permission to be interrupted by intrusive notifications, I’d be more than willing to grant permission to allow a website to silently cache timely content in the background. It would be a more calm technology.

Phil Nash left a comment on the Medium copy of my post explaining that Seb’s demo of using the Push API without showing a notification wouldn’t work for long:

The browsers allow a certain number of mistakes(?) before they start to show a generic notification to say that your site sent a push notification without showing a notification. I believe that after ~10 or so notifications, and that’s different between browsers, they run out of patience.

He also provided me with the name to describe what I’m after:

You’re looking for “silent push” as are many others.

Silent push is something that is possible in native apps. It isn’t (yet?) available on the web, presumably because of security concerns.

It’s an API that would ripe for abuse. I mean, just look at the mess we’ve made with APIs like notifications and geolocation. Sure, they require explicit user opt-in, but these opt-ins are seen so often that users are sick of seeing them. Silent push would be one more permission-based API to add to the stack of annoyances.

Still, I’d really like silent push for the web—the ability to update a cache with fresh content as soon as it’s published; that would be nifty! At the same time, I understand the concerns. It feels more powerful than other permission-based APIs like notifications.

Maybe there could be another layer of permissions. What if adding a site to your home screen was the first step? If a site is running on HTTPS, has a service worker, has a web app manifest, and has been added to the homescreen, maybe then and only then should it be allowed to prompt for permission to do silent push.

In other words, what if certain very powerful APIs were only available to progressive web apps that have successfully been added to the home screen?

Frankly, I’d be happy if the same permissions model applied to web notifications too, but I guess that ship has sailed.

Anyway, all this is pure conjecture on my part. As far as I know, silent push isn’t on the roadmap for any of the browser vendors right now. That’s fair enough. Although it does annoy me that native apps have this capability that web sites don’t.

It used to be that there was a long list of features that only native apps could do, but that list has grown shorter and shorter. The web’s hare is catching up to native’s tortoise.

Web talk

At the start of this month I was in Amsterdam for a series of back-to-back events: Indie Web Camp Amsterdam, View Source, and Fronteers. That last one was where Remy and I debuted talk we’d been working on.

The Fronteers folk have been quick off the mark so the video is already available. I’ve also published the text of the talk here:

How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days

This was a fun talk to put together. The first challenge was figuring out the right format for a two-person talk. It quickly became clear that Remy’s focus would be on the events of the five days we spent at CERN, whereas my focus would be on the history of computing, hypertext, and networks leading up to the creation of the web.

Now, we could’ve just done everything chronologically, but that would mean I’d do the first half of the talk and Remy would do the second half. That didn’t appeal. And it sounded kind of boring. So then we come up with the idea of interweaving the two timelines.

That worked remarkably well. The talk starts with me describing the creation of CERN in the 1950s. Then Remy talks about the first day of the hack week. I then talk about events in the 1960s. Remy talks about the second day at CERN. This continues until we join up about half way through the talk: I’ve arrived at the moment that Tim Berners-Lee first published the proposal for the World Wide Web, and Remy has arrived at the point of having running code.

At this point, the presentation switches gears and turns into a demo. I do not have the fortitude to do a live demo, so this was all down to Remy. He did it flawlessly. I have so much respect for people brave enough to do live demos, and do them well.

But the talk doesn’t finish there. There’s a coda about our return to CERN a month after the initial hack week. This was an opportunity for both of us to close out the talk with our hopes and dreams for the World Wide Web.

I know I’m biased, but I thought the structure of the presentation worked really well: two interweaving timelines culminating in a demo and finishing with the big picture.

There was a forcing function on preparing this presentation: Remy was moving house, and I was already going to be away speaking at some other events. That limited the amount of time we could be in the same place to practice the talk. In the end, I think that might have helped us make the most of that time.

We were both feeling the pressure to tell this story well—it means so much to us. Personally, I found that presenting with Remy made me up my game. Like I said:

It’s been a real treat working with Remy on this. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s kind of a web hero of mine, so this was a real honour and a privilege for me.

This talk could have easily turned into a boring slideshow of “what we did on our holidays”, but I think we managed to successfully avoid that trap. We’re both proud of this talk and we’d love to give it again some time. If you’d like it at your event, get in touch.

In the meantime, you can read the text, watch the video, or look at the slides (but the slides really don’t make much sense in isolation).

The Web Share API in Safari on iOS

I implemented the Web Share API over on The Session back when it was first available in Chrome in Android. It’s a nifty and quite straightforward API that allows websites to make use of the “sharing drawer” that mobile operating systems provide from within a web browser.

I already had sharing buttons that popped open links to Twitter, Facebook, and email. You can see these sharing buttons on individual pages for tunes, recordings, sessions, and so on.

I was already intercepting clicks on those buttons. I didn’t have to add too much to also check for support for the Web Share API and trigger that instead:

if (navigator.share) {
  navigator.share(
    {
      title: document.querySelector('title').textContent,
      text: document.querySelector('meta[name="description"]').getAttribute('content'),
      url: document.querySelector('link[rel="canonical"]').getAttribute('href')
    }
  );
}

That worked a treat. As you can see, there are three fields you can pass to the share() method: title, text, and url. You don’t have to provide all three.

Earlier this year, Safari on iOS shipped support for the Web Share API. I didn’t need to do anything. ‘Cause that’s how standards work. You can make use of APIs before every browser supports them, and then your website gets better and better as more and more browsers add support.

But I recently discovered something interesting about the iOS implementation.

When the share() method is triggered, iOS provides multiple ways of sharing: Messages, Airdrop, email, and so on. But the simplest option is the one labelled “copy”, which copies to the clipboard.

Here’s the thing: if you’ve provided a text parameter to the share() method then that’s what’s going to get copied to the clipboard—not the URL.

That’s a shame. Personally, I think the url field should take precedence. But I don’t think this is a bug, per se. There’s nothing in the spec to say how operating systems should handle the data sent via the Web Share API. Still, I think it’s a bit counterintuitive. If I’m looking at a web page, and I opt to share it, then surely the URL is the most important piece of data?

I’m not even sure where to direct this feedback. I guess it’s under the purview of the Safari team, but it also touches on OS-level interactions. Either way, I hope that somebody at Apple will consider changing the current behaviour for copying Web Share data to the clipboard.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to update my code to remove the text parameter:

if (navigator.share) {
  navigator.share(
    {
      title: document.querySelector('title').textContent,
      url: document.querySelector('link[rel="canonical"]').getAttribute('href')
    }
  );
}

If the behaviour of Safari on iOS changes, I’ll reinstate the missing field.

By the way, if you’re making progressive web apps that have display: standalone in the web app manifest, please consider using the Web Share API. When you remove the browser chrome, you’re removing the ability for users to easily share URLs. The Web Share API gives you a way to reinstate that functionality.

Dark mode

I had a very productive time at Indie Web Camp Amsterdam. The format really lends itself to getting the most of a weekend—one day of discussions followed by one day of hands-on making and doing. You should definitely come along to Indie Web Camp Brighton on October 19th and 20th to experience it for yourself.

By the end of the “doing” day, I had something fun to demo—a dark mode for my website.

Y’know, when I first heard about Apple adding dark mode to their OS—and also to CSS—I thought, “Oh, great, Apple are making shit up again!” But then I realised that, like user style sheets, this is one more reminder to designers and developers that they don’t get the last word—users do.

Applying the dark mode styles is pretty straightforward in theory. You put the styles inside this media query:

@media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) {
...
}

Rather than over-riding every instance of a colour in my style sheet, I decided I’d do a little bit of refactoring first and switch to using CSS custom properties (or variables, if you will).

:root {
  --background-color: #fff;
  --text-color: #333;
  --link-color: #b52;
}
body {
  background-color: var(--background-color);
  color: var(--text-color);
}
a {
  color: var(--link-color);
}

Then I can over-ride the custom properties without having to touch the already-declared styles:

@media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) {
  :root {
    --background-color: #111416
    --text-color: #ccc;
    --link-color: #f96;
  }
}

All in all, I have about a dozen custom properties for colours—variations for text, backgrounds, and interface elements like links and buttons.

By using custom properties and the prefers-color-scheme media query, I was 90% of the way there. But the devil is in the details.

I have SVGs of sparklines on my homepage. The SVG has a hard-coded colour value in the stroke attribute of the path element that draws the sparkline. Fortunately, this can be over-ridden in the style sheet:

svg.activity-sparkline path {
  stroke: var(--text-color);
}

The real challenge came with the images I use in the headers of my pages. They’re JPEGs with white corners on one side and white gradients on the other.

header images

I could make them PNGs to get transparency, but the file size would shoot up—they’re photographic images (with a little bit of scan-line treatment) so JPEGs (or WEBPs) are the better format. Then I realised I could use CSS to recreate the two effects:

  1. For the cut-out triangle in the top corner, there’s clip-path.
  2. For the gradient, there’s …gradients!
background-image: linear-gradient(
  to right,
  transparent 50%,
  var(—background-color) 100%
);

Oh, and I noticed that when I applied the clip-path for the corners, it had no effect in Safari. It turns out that after half a decade of support, it still only exists with -webkit prefix. That’s just ridiculous. At this point we should be burning vendor prefixes with fire. I can’t believe that Apple still ships standardised CSS properties that only work with a prefix.

In order to apply the CSS clip-path and gradient, I needed to save out the images again, this time without the effects baked in. I found the original Photoshop file I used to export the images. But I don’t have a copy of Photoshop any more. I haven’t had a copy of Photoshop since Adobe switched to their Mafia model of pricing. A quick bit of searching turned up Photopea, which is pretty much an entire recreation of Photoshop in the browser. I was able to open my old PSD file and re-export my images.

LEGO clone trooper Brighton bandstand Scaffolding Tokyo Florence

Let’s just take a moment here to pause and reflect on the fact that we can now use CSS to create all sorts of effects that previously required a graphic design tool like Photoshop. I could probably do those raster scan lines with CSS if I were smart enough.

dark mode

This is what I demo’d at the end of Indie Web Camp Amsterdam, and I was pleased with the results. But fate had an extra bit of good timing in store for me.

The very next day at the View Source conference, Melanie Richards gave a fantastic talk called The Tailored Web: Effectively Honoring Visual Preferences (seriously, conference organisers, you want this talk on your line-up). It was packed with great insights and advice on impementing dark mode, like this little gem for adjusting images:

@media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) {
  img {
    filter: brightness(.8) contrast(1.2);
  }
}

Melanie also pointed out that you can indicate the presence of dark mode styles to browsers, although the mechanism is yet to shake out. You can do it in CSS:

:root {
  color-scheme: light dark;
}

But you can also do it in HTML:

That allows browsers to swap out replaced content; interface elements like form fields and dropdowns.

Oh, and one other addition I added after the fact was swapping out map imagery by using the picture element to point to darker map tiles:

<picture>
<source media="(prefers-color-scheme: dark)" srcset="https://api.mapbox.com/styles/v1/mapbox/dark-v10/static...">
<img src="https://api.mapbox.com/styles/v1/mapbox/outdoors-v10/static..." alt="map">
</picture>

light map dark map

So now I’ve got a dark mode for my website. Admittedly, it’s for just one of the eight style sheets. I’ve decided that, while I’ll update my default styles at every opportunity, I’m going to preservethe other skins as they are, like the historical museum pieces they are.

If you’re on the latest version of iOS, go ahead and toggle the light and dark options in your system preferences to flip between this site’s colour schemes.

Request mapping

The Request Map Generator is a terrific tool. It’s made by Simon Hearne and uses the WebPageTest API.

You pop in a URL, it fetches the page and maps out all the subsequent requests in a nifty interactive diagram of circles, showing how many requests third-party scripts are themselves generating. I’ve found it to be a very effective way of showing the impact of third-party scripts to people who aren’t interested in looking at waterfall diagrams.

I was wondering… Wouldn’t it be great if this were built into browsers?

We already have a “Network” tab in our developer tools. The purpose of this tab is to show requests coming in. The browser already has all the information it needs to make a diagram of requests in the same that the request map generator does.

In Firefox, there’s a little clock icon in the bottom left corner of the “Network” tab. Clicking that shows a pie-chart view of requests. That’s useful, but I’d love it if there were the option to also see the connected circles that the request map generator shows.

Just a thought.

Getting started

I got an email recently from a young person looking to get into web development. They wanted to know what languages they should start with, whether they should a Mac or a Windows PC, and what some places to learn from.

I wrote back, saying this about languages:

For web development, start with HTML, then CSS, then JavaScript (and don’t move on to JavaScript too quickly—really get to grips with HTML and CSS first).

And this is what I said about hardware and software:

It doesn’t matter whether you use a Mac or a Windows PC, as long as you’ve got an internet connection, some web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, for example) and a text editor. There are some very good free text editors available for Mac and PC:

For resources, I had a trawl through links I’ve tagged with “learning” and “html” and sent along some links to free online tutorials:

After sending that email, I figured that this list might be useful to anyone else looking to start out in web development. If you know of anyone in that situation, I hope this list might help.

The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland

It’s Patty Toland’s first time at An Event Apart! She’s from the fantabulous Filament Group. They’re dedicated to making the web work for everyone.

A few years ago, a good friend of Patty’s had a medical diagnosis that required everyone to pull together. Another friend shared an article about how not to say the wrong thing. This is ring theory. In a moment of crisis, the person involved is in the centre. You need to understand where you are in this ring structure, and only ever help and comfort inwards and dump concerns and problems outwards.

At the same time, Patty spent time with her family at the beach. Everyone reads the same books together. There was a book about a platoon leader in Vietnam. 80% of the story was literally a litany of stuff—what everyone was carrying. This was peppered with the psychic and emotional loads that they were carrying.

A month later there was a lot of coverage of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe. People were outraged to see refugees carrying smartphones as though that somehow showed they weren’t in a desperate situation. But smartphones are absolutely a necessity in that situation, and most of the phones were less expensive, lower-end devices. Refugeeinfo.eu was a useful site for people in crisis, but the navigation was designed to require JavaScript.

When people thing about mobile, they think about freedom and mobility. But with that JavaScript decision, the developers piled baggage on to the users.

There was a common assertion that slow networks were a third-world challenge. Remember Facebook’s network challenges? They always talked about new markets in India and Africa. The implication is that this isn’t our problem in, say, Omaha or New York.

Pew Research provided a lot of data back then that showed that this thinking was wrong. Use of cell phones, especially smartphones and tablets, escalated dramatically in the United States. There was a trend towards mobile-only usage. This was in low-income households—about one third of the population. Among 5,400 panelists, 15% did not have a JavaScript-enabled device.

Pew Research provided updated data this year. The research shows an increase in those trends. Half of the population access the web primarily on mobile. The cost of a broadband subscription is too expensive for many people. Sometimes broadband access simply isn’t available.

There’s a term called “the homework gap.” Two thirds of teachers assign broadband-dependent homework, while one third of students have no access to broadband.

At most 37% of people have unlimited data. Most people run out of data on a frequent basis.

Speed also varies wildly. 4G doesn’t really mean anything. The data is all over the place.

This shows that network issues are definitely not just a third world challenge.

On the 25th anniversary of the web, Tim Berners-Lee said the web’s potential was only just beginning to be glimpsed. Everyone has a role to play to ensure that the web serves all of humanity. In his contract for the web, Tim outlined what governments, companies, and users need to do. This reminded Patty of ring theory. The user is at the centre. Designers and developers are in the next circle out. Then there’s the circle of companies. Then there are platforms, browsers, and frameworks. Finally there’s the outer circle of governments.

Are we helping in or dumping in? If you look at the data for the average web page size (2 megabytes), we are definitely dumping in. The size of third-party JavaScript has octupled.

There’s no way for a user to know before clicking a link how big and bloated the page is going to be. Even if they abandon the page load, they’ve still used (and wasted) a lot of data.

Third party scripts—like ads—are really bad at dumping in (to use the ring theory model). The best practices for ads suggest that up to 100 additional HTTP requests is totally acceptable. Unbelievable! It doesn’t matter how performant you’ve made a site when this crap gets piled on top of it.

In 2018, the internet’s data centres alone may already have had the same carbon footprint as all global air travel. This will probably triple in the next seven years. The amount of carbon it takes to train a single AI algorithm is more than the entire life cycle of a car. Then there’s fucking Bitcoin. A single Bitcoin transaction could power 21 US households. It is designed to use—specifically, waste—more and more energy over time.

What should we be doing?

Accessibility should be at the heart of what we build. Plan, test, educate, and advocate. If advocacy doesn’t work, fear can be a motivator. There’s an increase in accessibility lawsuits.

Our websites should be as light as possible. Ask, measure, monitor, and optimise. RequestMap is a great tool for visualising requests. You can see the size and scale of third-party requests. You can also see when images are far, far bigger than they need to be.

Take a critical guide to everything and pare everything down. Set perforance budgets—file size budgets, for example. Optimise images, subset custom fonts, lazyload images and videos, get third-party tools out of the critical path (or out completely), and seek out lighter frameworks.

Test on real devices that real people are using. See Alex Russell’s data on the differences between the kind of devices we use and typical low-end devices. We literally need to stop people in JavaScript.

Push the boundaries. See the amazing work that Adrian Holovaty did with Soundslice. He had to make on-the-fly sheet music generation work on old iPads that musicians like to use. He recommends keeping old devices around to see how poorly your product is working on it.

If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.

—Toni Morrison

Web Forms: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t! by Jason Grigsby

Jason is on stage at An Event Apart Chicago in a tuxedo. He wants to talk about how we can make web forms magical. Oh, I see. That explains the get-up.

We’re always being told to make web forms shorter. Luke Wroblewski has highlighted the work of companies that have reduced form fields and increased conversion.

But what if we could get rid of forms altogether? Wouldn’t that be magical!

Jason will reveal the secrets to this magic. But first—a volunteer from the audience, please! Please welcome Joe to the stage.

Joe will now log in on a phone. He types in the username. Then the password. The password is hodge-podge of special characters, numbers and upper and lowercase letters. Joe starts typing. Jason takes the phone and logs in without typing anything!

The secret: Jason was holding an NFC security key in his hand. That works with a new web standard called WebAuthn.

Passwords are terrible. People share them across sites, but who can blame them? It’s hard to remember lots of passwords. The only people who love usernames and passwords are hackers. So sites are developing other methods to try to keep people secure. Two factor authentication helps, although it doesn’t help us with phishing attacks. The hacker gets the password from the phished user …and then gets the one-time code from the phished user too.

But a physical device like a security key solves this problem. So why aren’t we all using security keys (apart from the fear of losing the key)? Well, until WebAuthn, there wasn’t a way for websites to use the keys.

A web server generates a challenge—a long string—that gets sent to a website and passed along to the user. The user’s device generates a credential ID and public and private keys for that domain. The web site stores the public key and credential ID. From then on, the credential ID is used by the website in challenges to users logging in.

There were three common ways that we historically proved who we claimed to be.

  1. Something you know (e.g. a password).
  2. Something you have (e.g. a security key).
  3. Something you are (e.g. biometric information).

These are factors of identification. So two-factor identification is the combination of any of those two. If you use a security key combined with a fingerprint scanner, there’s no need for passwords.

The browser support for the web authentication API (WebAuthn) is a bit patchy right now but you can start playing around with it.

There are a few other options for making logging in faster. There’s the Credential Management API. It allows someone to access passwords stored in their browser’s password manager. But even though it’s newer, there’s actually better browser support for WebAuthn than Credential Management.

Then there’s federated login, or social login. Jason has concerns about handing over log-in to a company like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, but then again, it means fewer passwords. As a site owner, there’s actually a lot of value in not storing log-in information—you won’t be accountable for data breaches. The problem is that you’ve got to decide which providers you’re going to support.

Also keep third-party password managers in mind. These tools—like 1Password—are great. In iOS they’re now nicely integrated at the operating system level, meaning Safari can use them. Finally it’s possible to log in to websites easily on a phone …until you encounter a website that prevents you logging in this way. Some websites get far too clever about detecting autofilled passwords.

Time for another volunteer from the audience. This is Tyler. Tyler will help Jason with a simple checkout form. Shipping information, credit card information, and so on. Jason will fill out this form blindfolded. Tyler will first verify that the dark goggles that Jason will be wearing don’t allow him to see the phone screen. Jason will put the goggles on and Tyler will hand him the phone with the checkout screen open.

Jason dons the goggles. Tyler hands him the phone. Jason does something. The form is filled in and submitted!

What was the secret? The goggles prevented Jason from seeing the phone …but they didn’t prevent the screen from seeing Jason. The goggles block everything but infrared. The iPhone uses infrared for Face ID. So the iPhone, it just looked like Jason was wearing funky sunglasses. Face ID then triggered the Payment Request API.

The Payment Request API allows us to use various payment methods that are built in to the operating system, but without having to make separate implementations for each payment method. The site calls the Payment Request API if it’s supported (use feature detection and progressive enhancement), then trigger the payment UI in the browser. The browser—not the website!—then makes a call to the payment processing provider e.g. Stripe.

E-commerce sites using the Payment Request API have seen a big drop in abandonment and a big increase in completed payments. The browser support is pretty good, especially on mobile. And remember, you can use it as a progressive enhancement. It’s kind of weird that we don’t encounter it more often—it’s been around for a few years now.

Jason read the fine print for Apple Pay, Google Pay, Microsoft Pay, and Samsung Pay. It doesn’t like there’s anything onerous in there that would stop you using them.

On some phones, you can now scan credit cards using the camera. This is built in to the operating system so as a site owner, you’ve just got to make sure not to break it. It’s really an extension of autofill. You should know what values the autocomplete attribute can take. There are 48 different values; it’s not just for checkouts. When users use autofill, they fill out forms 30% faster. So make sure you don’t put obstacles in the way of autofill in your forms.

Jason proceeds to relate a long and involved story about buying burritos online from Chipotle. The upshot is: use the autocomplete, type, maxlength, and pattern attributes correctly on input elements. Test autofill with your forms. Make it part of your QA process.

So, to summarise, here’s how you make your forms disappear:

  1. Start by reducing the number of form fields.
  2. Use the correct HTML to support autofill. Support password managers and password-pasting. At least don’t break that behaviour.
  3. Provide alternate ways of logging in. Federated login or the Credentials API.
  4. Test autofill and other form features.
  5. Look for opportunities to replace forms entirely with biometrics.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

—Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law

Don’t our users deserve magical experiences?

Voice User Interface Design by Cheryl Platz

Cheryl Platz is speaking at An Event Apart Chicago. Her inaugural An Event Apart presentation is all about voice interfaces, and I’m going to attempt to liveblog it…

Why make a voice interface?

Successful voice interfaces aren’t necessarily solving new problems. They’re used to solve problems that other devices have already solved. Think about kitchen timers. There are lots of ways to set a timer. Your oven might have one. Your phone has one. Why use a $200 device to solve this mundane problem? Same goes for listening to music, news, and weather.

People are using voice interfaces for solving ordinary problems. Why? Context matters. If you’re carrying a toddler, then setting a kitchen timer can be tricky so a voice-activated timer is quite appealing. But why is voice is happening now?

Humans have been developing the art of conversation for thousands of years. It’s one of the first skills we learn. It’s deeply instinctual. Most humans use speach instinctively every day. You can’t necessarily say that about using a keyboard or a mouse.

Voice-based user interfaces are not new. Not just the idea—which we’ve seen in Star Trek—but the actual implementation. Bell Labs had Audrey back in 1952. It recognised ten words—the digits zero through nine. Why did it take so long to get to Alexa?

In the late 70s, DARPA issued a challenge to create a voice-activated system. Carnagie Mellon came up with Harpy (with a thousand word grammar). But none of the solutions could respond in real time. In conversation, we expect a break of no more than 200 or 300 milliseconds.

In the 1980s, computing power couldn’t keep up with voice technology, so progress kind of stopped. Time passed. Things finally started to catch up in the 90s with things like Dragon Naturally Speaking. But that was still about vocabulary, not grammar. By the 2000s, small grammars were starting to show up—starting an X-Box or pausing Netflix. In 2008, Google Voice Search arrived on the iPhone and natural language interaction began to arrive.

What makes natural language interactions so special? It requires minimal training because it uses the conversational muscles we’ve been working for a lifetime. It unlocks the ability to have more forgiving, less robotic conversations with devices. There might be ten different ways to set a timer.

Natural language interactions can also free us from “screen magnetism”—that tendency to stay on a device even when our original task is complete. Voice also enables fast and forgiving searches of huge catalogues without time spent typing or browsing. You can pick a needle straight out of a haystack.

Natural language interactions are excellent for older customers. These interfaces don’t intimidate people without dexterity, vision, or digital experience. Voice input often leads to more inclusive experiences. Many customers with visual or physical disabilities can’t use traditional graphical interfaces. Voice experiences throw open the door of opportunity for some people. However, voice experience can exclude people with speech difficulties.

Making the case for voice interfaces

There’s a misconception that you need to work at Amazon, Google, or Apple to work on a voice interface, or at least that you need to have a big product team. But Cheryl was able to make her first Alexa “skill” in a week. If you’re a web developer, you’re good to go. Your voice “interaction model” is just JSON.

How do you get your product team on board? Find the customers (and situations) you might have excluded with traditional input. Tell the stories of people whose hands are full, or who are vision impaired. You can also point to the adoption rate numbers for smart speakers.

You’ll need to show your scenario in context. Otherwise people will ask, “why can’t we just build an app for this?” Conduct research to demonstrate the appeal of a voice interface. Storyboarding is very useful for visualising the context of use and highlighting existing pain points.

Getting started with voice interfaces

You’ve got to understand how the technology works in order to adapt to how it fails. Here are a few basic concepts.

Utterance. A word, phrase, or sentence spoken by a customer. This is the true form of what the customer provides.

Intent. This is the meaning behind a customer’s request. This is an important distinction because one intent could have thousands of different utterances.

Prompt. The text of a system response that will be provided to a customer. The audio version of a prompt, if needed, is generated separately using text to speech.

Grammar. A finite set of expected utterances. It’s a list. Usually, each entry in a grammar is paired with an intent. Many interfaces start out as being simple grammars before moving on to a machine-learning model later once the concept has been proven.

Here’s the general idea with “artificial intelligence”…

There’s a human with a core intent to do something in the real world, like knowing when the cookies in the oven are done. This is translated into an intent like, “set a 15 minute timer.” That’s the utterance that’s translated into a string. But it hasn’t yet been parsed as language. That string is passed into a natural language understanding system. What comes is a data structure that represents the customers goal e.g. intent=timer; duration=15 minutes. That’s sent to the business logic where a timer is actually step. For a good voice interface, you also want to send back a response e.g. “setting timer for 15 minutes starting now.”

That seems simple enough, right? What’s so hard about designing for voice?

Natural language interfaces are a form of artifical intelligence so it’s not deterministic. There’s a lot of ruling out false positives. Unlike graphical interfaces, voice interfaces are driven by probability.

How do you turn a sound wave into an understandable instruction? It’s a lot like teaching a child. You feed a lot of data into a statistical model. That’s how machine learning works. It’s a probability game. That’s where it gets interesting for design—given a bunch of possible options, we need to use context to zero in on the most correct choice. This is where confidence ratings come in: the system will return the probability that a response is correct. Effectively, the system is telling you how sure or not it is about possible results. If the customer makes a request in an unusual or unexpected way, our system is likely to guess incorrectly. That’s because the system is being given something new.

Designing a conversation is relatively straightforward. But 80% of your voice design time will be spent designing for what happens when things go wrong. In voice recognition, edge cases are front and centre.

Here’s another challenge. Interaction with most voice interfaces is part conversation, part performance. Most interactions are not private.

Humans don’t distinguish digital speech fom human speech. That means these devices are intrinsically social. Our brains our wired to try to extract social information, even form digital speech. See, for example, why it’s such a big question as to what gender a voice interface has.

Delivering a voice interface

Storyboards help depict the context of use. Sample dialogues are your new wireframes. These are little scripts that not only cover the happy path, but also your edge case. Then you reverse engineer from there.

Flow diagrams communicate customer states, but don’t use the actual text in them.

Prompt lists are your final deliverable.

Functional prototypes are really important for voice interfaces. You’ll learn the real way that customers will ask for things.

If you build a working prototype, you’ll be building two things: a natural language interaction model (often a JSON file) and custom business logic (in a programming language).

Eventually voice design will become a core competency, much like mobile, which was once separate.

Ask yourself what tasks your customers complete on your site that feel clunkly. Remember that voice desing is almost never about new scenarious. Start your journey into voice interfaces by tackling old problems in new, more inclusive ways.

May the voice be with you!

Making Research Count by Cyd Harrell

The brilliant Cyd Harrell is opening up day two of An Event Apart in Chicago. I’m going to attempt to liveblog her talk on making research count…

Research gets done …and then sits in a report, gathering dust.

Research matters. But how do we make it count? We need allies. Maybe we need more money. Perhaps we need more participation from people not on the product team.

If you’re doing real research on a schedule, sharing it on a regular basis, making people’s eyes light up …then you’ve won!

Research counts when it answers questions that people care about. But you probably don’t want to directly ask “Hey, what questions do you want answered?”

Research can explain oddities in analytics weird feedback from customers, unexpected uses of products, and strange hunches (not just your own).

Curious people with power are the most useful ones to influence. Not just hierarchical power. Engineers often have a lot of power. So ask, “Who is the most curious engineer, and how can I drag them out on a research session with me?”

At 18F, Cyd found that a lot of the nodes of power were in the mid level of the organisation who had been there a while—they know a lot of people up and down the chain. If you can get one of those people excited about research, they can spread it.

Open up your practice. Demystify it. Put as much effort into communicating as into practicing. Create opportunities for people to ask questions and learn.

You can think about communities of practice in the obvious way: people who do similar things to us, and other people who make design decisions. But really, everyone in the organisation is affected by design decisions.

Cyd likes to do office hours. People can come by and ask questions. You could open a Slack channel. You can run brown bag lunches to train people in basic user research techniques. In more conventional organisations, a newsletter is a surprisingly effective tool for sharing the latest findings from research. And use your walls to show work in progress.

Research counts when people can see it for themselves—not just when it’s reported from afar. Ask yourself: who in your organisation is disconnected from their user? It’s difficult for people to maintain their motivation in that position.

When someone has been in the field with you, the data doesn’t have to be explained.

Whoever’s curious. Whoever’s disconnected. Invite them along. Show them what you’re doing.

Think about the qualities of a good invitation (for a party, say). Make the rules clear. Make sure they want to come back. Design the experience of observing research. Make sure everyone has tools. Give everyone a responsibility. Be like Willy Wonka—he gave clear rules to the invitied guests. And sure, things didn’t go great when people broke the rules, but at the end, everyone still went home with the truckload of chocolate they were promised.

People who get to ask a question buy in to the results. Those people feel a sense of ownership for the research.

Research counts when methods fit the question. Think about what the right question is and how you might go about answering it.

You can mix your methods. Interviews. Diary studies. Card sorting. Shadowing. You can ground the user research in competitor analysis.

Back in 2008, Cyd was contacted by a company who wanted to know: how do people really use phones in their cars? Cyd’s team would ride along with people, interviewing them, observing them, taking pictures and video.

Later at the federal government, Cyd was asked: what are the best practices for government digital transformation? How to answer that? It’s so broad! Interviews? Who knows what?

They refined the question: what makes modern digital practices stick within a government entity? They looked at what worked when companies were going online, so see if there was anything that government could learn from. Then they created a set of really focused interview questions. What does digital transformation mean? How do you know when you’re done? What are the biggest obstacles to this work? How do you make changes last?

They used atechnique called cluster recruiting to figure out who else to talk to (by asking participants who else they should be talking to).

There is no one research method that will always work for you. Cutting the right corners at the right time lets you be fast and cheap. Cyd’s bare-bones research kit costs about $20: a notebook, a pen, a consent form, and the price of a cup of coffee. She also created a quick score sheet for when she’s not in a position to have research transcribed.

Always label your assumptions before beginning your research. Maybe you’re assuming that something is a frustrating experience that needs fixing, but it might emerge that it doesn’t need fixing—great! You’ve just saved a whole lotta money.

Research counts when researchers tell the story well. Synthesis works best as a conversational practice. It’s hard to do by yourself. You start telling stories when you come back from the field (sometimes it starts when you’re still out in the field, talking about the most interesting observations).

Miller’s Law is a great conceptual framework:

To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.

You’re probably familiar with the “five whys”. What about the “five ways”? If people talk about something five different ways, it’s virtually certain that one of them will be an apt metaphor. So ask “Can you say that in a different way?” five time.

Spend as much time on communicating outcomes as you did on executing the work.

After research, play back how many people you spoke to, the most valuable insight you gained, the themes that are emerging. Describe the question you wanted to answer, what answers you got, and what you’re going to do next. If you’re in an organisation that values memos, write a memo. Or you could make a video. Or you could write directly into backlog tickets. And don’t forget the wall work! GDS have wonderfully full walls in their research department.

In the end, the best tool for research is an illuminating story.

Cyd was doing research at the Bakersfield courthouse. The hypothesis was that a lot of people weren’t engaging with technology in the court system. She approached a man named Manuel who was positively quaking. He was going through a custody battle. He said, “I don’t know technology but it doesn’t scare me. I’m shaking because this paperwork just gets to me—it’s terrifying.” He said who would gladly pay for someone to help him with the paperwork. Cyd wrote a report on this story. Months later, they heard people in the organisation asking questions like “How would this help Manuel?”

Sometimes you do have to fight (nicely).

People will push back on the time spent on research—they’ll say it doesn’t fit the sprint plan. You can have a three day research plan. Day 1: write scripts. Day 2: go to the users and talk to them. Day 3: play it back. People on a project spend more time than that in Slack.

People will say you can’t talk to the customers. In that situation, you could talk to people who are in the same sector as your company’s customers.

People will question the return on investment for research. Do it cheaply and show the very low costs. Then people stop talking about the money and start talking about the results.

People will claim that qualitative user research is not statistically significant. That’s true. But research is something else. It answers different question.

People will question whether a senior person needs to be involved. It is not fair to ask the intern to do all the work involved in research.

People will say you can’t always do research. But Cyd firmly believes that there’s always room for some research.

  • Make allies in customer research.
  • Find the most curious engineer on the team, go to lunch with them, and feed them the most interesting research insights.
  • Record a pain point and a send a video to executives.
  • If there’s really no budget, maybe you can get away with not paying incentives, but perhaps you can provide some other swag instead.

One of the best things you can do is be there, non-judgementally, making friends. It takes time, but it works. Research is like a dandelion in flight. Once it’s out and about, taking root, the more that research counts.

Opening up the AMP cache

I have a proposal that I think might alleviate some of the animosity around Google AMP. You can jump straight to the proposal or get some of the back story first…

The AMP format

Google AMP is exactly the kind of framework I’d like to get behind. Unlike most front-end frameworks, its components take a declarative approach—no knowledge of JavaScript required. I think Lea’s excellent Mavo is the only other major framework that takes this inclusive approach. All the configuration happens in markup, and all the styling happens in CSS. Excellent!

But I cannot get behind AMP.

Instead of competing on its own merits, AMP is unfairly propped up by the search engine of its parent company, Google. That makes it very hard to evaluate whether AMP is being used on its own merits. Instead, the evidence suggests that most publishers of AMP pages are doing so because they feel they have to, rather than because they want to. That’s a real shame, because as a library of web components, AMP seems pretty good. But there’s just no way to evaluate AMP-the-format without taking into account AMP-the-ecosystem.

The AMP ecosystem

Google AMP ostensibly exists to make the web faster. Initially the focus was specifically on mobile performance, but that distinction has since fallen by the wayside. The idea is that by using AMP’s web components, your pages will be speedy. Though, as Andy Davies points out, this isn’t always the case:

This is where I get confused… https://independent.co.uk only have an AMP site yet it’s performance is awful from a user perspective - isn’t AMP supposed to prevent this?

See also: Google AMP lowered our page speed, and there’s no choice but to use it:

According to Google’s own Page Speed Insights audit (which Google recommends to check your performance), the AMP version of articles got an average performance score of 87. The non-AMP versions? 95.

Publishers who already have fast web pages—like The Guardian—are still compelled to make AMP versions of their stories because of the search benefits reserved for AMP. As Terence Eden reported from a meeting of the AMP advisory committee:

We heard, several times, that publishers don’t like AMP. They feel forced to use it because otherwise they don’t get into Google’s news carousel — right at the top of the search results.

Some people felt aggrieved that all the hard work they’d done to speed up their sites was for nothing.

The Google AMP team are at pains to point out that AMP is not a ranking factor in search. That’s true. But it is unfairly privileged in other ways. Only AMP pages can appear in the Top Stories carousel …which appears above any other search results. As I’ve said before:

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.

From A letter about Google AMP:

Content that “opts in” to AMP and the associated hosting within Google’s domain is granted preferential search promotion, including (for news articles) a position above all other results.

That’s not the only way that AMP pages get preferential treatment. It turns out that the secret to the speed of AMP pages isn’t the web components. It’s the prerendering.

The AMP cache

If you’ve ever seen an AMP page in a list of search results, you’ll have noticed the little lightning icon. If you’ve ever tapped on that search result, you’ll have noticed that the page loads blazingly fast!

That’s not down to AMP-the-format, alas. That’s down to the fact that the page has been prerendered by Google before you even went to it. If any page were prerendered that way, it would load blazingly fast. But currently, this privilege is reserved for AMP pages only.

If, after tapping through to that AMP page, you looked at the address bar of your browser, you might have noticed something odd. Even though you might have thought you were visiting The Washington Post, or The New York Times, the URL of the (blazingly fast) page you’re looking at is still under Google’s domain. That’s because Google hosts any AMP pages that it prerenders.

Google calls this “the AMP cache”, but it would be better described as “AMP hosting”. The web page sent down the wire is hosted on Google’s domain.

Here’s that AMP letter again:

When a user navigates from Google to a piece of content Google has recommended, they are, unwittingly, remaining within Google’s ecosystem.

Through gritted teeth, I will refer to this as “the AMP cache”, because that’s what everyone else calls it. But make no mistake, Google is hosting—not caching—these pages.

But why host the pages on a Google domain? Why not prerender the original URLs?

Prerendering and privacy

Scott summed up the situation with AMP nicely:

The pitch I think site owners are hearing is: let us host your pages on our domain and we’ll promote them in search results AND preload them so they feel “instant.” To opt-in, build pages using this component syntax.

But perhaps we could de-couple the AMP format from the AMP cache.

That’s what Terence suggests:

My recommendation is that Google stop requiring that organisations use Google’s proprietary mark-up in order to benefit from Google’s promotion.

The AMP letter, too:

Instead of granting premium placement in search results only to AMP, provide the same perks to all pages that meet an objective, neutral performance criterion such as Speed Index.

Scott reiterates:

It’s been said before but it would be so good for the web if pages with a Lighthouse score over say, 90 could get into that top search result area, even if they’re not built using Google’s AMP framework. Feels wrong to have to rebuild/reproduce an already-fast site just for SEO.

This was also what I was calling for. But then Malte pointed out something that stumped me. Privacy.

Here’s the problem…

Let’s say Google do indeed prerender already-fast pages when they’re listed in search results. You, a search user, type something into Google. A list of results come back. Google begins pre-rendering some of them. But you don’t end up clicking through to those pages. Nonetheless, the servers those pages are hosted on have received a GET request coming from a Google search. Those publishers now know that a particular (cookied?) user could have clicked through to their site. That’s very different from knowing when someone has actually arrived at a particular site.

And that’s why Google host all the AMP pages that they prerender. Given the privacy implications of prerendering non-Google URLs, I must admit that I see their point.

Still, it’s a real shame to miss out on the speed benefit of prerendering:

Prerendering AMP documents leads to substantial improvements in page load times. Page load time can be measured in different ways, but they consistently show that prerendering lets users see the content they want faster. For now, only AMP can provide the privacy preserving prerendering needed for this speed benefit.

A modest proposal

Why is Google’s AMP cache just for AMP pages? (Y’know, apart from the obvious answer that it’s in the name.)

What if Google were allowed to host non-AMP pages? Google search could then prerender those pages just like it currently does for AMP pages. There would be no privacy leaks; everything would happen on the same domain—google.com or ampproject.org or whatever—just as currently happens with AMP pages.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that Google should make a 1:1 model of the web just to prerender search results. I think that the implementation would need to have two important requirements:

  1. Hosting needs to be opt-in.
  2. Only fast pages should be prerendered.

Opting in

Currently, by publishing a page using the AMP format, publishers give implicit approval to Google to host that page on Google’s servers and serve up this Google-hosted version from search results. This has always struck me as being legally iffy. I’ve looked in the AMP documentation to try to find any explicit granting of hosting permission (e.g. “By linking to this JavaScript file, you hereby give Google the right to serve up our copies of your content.”), but no luck. So even with the current situation, I think a clear opt-in for hosting would be beneficial.

This could be a meta element. Maybe something like:

<meta name="caches-allowed" content="google">

This would have the nice benefit of allowing comma-separated values:

<meta name="caches-allowed" content="google, yandex">

(The name is just a strawman, by the way—I’m not suggesting that this is what the final implementation would actually look like.)

If not a meta element, then perhaps this could be part of robots.txt? Although my feeling is that this needs to happen on a document-by-document basis rather than site-wide.

Many people will, quite rightly, never want Google—or anyone else—to host and serve up their content. That’s why it’s so important that this behaviour needs to be opt-in. It’s kind of appalling that the current hosting of AMP pages is opt-in-by-proxy-sort-of.

Criteria for prerendering

Which pages should be blessed with hosting and prerendering? The fast ones. That’s sorta the whole point of AMP. But right now, there’s a lot of resentment by people with already-fast websites who quite rightly feel they shouldn’t have to use the AMP format to benefit from the AMP ecosystem.

Page speed is already a ranking factor. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to extend its benefits to hosting and prerendering. As mentioned above, there are already a few possible metrics to use:

  • Page Speed Index
  • Lighthouse
  • Web Page Test

Ah, but what if a page has good score when it’s indexed, but then gets worse afterwards? Not a problem! The version of the page that’s measured is the same version of the page that gets hosted and prerendered. Google can confidently say “This page is fast!” After all, they’re the ones serving up the page.

That does raise the question of how often Google should check back with the original URL to see if it has changed/worsened/improved. The answer to that question is however long it currently takes to check back in on AMP pages:

Each time a user accesses AMP content from the cache, the content is automatically updated, and the updated version is served to the next user once the content has been cached.

Issues

This proposal does not solve the problem with the address bar. You’d still find yourself looking at a page from The Washington Post or The New York Times (or adactio.com) but seeing a completely different URL in your browser. That’s not good, for all the reasons outlined in the AMP letter.

In fact, this proposal could potentially make the situation worse. It would allow even more sites to be impersonated by Google’s URLs. Where currently only AMP pages are bad actors in terms of URL confusion, opening up the AMP cache would allow equal opportunity URL confusion.

What I’m suggesting is definitely not a long-term solution. The long-term solutions currently being investigated are technically tricky and will take quite a while to come to fruition—web packages and signed exchanges. In the meantime, what I’m proposing is a stopgap solution that’s technically a lot simpler. But it won’t solve all the problems with AMP.

This proposal solves one problem—AMP pages being unfairly privileged in search results—but does nothing to solve the other, perhaps more serious problem: the erosion of site identity.

Measuring

Currently, Google can assess whether a page should be hosted and prerendered by checking to see if it’s a valid AMP page. That test would need to be widened to include a different measurement of performance, but those measurements already exist.

I can see how this assessment might not be as quick as checking for AMP validity. That might affect whether non-AMP pages could be measured quickly enough to end up in the Top Stories carousel, which is, by its nature, time-sensitive. But search results are not necessarily as time-sensitive. Let’s start there.

Assets

Currently, AMP pages can be prerendered without fetching anything other than the markup of the AMP page itself. All the CSS is inline. There are no initial requests for other kinds of content like images. That’s because there are no img elements on the page: authors must use amp-img instead. The image itself isn’t loaded until the user is on the page.

If the AMP cache were to be opened up to non-AMP pages, then any content required for prerendering would also need to be hosted on that same domain. Otherwise, there’s privacy leakage.

This definitely introduces an extra level of complexity. Paths to assets within the markup might need to be re-written to point to the Google-hosted equivalents. There would almost certainly need to be a limit on the number of assets allowed. Though, for performance, that’s no bad thing.

Make no mistake, figuring out what to do about assets—style sheets, scripts, and images—is very challenging indeed. Luckily, there are very smart people on the Google AMP team. If that brainpower were to focus on this problem, I am confident they could solve it.

Summary

  1. Prerendering of non-Google URLs is problematic for privacy reasons, so Google needs to be able to host pages in order to prerender them.
  2. Currently, that’s only done for pages using the AMP format.
  3. The AMP cache—and with it, prerendering—should be decoupled from the AMP format, and opened up to other fast web pages.

There will be technical challenges, but hopefully nothing insurmountable.

I honestly can’t see what Google have to lose here. If their goal is genuinely to reward fast pages, then opening up their AMP cache to fast non-AMP pages will actively encourage people to make fast web pages (without having to switch over to the AMP format).

I’ve deliberately kept the details vague—what the opt-in should look like; what the speed measurement should be; how to handle assets—I’m sure smarter folks than me can figure that stuff out.

I would really like to know what other people think about this proposal. Obviously, I’d love to hear from members of the Google AMP team. But I’d also love to hear from publishers. And I’d very much like to know what people in the web performance community think about this. (Write a blog post and send me a webmention.)

What am I missing here? What haven’t I thought of? What are the potential pitfalls (and are they any worse than the current acrimonious situation with Google AMP)?

I would really love it if someone with a fast website were in a position to say, “Hey Google, I’m giving you permission to host this page so that it can be prerendered.”

I would really love it if someone with a slow website could say, “Oh, shit! We’d better make our existing website faster or Google won’t host our pages for prerendering.”

And I would dearly love to finally be able to embrace AMP-the-format with a clear conscience. But as long as prerendering is joined at the hip to the AMP format, the injustice of the situation only harms the AMP project.

Google, open up the AMP cache.

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.

Crossing

I’m going to America. But this time it’s going to be a bit different.

Here’s the backstory: I need to get to Chicago for An Event Apart in a couple of weeks. Jessica and I were talking about maybe going to Florida first to hang out with her family on the beach for a bit. We just needed to figure out the travel logistics.

Here’s the next variable to add in to the mix: Jessica is really into ballet. Like, really into ballet. She also likes boats, ships, and all things nautical.

Those two things are normally unrelated, but then a while back, Jessica tweeted this:

OMG @ENBallet on a SHIP crossing the ATLANTIC.

Dance the Atlantic 2019 Cruise

I chuckled at that, and almost immediately dismissed it as being something from another world. But then I looked at the dates, and wouldn’t you know it, it would work out perfectly for our planned travel to Florida and Chicago.

Sooo… we’re crossing the Atlantic ocean on the Queen Mary II. With ballet dancers.

It’s not a cruise. It’s a crossing:

The first rule about traveling between America and England aboard the Queen Mary 2, the flagship of the Cunard Line and the world’s largest ocean liner, is to never refer to your adventure as a cruise. You are, it is understood, making a crossing. The second rule is to refrain, when speaking to those who travel frequently on Cunard’s ships, from calling them regulars. The term of art — it is best pronounced while approximating Maggie Smith’s cut-glass accent on “Downton Abbey” — is Cunardists.

Because of the black-tie gala dinners taking place during the voyage, I am now the owner of tuxedo. I think all this dressing up is kind of like cosplay for the class system. This should be …interesting.

By all accounts, internet connectivity is non-existent on the crossing, so I’m going to be incommunicado. Don’t bother sending me any email—I won’t see it.

We sail from Southampton tomorrow. We arrive in New York a week later.

See you on the other side!