Tags: art



A minority report on artificial intelligence

Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.

It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.

At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.

Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.

The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.

But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:

It helps not to think of them as human.

To which the response is:

No, they’re so much more than that.

Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.

Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.

Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.

Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.

Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.

When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.

Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…

Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.

At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.

Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.

There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.

The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:

SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.

Styling the Patterns Day site

Once I had a design direction for the Patterns Day site, I started combining my marked-up content with some CSS. Ironically for an event that’s all about maintainability and reusability, I wrote the styles for this one-page site with no mind for future use. I treated the page as a one-shot document. I even used ID selectors—gasp! (the IDs were in the HTML anyway as fragment identifiers).

The truth is I didn’t have much of a plan. I just started hacking away in a style element in the head of the document, playing around with colour, typography, and layout.

I started with the small-screen styles. That wasn’t a conscious decision so much as just the way I do things automatically now. When it came time to add some layout for wider viewports, I used a sprinkling of old-fashioned display: inline-block so that things looked so-so. I knew I wanted to play around with Grid layout so the inline-block styles were there as fallback for non-supporting browsers. Once things looked good enough, the fun really started.

I was building the site while I was in Seattle for An Event Apart. CSS Grid layout was definitely a hot topic there. Best of all, I was surrounded by experts: Jen, Rachel, and Eric. It was the perfect environment for me to dip my toes into the waters of grid.

Jen was very patient in talking me through the concepts, syntax, and tools for using CSS grids. Top tip: open Firefox’s inspector, select the element with the display:grid declaration, and click the “waffle” icon—instant grid overlay!

For the header of the Patterns Day site, I started by using named areas. That’s the ASCII-art approach. I got my head around it and it worked okay, but it didn’t give me quite the precision I wanted. I switched over to using explicit grid-row and grid-column declarations.

It’s definitely a new way of thinking about layout: first you define the grid, then you place the items on it (rather than previous CSS layout systems where each element interacted with the elements before and after). It was fun to move things around and not have to worry about the source order of the elements …as long as they were direct children of the element with display:grid applied.

Without any support for sub-grids, I ended up having to nest two separate grids within one another. The logo is a grid parent, which is inside the header, also a grid parent. I managed to get things to line up okay, but I think this might be a good use case for sub-grids.

The logo grid threw up some interesting challenges. I wanted each letter of the words “Patterns Day” to be styleable, but CSS doesn’t give us any way to target individual letters other than :first-letter. I wrapped each letter in a b element, made sure that they were all wrapped in an element with an aria-hidden attribute (so that the letters wouldn’t be spelled out), and then wrapped that in an element with an aria-label of “Patterns Day.” Now I could target those b elements.

For a while, I also had a br element (between “Patterns” and “Day”). That created some interesting side effects. If a br element becomes a grid item, it starts to behave very oddly: you can apply certain styles but not others. Jen and Eric then started to test other interesting elements, like hr. There was much funkiness and gnashing of specs.

It was a total nerdfest, and I loved every minute of it. This is definitely the most excitement I’ve felt around CSS for a while. It feels like a renaissance of zen gardens and layout reservoirs (kids, ask your parents).

After a couple of days playing around with grid, I had the Patterns Day site looking decent enough to launch. I dabbled with some other fun CSS stuff in there too, like gratuitous clip paths and filters when hovering over the speaker images, and applying shape-outside with an image mask.

Go ahead and view source on the Patterns Day page if you want—I ended up keeping all the CSS in the head of the document. That turned out to be pretty good for performance …for first-time visits anyway. But after launching the site, I couldn’t resist applying some more performance tweaks.

Getting griddy with it

I had the great pleasure of attending An Event Apart Seattle last week. It was, as always, excellent.

It’s always interesting to see themes emerge during an event, especially when those thematic overlaps haven’t been planned in advance. Jen noticed this one:

I remember that being a theme at An Event Apart San Francisco too, when it seemed like every speaker had words to say about ill-judged use of Bootstrap. That theme was certainly in my presentation when I talked about “the fallacy of assumed competency”:

  1. large company X uses technology Y,
  2. company X must know what they are doing because they are large,
  3. therefore technology Y must be good.

Perhaps “the fallacy of assumed suitability” would be a better term. Heydon calls it “the ‘made at Facebook’ fallacy.” But I also made sure to contrast it with the opposite extreme: “Not Invented Here syndrome”.

As well as over-arching themes, it was also interesting to see which technologies were hot topics at An Event Apart. There was one clear winner here—CSS Grid Layout.

Microsoft—a sponsor of the event—used An Event Apart as the place to announce that Grid is officially moving into development for Edge. Jen talked about Grid (of course). Rachel talked about Grid (of course). And while Eric and Una didn’t talk about it on stage, they’ve both been writing about the fun they’ve been having having with Grid. Una wrote about 3 CSS Grid Features That Make My Heart Flutter. Eric is documenting the overall of his site with Grid. So when we were all gathered together, that’s what we were nerding out about.

The CSS Squad.

There are some great resources out there for levelling up in Grid-fu:

With Jen’s help, I’ve been playing with CSS Grid on a little site that I’m planning to launch tomorrow (he said, foreshadowingly). I took me a while to get my head around it, but once it clicked I started to have a lot of fun. “Fun” seems to be the overall feeling around this technology. There’s something infectious about the excitement and enthusiasm that’s returning to the world of layout on the web. And now that the browser support is great pretty much across the board, we can start putting that fun into production.

Research on evaluating technology

I’ve spent the past few months preparing a new talk for An Event Apart San Francisco (and hopefully some more AEAs after that). As always happens, I spent the whole time vacillating between thinking “this is good!” and thinking “this is awful!” I’m still bouncing between those poles. I won’t really know whether the talk is up to snuff until I actually give it to a live audience.

Over the past few years, my presentations have built upon one another. Two years ago, my talk was called Enhance! and it set the groundwork for using a layered approach to web design and development. My 2016 talk, Resilience, follows on with a process and examples for that approach (I also set myself the challenge of delivering a talk about progressive enhancement without ever using the phrase “progressive enhancement”).

My new talk goes a bit meta, but in my mind, it’s very much building on the previous talks. The talk is all about evaluating technology. I haven’t settled on a final title, but I was thinking about something obtuse, like …Evaluating Technology.

Here’s my hastily scribbled description:

We work with technology every day. And every day it seems like there’s more and more technology to understand: graphic design tools, build tools, frameworks and libraries, not to mention new HTML, CSS and JavaScript features landing in browsers. How should we best choose which technologies to invest our time in? When we decide to weigh up the technology choices that confront us, what are the best criteria for doing that? This talk will help you evaluate tools and technologies in a way that best benefits the people who use the websites that we are designing and developing. Let’s take a look at some of the hottest new web technologies like service workers and web components. Together we will dig beneath the hype to find out whether they will really change life on the web for the better.

As ever, I’ll begin and end with a long-zoom pretentious arc of history, but I’ll dive into practical stuff in the middle. That’s become a bit of a cliché for my presentations, but the formula works as a sort of microcosm of a good conference—a mixture of the inspirational and the practical, trying to keep a good balance of both.

For this new talk, the practical focus will be on some web technologies that are riding high on the hype cycle right now: service workers, web components, progressive web apps. I’ll use them as a lens for applying broader questions about how we make decisions about the technologies we embrace, and the technologies we reject.

Technology. Now there’s a big subject. It’s literally the entirety of human history. I had to be careful not to go down too many rabbit holes. I’m still not sure if I’ve succeeded, but I’ve already had to ruthlessly cull some darlings.

One of the nice things that the An Event Apart crew started doing was to provide link lists for each talk to attendees. That gives me an opportunity to touch briefly on a topic in the talk itself, but allow any interested attendees to dive deeper at their leisure.

For this talk on evaluating technology, I’ve put together this list of hyperlinks for further reading, watching, listening, and researching…





Making things happen

I have lovely friends who are making lovely things. Surprisingly, lots of these lovely things aren’t digital (or at least aren’t only digital).

My friends Brian and Joschi want to put on an ambitious event called Material:

A small conference based in Reykjavik, Iceland, looking into the concept of the Web as a Material — 22nd July 2016, https://material.is

They’re funding it through Kickstarter. If you have any interest in this at all, I suggest you back it. Best bet is to pledge the amount that guarantees you a ticket to the conference. Go!

My friend Matt has a newsletter called 3 Books Weekly to match his Machine Supply website. Each edition features three book recommendations chosen by a different person each time.

Here’s the twist: there’s going to be a Machine Supply pop-up bookshop AKA a vending machine in Shoreditch. That’ll be rolling out very soon and I can’t wait to see it.

My friend Josh made a crazy website to tie in with an art project called Cosmic Surgery. My friend Emily made a limited edition run of 10 books for the project. Now there’s a Kickstarter project to fund another run of books which will feature a story by Piers Bizony.

An Icelandic conference, a vending machine for handpicked books, and a pop-up photo book …I have lovely friends who are making lovely things.

New edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I was in London again today. A team from Clearleft have their sprint playbacks every second Tuesday at the client’s offices on The Strand. I tag along for the ride, and to marvel at the quality of the work being produced in each sprint. Then I duck out when it’s time for them to plan the next sprint—I don’t want to be the extra cook that spoils that particular broth.

Usually I would just head straight back to Brighton, nice and early, avoiding the after-work rush. But today was such a beautiful, crisp, clear winter’s day that I tarried a while. Instead of hopping on the tube back to Victoria, I perambulated.

At Trafalgar Square, I marvelled at the fact that the National Gallery is right there, free to the public. I could just walk right in and admire one of the world’s finest collections of art. So I did.

One minute I was on a typical London street, complete with obligatory Pret a Manger and Costa Coffee. The next I was standing in front of a Caravaggio, marvelling once again at his use of light—like Renaissance film noir.

Turner, Van Gogh, Seurat, Cézanne; all there for everybody to enjoy. As I stood in front of the Holbein—stepping between the school children to find just the right spot for the skull’s optical illusion—I remembered a conversation I had with Alla just last week.

We were discussing responsive design. I was making the case that there should be parity between small screens and large when it came to accessing content. “But”, said Alla, “what about the emotional impact?” Is it even possible to get the same “wow” factor on a handheld screen that you can get with a wider canvas? She asked me if I had ever had an emotional response to seeing something in an art gallery. I smiled, because her question made her point perfectly. Then I told her about the first time I ever went to the Louvre.

It was my first time ever being in Paris. I wasn’t even supposed to be there. It was the early nineties and I was hitch-hiking around Europe, trying my best to avoid big cities—they’re less than ideal when you have no place to sleep. But through a series of circumstances that probably involved too much wine, I found myself taking a ride into the capital and getting dropped in the middle of the city.

It all worked out okay though. Through an astronomical coincidence, I met someone I knew who put me up for a few nights.

I was standing in Châtelet metro station in the middle of rush hour. Whatever effect that wine had on me was wearing off, and I was beginning to realise what a terrible mistake I had made in coming to Paris. I was studying a city map on the wall, looking for areas of green where I might unroll a sleeping bag in peace, when I heard someone shout “Jeremy!” It was a girl from back home in Cork that I knew through a mutual friend in art college. She was working at Euro Disney for the summer and having finished her day’s work, she missed her metro stop and was switching trains. She just happened to be there at just the right time to take me in.

But that’s not the story I told Alla. I told Alla about what happened during that time in Paris when I busked up enough money to go the Louvre.

I walked in and saw Géricault’s The Raft Of The Medusa. I felt like somebody had punched me in the chest. I was genuinely winded. It was one thing to see a reproduction in a book, but the sheer scale of the thing …I had no idea.

I’ve never had quite the same physical reaction to a piece of art since, but I sometimes feel echoes of it. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I stepped into the National Gallery today. I was trying to recapture a fragment of that feeling.

Well, that and the fact that it’s free …which really is quite amazing in a city as expensive as London.

Links from a talk

I’m coming to a rest after a busy period of travelling and speaking. In the last five or six weeks I’ve been to Copenhagen, Freiburg, Prague, Portland, Seattle, and Austin.

The trip to Austin was lovely. It was so nice to be there when it wasn’t South by Southwest (the infrastructure of the whole town creaks under the sheer weight of the event). I wasn’t just there to eat tacos and drink beer in the sunshine. I was there to talk at An Event Apart.

Like I said months before the event:

Everyone in the line up is one of my heroes.

It was, as always, a great event. A personal highlight for me was getting to meet Lara Hogan for the first time. She was kind enough to sign my copy of her fantastic book. She gave an equally fantastic talk at the conference, featuring some of the most deftly-handled Q&A I’ve ever seen.

I spoke at the end of the conference (no pressure!), giving a brand new talk called Resilience—I gave a shortened version at Coldfront and Smashing Conference but this was my first chance to go all out with an hour long talk. It was my chance to go full James Burke.

I assembled some related links for the attendees. Here they are…




Related posts on adactio.com

Here’s a readlist of those links.

Further reading

Here’s a readlist of those links.

See also: other links tagged with “progressive enhancement” on adactio.com


There’s an article in The New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz called The Really Big One. It’s been creating quite a buzz, and rightly so. It’s a detailed and evocative piece about the Cascadia fault:

When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries.

But there’s another hotspot on the other side of the country: the New Madrid fault line. There isn’t (yet) an article about in The New Yorker. There’s something better. Two articles by Maciej:

  1. Confronting New Madrid and
  2. Confronting New Madrid (Part 2).

The New Madrid Seismic Zone earned its reputation on the strength of three massive earthquakes that struck in the winter of 1811-1812. The region was very sparsely settled at the time, and became more sparsely settled immediately afterwards, as anyone with legs made it their life’s mission to get out of southern Missouri.

The articles are fascinating and entertaining in equal measure. No surprise there. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Maciej Cegłowski is the best writer on the web. Every so often I find myself revisiting Argentina On Two Steaks A Day or A Rocket To Nowhere just for the sheer pleasure of it.

I want to read more from Maciej, and there’s a way to make it happen. If we back him on Kickstarter, he’ll take a trip to the Antarctic and turn it into words:

Soliciting donations to take a 36-day voyage to the Ross Ice Shelf, Bay of Whales and subantarctic islands, and write it up real good.

Let’s make it happen. Let’s throw money at him like he’s a performing monkey. Dance, writer-boy, dance!

100 words 044

It was Clearleft’s turn to host Codebar again this evening. As always, it was great. I did my best to introduce some people to HTML and CSS, which was challenging, rewarding, and fun.

In the run-up to the event, I did a little spring cleaning of Clearleft’s bookshelves. I took some books on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that weren’t being used any more and offered them to Codebar students for the taking.

I was also able to offer some more contemporary books thanks to the generosity of A Book Apart who kindly donated some of their fine volumes to Codebar.

100 words 016

A Dao of Web Design by John Allsopp is a document that stands outside of time. It was a perfectly crafted message for its own era, and amazingly it’s even more relevant now, a full fathom fifteen years later.

We once took on the tropes of print design and tried to apply them to the web. I fear that today we run the risk of treating web development no different to other kinds of software development, ignoring the strengths of the web that John highlighted for us. Flexibility, ubiquity, and uncertainty: don’t fight them as bugs; embrace them as features.

100 words 011

The time had come for Jeremy to leave Brighton. He was being called away to the far shores of the Pacific Northwest. What would have once been a sea voyage and overland trek lasting for weeks and months took him just nine hours in the belly of a flying machine. Having made landfall in Seattle he then had to stand in front of a room full of his peers at An Event Apart and speak to them about progressive enhancement. Jeremy tries to remain humble but as he stepped off that stage, two words went through his mind: “Nailed. It!”

100 words 009

Last year at An Event Apart in Seattle I was giving a talk about long-term thinking on the web, using The Session as a case study. As a cheap gimmick, I played a tune on my mandolin during the talk.

Chris Coyier was also speaking. He plays mandolin too. Barry—one of the conference attendees—also plays mandolin. So we sat outside, passing my mandolin around.

Barry is back this year and he brought his mandolin with him. I showed him an Irish jig. He showed me a bluegrass tune. Together we played a reel that crossed the Atlantic ocean.

Talking and travelling

I’m in America. This is a three-week trip and in those three weeks, I’m speaking at four conferences.

That might sound like a fairly hectic schedule but it’s really not that bad at all. In each place I’m travelling to, travel takes up a day, the conference portion takes up a couple of days, but I still get a day or two to just hang out and be a tourist, which is jolly nice.

This sojourn began in Boston where I was speaking at An Event Apart. It was—as ever—an excellent event and even though I was just speaking at An Event Apart in Seattle just a few weeks ago, there were still plenty of fresh talks for me to enjoy in Boston: Paul talking about performance, Lea talking about colour in CSS, Dan talking about process, and a barnstorming talk from Bruce on everything that makes the web great (although I respectfully disagree with his stance on DRM/EME).

My own talk was called The Long Web and An Event Apart Boston was its final outing. I first gave it at An Event Apart DC back in August—it’s had a good nine-month run.

My next appearance at An Event Apart will be at the end of this American trip in San Diego. I’ll be presenting a new talk there. Whereas my previous talk was a rambling affair about progressive enhancement, responsive design, and long-term thinking, my new talk will be a rambling affair about progressive enhancement, responsive design, and long-term thinking.

Sooner or later people are going to realise that I keep hammering home the same message in all my talks and this whole speaking-at-conferences gig will dry up. Until then, I’ll keep hammering home that same old message.

I have two opportunities to road-test this new talk before An Event Apart San Diego (for which, by the way, tickets still remain: use the code AEAKEITH when you’re booking to get $100 off).

I’ll be speaking at Bmoresponsive in Baltimore at the end of this week. Before that, I have the great pleasure (and pressure) of opening the show tomorrow at the Artifact conference here in good ol’ Austin, Texas (and believe it or not, you can still get a ticket: this time use the code ADACTIO100 when you’re booking to get $100 off).

Until then, I have some time to wander around and be a tourist. It is so nice to be here in Austin when it’s not South by Southwest. I should probably fretting over this talk but instead I’m spending my time sampling tacos and beers in the sunshine.

Connections: Weak Signals

Tuesday evening saw the inaugural Connections event at 68 Middle Street, home to Clearleft. It was a rousing success—much fun was had by all.

There was a great turn-out. Normally I’d expect a fairly significant no-show rate for a free event (they’re often oversubscribed to account for this very reason), but I was amazed how many people braved the dreadful weather to come along. We greeted them all with free beer, courtesy of Clearleft.

The talks had a nice yin and yang quality to them. Honor talked about darkness. Justin talked about light. More specifically, Honor talked about dark matter and Justin talked about Solarpunk.

Honor made plentiful use of sound during her presentation. Or rather, plentiful use of electromagnetic signals converted into sound: asteroseismology from the sun; transient luminous events in the Earth’s upper atmosphere; the hailstorm as Cassini pirouettes through Saturn’s rings; subatomic particle collisions sonified. They all combined to eerie effect.

Justin’s talk was more down to Earth, despite sounding like a near-future science-fiction scenario: individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.

There was a beer break between the talks and we had a joint discussion afterwards, with questions from the audience. I was leading the discussion, and to a certain extent, I played devil’s advocate to Justin’s ideas, countering his solar energy enthusiasm with nuclear energy enthusiasm—I’m on Team Thorium. (Actually, I wasn’t really playing devil’s advocate. I genuinely believe that nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest source of energy available to us and that an anti-nuclear environmentalist is a contradiction in terms—but that’s a discussion for another day.)

There was a bittersweet tinge to the evening. The first Connections event was also Honor’s last public speaking engagement in Brighton for a while. She is bidding farewell to Lighthouse Arts and winging her way to a new life in Singapore. We wish her well. We will miss her.

The evening finished with a facetious rhetorical question from the audience for Honor. It was related to the sonification of particle collisions like the ones that produced evidence for “the God particle”, the Higgs boson. “Given that the music produced is so unmusical”, went the question, “does that mean it’s proof that God doesn’t exist?”

We all had a laugh and then we all went to the pub. But I’ve been thinking about that question, and while I don’t have an answer, I do have a connection to make between both of the talks and algorithmically-generated music. Here goes…

Justin talked about the photovoltaic work done at Bell Labs. An uncle of Ray Kurzweil worked at Bell Labs and taught the young Kurzweil the basics of computer science. Soon after, Ray Kurzweil wrote his first computer program, one that analysed works of classical music and then generated its own music. Here it is.


I’ve just come back from a multi-hop trip to the States, spanning three cities in just over two weeks.

It started with an all-too-brief trip to San Francisco for Science Hack Day, which—as I’ve already described—was excellent. It was a shame that it was such a flying visit and I didn’t get to see many people. But then again, I’ll be back in December for An Event Apart San Francisco.

It was An Event Apart that took me to my second destination: Austin, Texas. The conference was great, as always. But was really nice was having some time afterwards to explore the town. Being in Austin when it’s not South by Southwest is an enjoyable experience that I can heartily recommend.

Christopher and Ari took me out to Lockhart to experience Smitty’s barbecue—a place with a convoluted family drama and really, really excellent smoked meat. I never really “got” Texas BBQ until now. I always thought I liked the sauced-based variety, but now I understand: if the BBQ is good enough, you don’t need the sauce.

For the rest of my stay, Sam was an excellent host, showing me around her town until it was time for me to take off for New York city.

To start with, I was in Manhattan. I was going to be speaking at Future Of Web Design right downtown on 42nd street, and I showed up a few days early to rendezvous with Jessica and do some touristing.

We perfected the cheapskate’s guide to Manhattan, exploring the New York Public Library, having Tiff show us around the New York Times, and wrangling a tour of the MoMA from Ben Fino-Radin, who’s doing some fascinating work with the digital collection.

I gave my FOWD talk, which went fine once the technical glitches were sorted out (I went through three microphones in five minutes). The conference was in a cinema, which meant my slides were giganormous. That was nice, but the event had an odd kind of vibe. Maybe it was the venue, or maybe it was the two-track format …I really don’t like two-track conferences; I constantly feel like I’m missing out on something.

I skipped out on the second day of the conference to make my way over the bridge to Brooklyn in time for my third trip to Brooklyn Beta.

This year, they tried something quite different. For the first two days, there was a regular Brooklyn Beta: 300 lovely people gathered together at the Invisible Dog, ostensibly to listen to talks but in reality to hang out and chat. It was joyous.

Then on the third and final day, those 300 people decamped to Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to join a further 1000 people. There we heard more talks and had more chats.

Alas, the acoustics in the hangar-like space battled against the speakers. That’s why I made sure to grab a seat near the front for the afternoon talks. I found myself with a front-row seat for a series of startup stories and app tales. Then, without warning, the tech talks were replaced with stand-up comics. The comedians were very, very good (Reggie Watts!) …but I found it hard to pay attention because I realised I was in a living nightmare: somehow I was in the front-row seat of a stand-up comedy show. I spent the entire time thinking “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me, please don’t…” I couldn’t sneak out either, because that would’ve only drawn attention to myself.

But apart from confronting me with my worst fears, Brooklyn Beta was great …I’m just not sure it scales well from 300 to 1300.

And with that, my American sojourn came to an end. I’m glad that the stars aligned in such a way that I was able to hit up four events in my 16 day trip:

Radio Free Earth

Back at the first San Francisco Science Hack Day I wanted to do some kind of mashup involving the speed of light and the distance of stars:

I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant light cone idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner…

At this year’s San Francisco Science Hack Day, I came back to that idea. I wanted some kind of mashup that demonstrated the connection between the time that light has travelled from distant stars, and the events that would have been happening on this planet at that moment. So, for example, a star would be labelled with “the battle of Hastings” or “the sack of Rome” or “Columbus’s voyage to America”. To do that, I’d need two datasets; the distance of stars, and the dates of historical events (leaving aside any Gregorian/Julian fuzziness).

For wont of a better hack, Chloe agreed to help me out. We set to work finding a good dataset of stellar objects. It turned out that a lot of the best datasets from NASA were either about our local solar neighbourhood, or else really distant galaxies and stars that are emitting prehistoric light.

The best dataset we could find was the Near Star Catalogue from Uranometria but the most distant star in that collection was only 70 or 80 light years away. That meant that we could only mash it up with historical events from the twentieth century. We figured we could maybe choose important scientific dates from the past 70 or 80 years, but to be honest, we really weren’t feeling it.

We had reached this impasse when it was time for the Science Hack Day planetarium show. It was terrific: we were treated to a panoramic tour of space, beginning with low Earth orbit and expanding all the way out to the cosmic microwave background radiation. At one point, the presenter outlined the reach of Earth’s radiosphere. That’s the distance that ionosphere-penetrating radio and television signals from Earth, travelling at the speed of light, have reached. “It extends about 70 light years out”, said the presenter.

This was perfect! That was exactly the dataset of stars that we had. It was a time for a pivot. Instead of the lofty goal of mapping historical events to the night sky, what if we tried to do something more trivial and fun? We could demonstrate how far classic television shows have travelled. Has Star Trek reached Altair? Is Sirius receiving I Love Lucy yet?

No, not TV shows …music! Now we were onto something. We would show how far the songs of planet Earth had travelled through space and which stars were currently receiving which hits.

Chloe remembered there being an API from Billboard, who have collected data on chart-topping songs since the 1940s. But that API appears to be gone, and the Echonest API doesn’t have chart dates. So instead, Chloe set to work screen-scraping Wikipedia for number one hits of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s …you get the picture. It was a lot of finding and replacing, but in the end we had a JSON file with every number one for the past 70 years.

Meanwhile, I was putting together the logic. Our list of stars had the distances in parsecs. So I needed to convert the date of a number one hit song into the number of parsecs that song had travelled, and then find the last star that it has passed.

We were tempted—for developer convenience—to just write all the logic in JavaScript, especially as our data was in JSON. But even though it was just a hack, I couldn’t bring myself to write something that relied on JavaScript to render the content. So I wrote some really crappy PHP instead.

By the end of the first day, the functionality was in place: you could enter a date, and find out what was number one on that date, and which star is just now receiving that song.

After the sleepover (more like a wakeover) in the aquarium, we started to style the interface. I say “we” …Chloe wrote the CSS while I made unhelpful remarks.

For the icing on the cake, Chloe used her previous experience with the Rdio API to add playback of short snippets of each song (when it’s available).

Here’s the (more or less) finished hack:

Radio Free Earth.

Basically, it’s a simple mashup of music and space …which is why I spent the whole time thinking “What would Matt do?”

Just keep hitting that button to hear a hit from planet Earth and see which lucky star is currently receiving the signal.*


*I know, I know: the inverse-square law means it’s practically impossible that the signal would be in any state to be received, but hey, it’s a hack.

Brighton Arton

If you’re already in Brighton for dConstruct this week, there are two art shows you might want to check out:

Timo Arnall and friends are presenting their Immaterials exhibit at Lighthouse, 28 Kensington Street. Timo has written a few words about the exhibit. The exhibition is open from tomorrow, September 5th until October 13th, and the opening is tonight, Wednesday, at 6pm.

Just around the corner at the Ink-d gallery on North Road, the opening of Jon Burgerman’s exhibit is happening at exactly the same time: 6pm this evening. His Failure of Judgement exhibition runs from tomorrow, September 5th to October 6th.

Jon’s opening will also include the debut of the world’s first “Jon Burgerman Veggie Burger” courtesy of Burger Brothers next door.

And if you haven’t gorged yourself too much on art after this evening, don’t forget that there’s a whole programme of different art shows running this month at 68 Middle Street.

August in America, day twenty-five

Today was the second day of An Event Apart Chicago and I kicked things off with my talk The Long Web. But this time I introduced a new variable into the mix—I played a bit of mandolin.

A Man and His Music: Jeremy Keith at An Event Apart Chicago 2013

It was relevant …honest. I was talking about the redesign and relaunch of The Session, which involved giving a bit of background on traditional Irish music, so it seemed appropriate to demonstrate with a hornpipe. I screwed it up a little bit, but people didn’t seem to mind.

Jeremy Keith at An Event Apart Chicago 2013

Once I was done with my talk, I was able to relax and enjoy an excellent presentation by Adrian on interface details; lots of great food for thought in there.

Once the day was done, myself, Jessica, Jason, Ethan, Brad, Kristina, and Karen made our way to The Purple Pig, where we proceeded to eat all the food. Excellent food and excellent company; a good way to spend my last night in Chicago …and indeed, the United States.

Tomorrow I begin the journey home.

August in America, day twenty-four

Today was the opening day of An Event Apart Chicago so I spent the whole day at the back of the room absorbing the knowledge bombs being dropped.

As usual, the quality of the talks was excellent, and quite a few of them set me up nicely for my talk tomorrow. I’ll be reiterating a lot of what Ethan said about progressive enhancement—no surprise there.

I’m on first thing tomorrow. That’s the hangover slot (thanks for booze, Media Temple). I’m kind of nervous about the talk. Now that I’ve given it once already—at An Event Apart DC earlier this month—I shouldn’t be worried, but I’m going to attempt something a bit new tomorrow. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be left with egg on my face.

Wish me luck.