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Passenger’s log, Queen Mary 2, August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m starting to sense a theme here.

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

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

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

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

This morning was balletastic:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dressed for the 1920s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sailing into the sunset.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Server Timing

Harry wrote a really good article all about the performance measurement Time To First Byte. Time To First Byte: What It Is and Why It Matters:

While a good TTFB doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a fast website, a bad TTFB almost certainly guarantees a slow one.

Time To First Byte has been the chink in my armour over at thesession.org, especially on the home page. Every time I ran Lighthouse, or some other performance testing tool, I’d get a high score …with some points deducted for taking too long to get that first byte from the server.

Harry’s proposed solution is to set up some Server Timing headers:

With a little bit of extra work spent implementing the Server Timing API, we can begin to measure and surface intricate timings to the front-end, allowing web developers to identify and debug potential bottlenecks previously obscured from view.

I rememberd that Drew wrote an excellent article on Smashing Magazine last year called Measuring Performance With Server Timing:

The job of Server Timing is not to help you actually time activity on your server. You’ll need to do the timing yourself using whatever toolset your backend platform makes available to you. Rather, the purpose of Server Timing is to specify how those measurements can be communicated to the browser.

He even provides some PHP code, which I was able to take wholesale and drop into the codebase for thesession.org. Then I was able to put start/stop points in my code for measuring how long some operations were taking. Then I could output the results of these measurements into Server Timing headers that I could inspect in the “Network” tab of a browser’s dev tools (Chrome is particularly good for displaying Server Timing, so I used that while I was conducting this experiment).

I started with overall database requests. Sure enough, that was where most of the time in time-to-first-byte was being spent.

Then I got more granular. I put start/stop points around specific database calls. By doing this, I was able to zero in on which operations were particularly costly. Once I had done that, I had to figure out how to make the database calls go faster.

Spoiler: I did it by adding an extra index on one particular table. It’s almost always indexes, in my experience, that make the biggest difference to database performance.

I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to messing with Server Timing headers. It has paid off in spades. I wish I had done it sooner.

And now thesession.org is positively zipping along!

Movie Knight

I mentioned how much I enjoyed Mike Hill’s talk at Beyond Tellerrand in Düsseldorf:

Mike gave a talk called The Power of Metaphor and it’s absolutely brilliant. It covers the monomyth (the hero’s journey) and Jungian archetypes, illustrated with the examples Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Jurassic Park.

At Clearleft, I’m planning to reprise the workshop I did a few years ago about narrative structure—very handy for anyone preparing a conference talk, blog post, case study, or anything really:

Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.

This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.

I realised that Mike’s monomyth talk aligns nicely with my workshop. So I decided to prep my fellow Clearlefties for the workshop with a movie night.

Popcorn was popped, pizza was ordered, and comfy chairs were suitably arranged. Then we watched Mike’s talk. Everyone loved it. Then it was decision time. Which of three films covered in the talk would we watch? We put it to a vote.

It came out as an equal tie between Jurassic Park and The Dark Knight. How would we resolve this? A coin toss!

The toss went to The Dark Knight. In retrospect, a coin toss was a supremely fitting way to decide to watch that film.

It was fun to watch it again, particularly through the lens of Mike’s analyis of its Jungian archetypes.

But I still think the film is about game theory.

The trimCache function in Going Offline …again

It seems that some code that I wrote in Going Offline is haunted. It’s the trimCache function.

First, there was the issue of a typo. Or maybe it’s more of a brainfart than a typo, but either way, there’s a mistake in the syntax that was published in the book.

Now it turns out that there’s also a problem with my logic.

To recap, this is a function that takes two arguments: the name of a cache, and the maximum number of items that cache should hold.

function trimCache(cacheName, maxItems) {

First, we open up the cache:

caches.open(cacheName)
.then( cache => {

Then, we get the items (keys) in that cache:

cache.keys()
.then(keys => {

Now we compare the number of items (keys.length) to the maximum number of items allowed:

if (keys.length > maxItems) {

If there are too many items, delete the first item in the cache—that should be the oldest item:

cache.delete(keys[0])

And then run the function again:

.then(
    trimCache(cacheName, maxItems)
);

A-ha! See the problem?

Neither did I.

It turns out that, even though I’m using then, the function will be invoked immediately, instead of waiting until the first item has been deleted.

Trys helped me understand what was going on by making a useful analogy. You know when you use setTimeout, you can’t put a function—complete with parentheses—as the first argument?

window.setTimeout(doSomething(someValue), 1000);

In that example, doSomething(someValue) will be invoked immediately—not after 1000 milliseconds. Instead, you need to create an anonymous function like this:

window.setTimeout( function() {
    doSomething(someValue)
}, 1000);

Well, it’s the same in my trimCache function. Instead of this:

cache.delete(keys[0])
.then(
    trimCache(cacheName, maxItems)
);

I need to do this:

cache.delete(keys[0])
.then( function() {
    trimCache(cacheName, maxItems)
});

Or, if you prefer the more modern arrow function syntax:

cache.delete(keys[0])
.then( () => {
    trimCache(cacheName, maxItems)
});

Either way, I have to wrap the recursive function call in an anonymous function.

Here’s a gist with the updated trimCache function.

What’s annoying is that this mistake wasn’t throwing an error. Instead, it was causing a performance problem. I’m using this pattern right here on my own site, and whenever my cache of pages or images gets too big, the trimCaches function would get called …and then wouldn’t stop running.

I’m very glad that—witht the help of Trys at last week’s Homebrew Website Club Brighton—I was finally able to get to the bottom of this. If you’re using the trimCache function in your service worker, please update the code accordingly.

Management regrets the error.

Indie web events in Brighton

Homebrew Website Club is a regular gathering of people getting together to tinker on their own websites. It’s a play on the original Homebrew Computer Club from the ’70s. It shares a similar spirit of sharing and collaboration.

Homebrew Website Clubs happen at various locations: London, San Francisco, Portland, Nuremberg, and more. Usually there on every second Wednesday.

I started running Homebrew Website Club Brighton a while back. I tried the “every second Wednesday” thing, but it was tricky to make that work. People found it hard to keep track of which Wednesdays were Homebrew days and which weren’t. And if you missed one, then it would potentially be weeks between attending.

So I’ve made it a weekly gathering. On Thursdays. That’s mostly because Thursdays work for me: that’s one of the evenings when Jessica has her ballet class, so it’s the perfect time for me to spend a while in the company of fellow website owners.

If you’re in Brighton and you have your own website (or you want to have your own website), you should come along. It’s every Thursday from 6pm to 7:30pm ‘round at the Clearleft studio on 68 Middle Street. Add it to your calendar.

There might be a Thursday when I’m not around, but it’s highly likely that Homebrew Website Club Brighton will happen anyway because either Trys, Benjamin or Cassie will be here.

(I’m at Homebrew Website Club Brighton right now, writing this. Remy is here too, working on some very cool webmention stuff.)

There’s something else you should add to your calendar. We’re going to have an Indie Web Camp in Brighton on October 19th and 20th. I realise that’s quite a way off, but I’m giving you plenty of advance warning so you can block out that weekend (and plan travel if you’re coming from outside Brighton).

If you’ve never been to an Indie Web Camp before, you should definitely come! It’s indescribably fun and inspiring. The first day—Saturday—is a BarCamp-style day of discussions to really get the ideas flowing. Then the second day—Sunday—is all about designing, building, and making. The whole thing wraps up with demos.

It’s been a while since we’ve had an Indie Web Camp in Brighton. You can catch up on the Brighton Indie Web Camps we had in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Since then I’ve been to Indie Web Camps in Berlin, Nuremberg, and Düsseldorf, but it’s going to be really nice to bring it back home.

Indie Web Camp UK attendees Indie Web Camp Brighton group photo IndieWebCampBrighton2016

The event will be free to attend, but I’ll set up an official ticket page on Ti.to to keep track of who’s coming. I’ll let you know when that’s up and ready. In the meantime, you can register your interest in attending on the 2019 Indie Webcamp Brighton page on the Indie Web wiki.

Inlining SVG background images in CSS with custom properties

Here’s a tiny lesson that I picked up from Trys that I’d like to share with you…

I was working on some upcoming changes to the Clearleft site recently. One particular component needed some SVG background images. I decided I’d inline the SVGs in the CSS to avoid extra network requests. It’s pretty straightforward:

.myComponent {
    background-image: url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>');
}

You can basically paste your SVG in there, although you need to a little bit of URL encoding: I found that converting # to %23 to was enough for my needs.

But here’s the thing. My component had some variations. One of the variations had multiple background images. There was a second background image in addition to the first. There’s no way in CSS to add an additional background image without writing a whole background-image declaration:

.myComponent--variant {
    background-image: url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>'), url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>');
}

So now I’ve got the same SVG source inlined in two places. That negates any performance benefits I was getting from inlining in the first place.

That’s where Trys comes in. He shared a nifty technique he uses in this exact situation: put the SVG source into a custom property!

:root {
    --firstSVG: url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>');
    --secondSVG: url('data:image/svg+xml;utf8,<svg> ... </svg>');
}

Then you can reference those in your background-image declarations:

.myComponent {
    background-image: var(--firstSVG);
}
.myComponent--variant {
    background-image: var(--firstSVG), var(--secondSVG);
}

Brilliant! Not only does this remove any duplication of the SVG source, it also makes your CSS nice and readable: no more big blobs of SVG source code in the middle of your style sheet.

You might be wondering what will happen in older browsers that don’t support CSS custom properties (that would be Internet Explorer 11). Those browsers won’t get any background image. Which is fine. It’s a background image. Therefore it’s decoration. If it were an important image, it wouldn’t be in the background.

Progressive enhancement, innit?

Drag’n’drop revisited

I got a message from a screen-reader user of The Session recently, letting me know of a problem they were having. I love getting any kind of feedback around accessibility, so this was like gold dust to me.

They pointed out that the drag’n’drop interface for rearranging the order of tunes in a set was inaccessible.

Drag and drop

Of course! I slapped my forehead. How could I have missed this?

It had been a while since I had implemented that functionality, so before even looking at the existing code, I started to think about how I could improve the situation. Maybe I could capture keystroke events from the arrow keys and announce changes via ARIA values? That sounded a bit heavy-handed though: mess with people’s native keyboard functionality at your peril.

Then I looked at the code. That was when I realised that the fix was going to be much, much easier than I thought.

I documented my process of adding the drag’n’drop functionality back in 2016. Past me had his progressive enhancement hat on:

One of the interfaces needed for this feature was a form to re-order items in a list. So I thought to myself, “what’s the simplest technology to enable this functionality?” I came up with a series of select elements within a form.

Reordering

The problem was in my feature detection:

There’s a little bit of mustard-cutting going on: does the dragula object exist, and does the browser understand querySelector? If so, the select elements are hidden and the drag’n’drop is enabled.

The logic was fine, but the execution was flawed. I was being lazy and hiding the select elements with display: none. That hides them visually, but it also hides them from screen readers. I swapped out that style declaration for one that visually hides the elements, but keeps them accessible and focusable.

It was a very quick fix. I had the odd sensation of wanting to thank Past Me for making things easy for Present Me. But I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.

I pushed the fix, told the screen-reader user who originally contacted me, and got a reply back saying that everything was working great now. Success!

Design sprint?

Our hack week at CERN to reproduce the WorldWideWeb browser was five days long. That’s also the length of a design sprint. So …was what we did a design sprint?

I’m going to say no.

On the surface, our project has all the hallmarks of a design sprint. A group of people who don’t normally work together were thrown into an instense week of problem-solving and building, culminating in a tangible testable output. But when you look closer, the journey itself was quite different. A design sprint is typical broken into five phases, each one mapped on to a day of work:

  1. Understand and Map
  2. Demos and Sketch
  3. Decide and Storyboard
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Gathered at CERN, hunched over laptops.

There was certainly plenty of understanding, sketching, and prototyping involved in our hack week at CERN, but we knew going in what the output would be at the end of the week. That’s not the case with most design sprints: figuring out what you’re going to make is half the work. In our case, we knew what needed to be produced; we just had to figure out how. Our process looked more like this:

  1. Understand and Map
  2. Research and Sketch
  3. Build
  4. Build
  5. Build

Now you could say that it’s a kind of design sprint, but I think there’s value in reserving the term “design sprint” for the specific five-day process. As it is, there’s enough confusion between the term “sprint” in its agile sense and “design sprint”.

Timelines of the web

Recreating the original WorldWideWeb browser was an exercise in digital archeology. With a working NeXT machine in the room, Kimberly was able to examine the source code for the first every browser and discover a treasure trove within. Like this gem in HTUtils.h:

#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */

Sure enough, by June of 1992 port 80 was documented as being officially assigned to the World Wide Web (Gopher got port 70). Jean-François Groff—who worked on the World Wide Web project with Tim Berners-Lee—told us that this was a moment they were very pleased about. It felt like this project of theirs was going places.

Jean-François also told us that the WorldWideWeb browser/editor was kind of like an advanced prototype. The idea was to get something up and running as quickly as possible. Well, the NeXT operating system had a very robust Text Object, so the path of least resistance for Tim Berners-Lee was to take the existing word-processing software and build a hypertext component on top of it. Likewise, instead of creating a brand new format, he used the existing SGML format and added one new piece: linking with A tags.

So the WorldWideWeb application was kind of like a word processor and document viewer mashed up with hypertext. Ted Nelson complains to this day that the original sin of the web was that it borrowed this page-based metaphor. But Nelson’s Project Xanadu, originally proposed in 1974 wouldn’t become a working reality until 2014—a gap of forty years. Whereas Tim Berners-Lee proposed his system in March 1989 and had working code within a year. There’s something to be said for being pragmatic and working with what you’ve got.

The web was also a mashup of ideas. Hypertext existed long before the web—Ted Nelson coined the term in 1963. There were conferences and academic discussions devoted to hypertext and hypermedia. But almost all the existing hypertext systems—including Tim Berners-Lee’s own ENQUIRE system from the early 80s—were confined to a local machine. Meanwhile networked computers were changing everything. First there was the ARPANET, then the internet. Tim Berners-Lee’s ambitious plan was to mash up hypertext with networks.

Going into our recreation of WorldWideWeb at CERN, I knew I wanted to convey this historical context somehow.

The World Wide Web officially celebrates its 30th birthday in March of this year. It’s kind of an arbitrary date: it’s the anniversary of the publication of Information Management: A Proposal. Perhaps a more accurate date would be the day the first website—and first web server—went online. But still. Let’s roll with this date of March 12, 1989. I thought it would be interesting not only to look at what’s happened between 1989 and 2019, but also to look at what happened between 1959 and 1989.

So now I’ve got two time cones that converge in the middle: 1959 – 1989 and 1989 – 2019. For the first time period, I made categories of influences: formats, hypertext, networks, and computing. For the second time period, I catalogued notable results: browsers, servers, and the evolution of HTML.

I did a little bit of sketching and quickly realised that these converging timelines could be represented somewhat like particle collisions. Once I had that idea in my head, I knew how I would be spending my time during the hack week.

Rather than jumping straight into the collider visualisation, I took some time to make a solid foundation to build on. I wanted to be sure that the timeline itself would be understable even if it were, say, viewed in the first ever web browser.

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of h-events:

<li class="h-event y1968">
  <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_%28computer_system%29" class="u-url">
    <time class="dt-start" datetime="1968-12-09">1968</time>
    <abbr class="p-name" title="oN-Line System">NLS</abbr>
  </a>
</li>

With the markup in place, I could concentrate on making it look halfway decent. For small screens, the layout is very basic—just a series of lists. When the screen gets wide enough, I lay those lists out horzontally one on top of the other. In this view, you can more easily see when events coincide. For example, ENQUIRE, Usenet, and Smalltalk all happen in 1980. But the real beauty comes when the screen is wide enough to display everthing at once. You can see how an explosion of activity in the early 90s. In 1994 alone, we get the release of Netscape Navigator, the creation of HTTPS, and the launch of Amazon.com.

The whole thing is powered by CSS transforms and positioning. Each year on a timeline has its own class that gets moved to the correct chronological point using calc(). I wanted to use translateX() but I couldn’t get the maths to work for that, so I had use plain ol’ left and right:

.y1968 {
  left: calc((1968 - 1959) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

For events before 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 1959. For events after 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 2019:

.y2014 {
  right: calc((2019 - 2014) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

(Each h-event has a width of 5em so that’s where the extra bit at the end comes from.)

I had to do some tweaking for legibility: bunches of events happening around the same time period needed to be separated out so that they didn’t overlap too much.

As a finishing touch, I added a few little transitions when the page loaded so that the timeline fans out from its centre point.

Et voilà!

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I fiddled with the content a bit after peppering Robert Cailliau with questions over lunch. And I got some very valuable feedback from Jean-François. Some examples he provided:

1971: Unix man pages, one of the first instances of writing documents with a markup language that is interpreted live by a parser before being presented to the user.

1980: Usenet News, because it was THE everyday discussion medium by the time we created the web technology, and the Web first embraced news as a built-in information resource, then various platforms built on the web rendered it obsolete.

1982: Literary Machines, Ted Nelson’s book which was on our desk at all times

I really, really enjoyed building this “collider” timeline. It was a chance for me to smash together my excitement for web history with my enjoyment of using the raw materials of the web; HTML and CSS in this case.

The timeline pales in comparison to the achievement of the rest of the team in recreating the WorldWideWeb application but I was just glad to be able to contribute a little something to the project.

Hello WorldWideWeb.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

It’s browser updatin’ time! Firefox 65 just dropped. So did Chrome 72. Safari 12.1 is shipping with iOS 12.2.

It’s interesting to compare the release notes for each browser and see the different priorities reflected in them (this is another reason why browser diversity is A Good Thing).

A lot of the Firefox changes are updates to dev tools; they just keep getting better and better. In fact, I’m not sure “dev tools” is the right word for them. With their focus on layout, typography, and accessibility, “design tools” might be a better term.

Oh, and Firefox is shipping support for some CSS properties that really help with print style sheets, so I’m disproportionately pleased about that.

In Safari’s changes, I’m pleased to see that the datalist element is finally getting implemented. I’ve been a fan of that element for many years now. (Am I a dork for having favourite HTML elements? Or am I a dork for even having to ask that question?)

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Safari release without a new made up meta tag. From the people who brought you such hits as viewport and apple-mobile-web-app-capable, comes …supported-color-schemes (Apple likes to make up meta tags almost as much as Google likes to make up rel values).

There’ll be a whole bunch of improvements in how progressive web apps will behave once they’ve been added to the home screen. We’ll finally get some state persistence if you navigate away from the window!

Updated the behavior of websites saved to the home screen on iOS to pause in the background instead of relaunching each time.

Maximiliano Firtman has a detailed list of the good, the bad, and the “not sure yet if good” for progressive web apps on iOS 12.2 beta. Thomas Steiner has also written up the progress of progressive web apps in iOS 12.2 beta. Both are published on Ev’s blog.

At first glance, the release notes for Chrome 72 are somewhat paltry. The big news doesn’t even seem to be listed there. Maximiliano Firtman again:

Chrome 72 for Android shipped the long-awaited Trusted Web Activity feature, which means we can now distribute PWAs in the Google Play Store!

Very interesting indeed! I’m not sure if I’m ready to face the Kafkaesque process of trying to add something to the Google Play Store just yet, but it’s great to know that I can. Combined with the improvements coming in iOS 12.2, these are exciting times for progressive web apps!

Push without notifications

On the first day of Indie Web Camp Berlin, I led a session on going offline with service workers. This covered all the usual use-cases: pre-caching; custom offline pages; saving pages for offline reading.

But on the second day, Sebastiaan spent a fair bit of time investigating a more complex use of service workers with the Push API.

The Push API is what makes push notifications possible on the web. There are a lot of moving parts—browser, server, service worker—and, frankly, it’s way over my head. But I’m familiar with the general gist of how it works. Here’s a typical flow:

  1. A website prompts the user for permission to send push notifications.
  2. The user grants permission.
  3. A whole lot of complicated stuff happens behinds the scenes.
  4. Next time the website publishes something relevant, it fires a push message containing the details of the new URL.
  5. The user’s service worker receives the push message (even if the site isn’t open).
  6. The service worker creates a notification linking to the URL, interrupting the user, and generally adding to the weight of information overload.

Here’s what Sebastiaan wanted to investigate: what if that last step weren’t so intrusive? Here’s the alternate flow he wanted to test:

  1. A website prompts the user for permission to send push notifications.
  2. The user grants permission.
  3. A whole lot of complicated stuff happens behinds the scenes.
  4. Next time the website publishes something relevant, it fires a push message containing the details of the new URL.
  5. The user’s service worker receives the push message (even if the site isn’t open).
  6. The service worker fetches the contents of the URL provided in the push message and caches the page. Silently.

It worked.

I think this could be a real game-changer. I don’t know about you, but I’m very, very wary of granting websites the ability to send me push notifications. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever given a website permission to interrupt me with push notifications.

You’ve seen the annoying permission dialogues, right?

In Firefox, it looks like this:

Will you allow name-of-website to send notifications?

[Not Now] [Allow Notifications]

In Chrome, it’s:

name-of-website wants to

Show notifications

[Block] [Allow]

But in actual fact, these dialogues are asking for permission to do two things:

  1. Receive messages pushed from the server.
  2. Display notifications based on those messages.

There’s no way to ask for permission just to do the first part. That’s a shame. 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.

Think of the use cases:

  • I grant push permission to a magazine. When the magazine publishes a new article, it’s cached on my device.
  • I grant push permission to a podcast. Whenever a new episode is published, it’s cached on my device.
  • I grant push permission to a blog. When there’s a new blog post, it’s cached on my device.

Then when I’m on a plane, or in the subway, or in any other situation without a network connection, I could still visit these websites and get content that’s fresh to me. It’s kind of like background sync in reverse.

There’s plenty of opportunity for abuse—the cache could get filled with content. But websites can already do that, and they don’t need to be granted any permissions to do so; just by visiting a website, it can add multiple files to a cache.

So it seems that the reason for the permissions dialogue is all about displaying notifications …not so much about receiving push messages from the server.

I wish there were a way to implement this background-caching pattern without requiring the user to grant permission to a dialogue that contains the word “notification.”

I wonder if the act of adding a site to the home screen could implicitly grant permission to allow use of the Push API without notifications?

In the meantime, the proposal for periodic synchronisation (using background sync) could achieve similar results, but in a less elegant way; periodically polling for new content instead of receiving a push message when new content is published. Also, it requires permission. But at least in this case, the permission dialogue should be more specific, and wouldn’t include the word “notification” anywhere.

Service workers and videos in Safari

Alright, so I’ve already talked about some gotchas when debugging service worker issues. But what if you don’t even realise the problem has anything to do with your service worker?

This is not a hypothetical situation. I encountered this very thing myself. Gather ‘round the campfire, children…

One of the latest case studies on the Clearleft site is a nice write-up by Luke of designing a mobile app for Virgin Holidays. The case study includes a lovely video that demonstrates the log-in flow. I implemented that using a video element (with a poster image). Nice and straightforward. Super easy. All good.

But I hadn’t done my due diligence in browser testing (I guess I didn’t even think of it in this case). Hana informed me that the video wasn’t working at all in Safari. The poster image appeared just fine, but when you clicked on it, the video didn’t load.

I ducked, ducked, and went, uncovering what appeared to be the root of the problem. It seems that Safari is fussy about having servers support something called “byte-range requests”.

I had put the video in question on an Amazon S3 server. I came to the conclusion that S3 mustn’t support these kinds of headers correctly, or something.

Now I had a diagnosis. The next step was figuring out a solution. I thought I might have to move the video off of S3 and onto a server that I could configure a bit more.

Luckily, I never got ‘round to even starting that process. That’s good. Because it turns out that my diagnosis was completely wrong.

I came across a recent post by Phil Nash called Service workers: beware Safari’s range request. The title immediately grabbed my attention. Safari: yes! Video: yes! But service workers …wait a minute!

There’s a section in Phil’s post entitled “Diagnosing the problem”, in which he says:

I first thought it could have something to do with the CDN I’m using. There were some false positives regarding streaming video through a CDN that resulted in some extra research that was ultimately fruitless.

That described my situation exactly. Except Phil went further and nailed down the real cause of the problem:

Nginx was serving correct responses to Range requests. So was the CDN. The only other problem? The service worker. And this broke the video in Safari.

Doh! I hadn’t even thought about service workers!

Phil came up with a solution, and he has kindly shared his code.

I decided to go for a dumber solution:

if ( request.url.match(/\.(mp4)$/) ) {
  return;
}

That tells the service worker to just step out of the way when it comes to video requests. Now the video plays just fine in Safari. It’s a bit of a shame, because I’m kind of penalising all browsers for Safari’s bug, but the Clearleft site isn’t using much video at all, and in any case, it might be good not to fill up the cache with large video files.

But what’s more important than any particular solution is correctly identifying the problem. I’m quite sure I never would’ve been able to fix this issue if Phil hadn’t gone to the trouble of sharing his experience. I’m very, very grateful that he did.

That’s the bigger lesson here: if you solve a problem—even if you think it’s hardly worth mentioning—please, please share your solution. It could make all the difference for someone out there.

Greater expectations

I got an intriguing email recently from someone who’s a member of The Session, the community website about Irish traditional music that I run. They said:

When I recently joined, I used my tablet to join. Somewhere I was able to download The Session app onto my tablet.

But there is no native app for The Session. Although, as it’s a site that I built, it is, a of course, progressive web app.

They went on to say:

I wanted to put the app on my phone but I can’t find the app to download it. Can I have the app on more than one device? If so, where is it available?

I replied saying that yes, you can absolutely have it on more than one device:

But you don’t find The Session app in the app store. Instead you go to the website https://thesession.org and then add it to your home screen from your browser.

My guess is that this person had added The Session to the home screen of their Android tablet, probably following the “add to home screen” prompt. I recently added some code to use the window.beforeinstallprompt event so that the “add to home screen” prompt would only be shown to visitors who sign up or log in to The Session—a good indicator of engagement, I reckon, and it should reduce the chance of the prompt being dismissed out of hand.

So this person added The Session to their home screen—probably as a result of being prompted—and then used it just like any other app. At some point, they didn’t even remember how the app got installed:

Success! I did it. Thanks. My problem was I was looking for an app to download.

On the one hand, this is kind of great: here’s an example where, in the user’s mind, there’s literally no difference between the experience of using a progressive web app and using a native app. Win!

But on the other hand, the expectation is still that apps are to be found in an app store, not on the web. This expectation is something I wrote about recently (and Justin wrote a response to that post). I finished by saying:

Perhaps the inertia we think we’re battling against isn’t such a problem as long as we give people a fast, reliable, engaging experience.

When this member of The Session said “My problem was I was looking for an app to download”, I responded by saying:

Well, I take that as a compliment—the fact that once the site is added to your home screen, it feels just like a native app. :-)

And they said:

Yes, it does!

Altering expectations

Luke has written up the selection process he went through when Clearleft was designing the Virgin Holidays app. When it comes to deploying on mobile, there were three options:

  1. Native apps
  2. A progressive web app
  3. A hybrid app

The Virgin Holidays team went with that third option.

Now, it will come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of the second option: building a progressive web app (or turning an existing site into a progressive web app). I think a progressive web app is a great solution for travel apps, and the use-case that Luke describes sounds perfect:

Easy access to resort staff and holiday details that could be viewed offline to help as many customers as possible travel without stress and enjoy a fantastic holiday

Luke explains why they choice not to go with a progressive web app.

The current level of support and leap in understanding meant we’d risk alienating many of our customers.

The issue of support is one that is largely fixed at this point. When Clearleft was working on the Virgin Holidays app, service workers hadn’t landed in iOS. Hence, the risk of alienating a lot of customers. But now that Mobile Safari has offline capabilities, that’s no longer a problem.

But it’s the second reason that’s trickier:

Simply put, customers already expected to find us in the App Store and are familiar with what apps can historically offer over websites.

I think this is the biggest challenge facing progressive web apps: battling expectations.

For over a decade, people have formed ideas about what to expect from the web and what to expect from native. From a technical perspective, native and web have become closer and closer in capabilities. But people’s expectations move slower than technological changes.

First of all, there’s the whole issue of discovery: will people understand that they can “install” a website and expect it to behave exactly like a native app? This is where install prompts and ambient badging come in. I think ambient badging is the way to go, but it’s still a tricky concept to explain to people.

But there’s another way of looking at the current situation. Instead of seeing people’s expectations as a negative factor, maybe it’s an opportunity. There’s an opportunity right now for companies to be as groundbreaking and trendsetting as Wired.com when it switched to CSS for layout, or The Boston Globe when it launched its responsive site.

It makes for a great story. Just look at the Pinterest progressive web app for an example (skip to the end to get to the numbers):

Weekly active users on mobile web have increased 103 percent year-over-year overall, with a 156 percent increase in Brazil and 312 percent increase in India. On the engagement side, session length increased by 296 percent, the number of Pins seen increased by 401 percent and people were 295 percent more likely to save a Pin to a board. Those are amazing in and of themselves, but the growth front is where things really shined. Logins increased by 370 percent and new signups increased by 843 percent year-over-year. Since we shipped the new experience, mobile web has become the top platform for new signups. And for fun, in less than 6 months since fully shipping, we already have 800 thousand weekly users using our PWA like a native app (from their homescreen).

Now admittedly their previous mobile web experience was a dreadful doorslam, but still, those are some amazing statistics!

Maybe we’re underestimating the malleability of people’s expectations when it comes to the web on mobile. Perhaps the inertia we think we’re battling against isn’t such a problem as long as we give people a fast, reliable, engaging experience.

If you build that, they will come.

Twitter and Instagram progressive web apps

Since support for service workers landed in Mobile Safari on iOS, I’ve been trying a little experiment. Can I replace some of the native apps I use with progressive web apps?

The two major candidates are Twitter and Instagram. I added them to my home screen, and banished the native apps off to a separate screen. I’ve been using both progressive web apps for a few months now, and I have to say, they’re pretty darn great.

There are a few limitations compared to the native apps. On Twitter, if you follow a link from a tweet, it pops open in Safari, which is fine, but when you return to Twitter, it loads anew. This isn’t any fault of Twitter—this is the way that web apps have worked on iOS ever since they introduced their weird web-app-capable meta element. I hope this behaviour will be fixed in a future update.

Also, until we get web notifications on iOS, I need to keep the Twitter native app around if I want to be notified of a direct message (the only notification I allow).

Apart from those two little issues though, Twitter Lite is on par with the native app.

Instagram is also pretty great. It too suffers from some navigation issues. If I click through to someone’s profile, and then return to the main feed, it also loads it anew, losing my place. It would be great if this could be fixed.

For some reason, the Instagram web app doesn’t allow uploading multiple photos …which is weird, because I can upload multiple photos on my own site by adding the multiple attribute to the input type="file" in my posting interface.

Apart from that, though, it works great. And as I never wanted notifications from Instagram anyway, the lack of web notifications doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, because the progressive web app doesn’t keep nagging me about enabling notifications, it’s a more pleasant experience overall.

Something else that was really annoying with the native app was the preponderance of advertisements. It was really getting out of hand.

Well …(looks around to make sure no one is listening)… don’t tell anyone, but the Instagram progressive web app—i.e. the website—doesn’t have any ads at all!

Here’s hoping it stays that way.

New tools for art direction on the web

I’m in Boston right now, getting ready to speak at An Event Apart. This will be my second (and last) Event Apart of the year—the other time was in Seattle back in April. After that event, I wrote about how inspired I was:

It was interesting to see repeating, overlapping themes. From a purely technical perspective, three technologies that were front and centre were:

  • CSS grid,
  • variable fonts, and
  • service workers.

From listening to other attendees, the overwhelming message received was “These technologies are here—they’ve arrived.”

I was itching to combine those technologies on a project. Coincidentally, it was around that time that I started planning to publish The Gęsiówka Story. I figured I could use that as an opportunity to tinker with those front-end technologies that I was so excited about.

But I was cautious. I didn’t want to use the latest exciting technology just for the sake of it. I was very aware of the gravity of the material I was dealing with. Documenting the story of Gęsiówka was what mattered. Any front-end technologies I used had to be in support of that.

First of all, there was the typesetting. I don’t know about you, but I find choosing the right typefaces to be overwhelming. Despite all the great tips and techniques out there for choosing and pairing typefaces, I still find myself agonising over the choice—what if there’s a better choice that I’m missing?

In this case, because I wanted to use a variable font, I had a constraint that helped reduce the possibility space. I started to comb through v-fonts.com to find a suitable typeface—I was fairly sure I wanted a serious serif.

I had one other constraint. The font file had to include English, Polish, and German glyphs. That pretty much sealed the deal for Source Serif. That only has one variable axis—weight—but I decided that this could also be an interesting constraint: how much could I wrangle out of a single typeface just using various weights?

I ended up using font weights of 75, 250, 315, 325, 340, 350, 400, and 525. Most of them were for headings or one-off uses, with a font-weight of 315 for the body copy.

(And can I just say once again how impressed I am that the founding fathers of CSS were far-sighted enough to keep those font weight ranges free for future use?)

Getting the typography right posed an interesting challenge. This was a fairly long piece of writing, so it really needed to be readable without getting tiring. But at the same time, I didn’t want it to be exactly pleasant to read—that wouldn’t do the subject matter justice. I wanted the reader to feel the seriousness of the story they were reading, without being fatigued by its weight.

Colour and type went a long way to communicating that feeling. The grid sealed the deal.

The Gęsiówka Story is mostly one single column of text, so on the face of it, there isn’t much opportunity to go crazy with CSS Grid. But I realised I could use a grid to create a winding effect for the text. I had to be careful though: I didn’t want it to become uncomfortable to read. I wanted to create a slightly unsettling effect.

Every section element is turned into a seven-column grid container:

section {
    display: grid;
    grid-column-gap: 2em;
    grid-template-columns: 2em repeat(5, 1fr) 2em;
}

The first and last columns are the same width as the gutters (2em), effectively creating “outer” gutters for the grid. Each paragraph within the section takes up six of the seven columns. I use nth-of-type to alternate which six columns are used (the first six or the last six). That creates the staggered indendation:

section > p {
    grid-column: 1/7;
}
section > p:nth-of-type(even) {
    grid-column: 2/8;
}

Staggered grid.

That might seem like overkill just to indent every second paragraph by 4em, but I then used the same grid dimensions to layout figure elements with images and captions.

section > figure {
    display: grid;
    grid-column-gap: 2em;
    grid-template-columns: 2em repeat(5, 1fr) 2em;
}

Then I can lay out differently proportioned images across different ranges of the grid:

section > figure.landscape > img {
    grid-column: 1/5;
}
section > figure.landscape > figcaption {
    grid-column: 5/8;
}
section > figure.portrait > img {
    grid-column: 1/4;
}
section > figure.portrait > figcaption {
    grid-column: 4/8;
}

Because they’re positioned on the same grid as the paragraphs, everything lines up nicely (and yes, if subgrid existed, I wouldn’t have to redeclare the grid dimensions for the figures).

Finally, I wanted to make sure that the whole thing could be read offline. After all, once you’ve visited the URL once, there’s really no reason to make any more requests to the server. Static documents—and books—are the perfect candidates for an “offline first” approach: always look in the cache, and only go to the network as a last resort.

In this case I used a variation of my minimal viable service worker script, and the result is a very short set of instructions. There’s a little bit of pre-caching going on: I grab the variable font and the HTML page itself (which includes the CSS inlined).

So there you have it: variable fonts, CSS grid, and service workers: three exciting front-end technologies, all of which can be applied as progressive enhancements on top of the core content.

Once again, I find that it’s personal projects that offer the most opportunities to try out new or interesting techniques. And The Gęsiówka Story is a very personal project indeed.

Clearleft.com is a progressive web app

What’s that old saying? The cobbler’s children have no shoes that work offline. Or something.

It’s been over a year since the Clearleft site relaunched and I listed some of the next steps I had planned:

Service worker. It’s a no-brainer. Now that the Clearleft site is (finally!) running on HTTPS, having a simple service worker to cache static assets like CSS, JavaScript and some images seems like the obvious next step.

You know how it is. Those no-brainer tasks are exactly the kind of thing that end up on a to-do list without ever quite getting to-done. Meanwhile I’ve been writing and speaking about how any website can be a progressive web app. I think Alanis Morissette used to sing about this sort of situation.

Enough is enough! Clearleft.com is now a progressive web app. It has a manifest file and a service worker script.

The service worker logic is fairly straightforward, and taken almost verbatim from Going Offline. As you navigate around the site, the service worker applies different logic depending on the kind of file you’re requesting:

  • Pages are served fresh from the network, falling back to the cache when there’s a problem.
  • Everything else is served from the cache where possible, resorting to the network only if there’s no match in the cache—quite the performance boost!

In both cases, if a page or a file is retrieved from the network, it’s gets put into a cache. I’ve got one cache for pages, and another for everything else. And even if a file is retrieved from that cache, I still fire off a fetch request to grab a fresh copy for the cache. So while there’s a chance that a stale file might be served up, it will only ever be slightly stale, and the next time it’s requested, it’ll be fresh.

In the worst-case scenario, when a page can’t be retrieved from the network or the cache, you end up seeing a custom offline page. There you can see a list of any pages that are cached (meaning you can revisit them even without an internet connection).

A custom offline page showing a list of URLs.

It’s not ideal—page titles would be friendlier than URLs—but it’s a start. I’m sure I’ll revisit it soon. Honest.

Oh, and after a year of procrastinating about doing this, guess how long it took? About half a day. Admittedly, this isn’t my first progressive web app, and the more you build ‘em, the easier it gets. Still, it’s a classic example of a small investment of time leading to a big improvement in performance and user experience.

If you think your company’s website could benefit from being a progressive web app (and believe me, it definitely could), you have a couple of options:

  1. Arm yourself with a copy of Going Offline and give it a go yourself. Or
  2. Get in touch with Clearleft. We can help you. (See, I can say that with a straight face now that we’re practicing what we preach.)

Either way, don’t dilly dally …like I did.

Document

A little while back, I showed Paul what I was working on with The Gęsiówka Story. I value his opinion and I really like the Bradshaw’s Guide project that he’s been working on. We’re both in complete agreement with Russell Davies’ call for an internet of unmonetisable enthusiasms. Call them side projects if you like, but for me, these are the things that the World Wide Web excels at.

These unomentisable enthusiasms/side projects are what got me hooked on the web in the first place. Fray.com—back when it was a website for personal stories—was what really made the web click for me. I had seen brochure sites, I had seen e-commerce sites, but it was seeing something built purely for the love of it that caused that lightbulb moment for me.

I told Paul about another site I remembered from that time (we’re talking about the mid-to-late nineties here). It was called Private Art. It was the work of one family, the children of Private Art Pranger who served in World War Two and wrote letters from the front. Without any expectations, I did a quick search, and amazingly, the site is still up!

Yes, it’s got tiled background images, and the framesetted content is in a pop-up window, but it works. The site hasn’t been updated for fifteen years but it works perfectly in a web browser today. That’s kind of amazing. We really shouldn’t take the longevity of our materials for granted. Could you imagine trying to open a word processing document from the late nineties on your computer today? You’d have a bad time.

Working on The Gęsiówka Story helped to remind me of some of the things that made me fall in love with the web in the first place. What I wrote about it is equally true of Private Art:

When we talk about documents on the web, we usually use the word “document” as a noun. But working on The Gęsiówka Story, I came to think of the word “document” as a verb.

The World Wide Web is a medium that’s works for quick, short-term lightweight bits of fun and also for long-term, deeper, slower, thoughtful archives of our collective culture.

The web is a many-splendoured thing.

Frustration

I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.

I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.

My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.

That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)

I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.

But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.

There’s a principle underlying the architecture of the World Wide Web called The Rule of Least Power. It somewhat counterintuitively states that you should:

choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Perhaps, given the relative simplicity of the task I was trying to accomplish, the plumbing was over-engineered. That complexity wouldn’t matter if I could circumvent it, but without the build process, there’s no way to change the markup, CSS, or JavaScript for the site.

Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.

On that note…

Last week, Paul wrote about getting to grips with JavaScript. On the very same day, Brad wrote about his struggle to learn React.

I think it’s really, really, really great when people share their frustrations and struggles like this. It’s very reassuring for anyone else out there who’s feeling similarly frustrated who’s worried that the problem lies with them. Also, this kind of confessional feedback is absolute gold dust for anyone looking to write explanations or documentation for JavaScript or React while battling the curse of knowledge. As Paul says:

The challenge now is to remember the pain and anguish I endured, and bare that in mind when helping others find their own path through the knotted weeds of JavaScript.