Tags: history

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sparkline

We must love one another or die

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

W.H. Auden

Adoption

Tom wrote a post on Ev’s blog a while back called JavaScript Frameworks: Distribution Channels for Good Ideas (I’ve been hoping he’d publish it on his own site so I’d have a more permanent URL to point to, but so far, no joy). It’s well worth a read.

I don’t really have much of an opinion on his central point that browser makers should work more closely with framework makers. I’m not so sure I agree with the central premise that frameworks are going to be around for the long haul. I think good frameworks—like jQuery—should aim to make themselves redundant.

But anyway, along the way, Tom makes this observation:

Google has an institutional tendency to go it alone.

JavaScript not good enough? Let’s create Dart to replace it. HTML not good enough? Let’s create AMP to replace it. I’m just waiting for them to announce Google Style Sheets.

I don’t really mind these inventions. We’re not forced to adopt them, and generally, we don’t. Tom again:

They poured enormous time and money into Dart, even building an entire IDE, without much to show for it. Contrast Dart’s adoption with the adoption of TypeScript and Flow, which layer improvements on top of JavaScript instead of trying to replace it.

See, that’s a really, really good point. It’s so much easier to get people to adjust their behaviour than to change it completely.

Sass is a really good example of this. You can take any .css file, save it as a .scss file, and now you’re using Sass. Then you can start using features (or not) as needed. Very smart.

Incidentally, I’m very curious to know how many people use the scss syntax (which is the same as CSS) compared to how many people use the sass indented syntax (the one with significant whitespace). In his brilliant Sass for Web Designers book, I don’t think Dan even mentioned the indented syntax.

Or compare the adoption of Sass to the adoption of HAML. Now, admittedly, the disparity there might be because Sass adds new features, whereas HAML is a purely stylistic choice. But I think the more fundamental difference is that Sass—with its scss syntax—only requires you to slightly adjust your behaviour, whereas something like HAML requires you to go all in right from the start.

This is something that has been on my mind a lately while I’ve been preparing my new talk on evaluating technology (the talk went down very well at An Event Apart San Francisco, by the way—that’s a relief). In the talk, I made a reference to one of Grace Hopper’s famous quotes:

Humans are allergic to change.

Now, Grace Hopper subsequently says:

I try to fight that.

I contrast that with the approach that Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau took with their World Wide Web project. The individual pieces were built on what people were already familiar with. URLs use slashes so they’d be feel similar to UNIX file paths. And the first fledging version of HTML took its vocabulary almost wholesale from a version of SGML already in use at CERN. In fact, you could pretty much take an existing CERN SGML file and open it as an HTML file in a web browser.

Oh, and that browser would ignore any tags it didn’t understand—behaviour that, in my opinion, would prove crucial to the growth and success of HTML. Because of its familiarity, its simplicity, and its forgiving error handling, HTML turned to be more successful than Tim Berners-Lee expected, as he wrote in his book Weaving The Web:

I expected HTML to be the basic waft and weft of the Web but documents of all types: video, computer aided design, sound, animation and executable programs to be the colored threads that would contain much of the content. It would turn out that HTML would become amazingly popular for the content as well.

HTML and SGML; Sass and CSS; TypeScript and JavaScript. The new technology builds on top of the existing technology instead of wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch.

Humans are allergic to change. And that’s okay.

The Rational Optimist

As part of my ongoing obsession with figuring out how we evaluate technology, I finally got around to reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. It was an exasperating read.

On the one hand, it’s a history of the progress of human civilisation. Like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature, it piles on the data demonstrating the upward trend in peace, wealth, and health. I know that’s counterintuitive, and it seems to fly in the face of what we read in the news every day. Mind you, The New York Times took some time out recently to acknowledge the trend.

Ridley’s thesis—and it’s a compelling one—is that cooperation and trade are the drivers of progress. As I read through his historical accounts of the benefits of open borders and the cautionary tales of small-minded insular empires that collapsed, I remember thinking, “Boy, he must be pretty upset about Brexit—his own country choosing to turn its back on trade agreements with its neighbours so that it could became a small, petty island chasing the phantom of self-sufficiency”. (Self-sufficiency, or subsistence living, as Ridley rightly argues throughout the book, correlates directly with poverty.)

But throughout these accounts, there are constant needling asides pointing to the perceived enemies of trade and progress: bureaucrats and governments, with their pesky taxes and rule of law. As the accounts enter the twentieth century, the gloves come off completely revealing a pair of dyed-in-the-wool libertarian fists that Ridley uses to pummel any nuance or balance. “Ah,” I thought, “if he cares more about the perceived evils of regulation than the proven benefits of trade, maybe he might actually think Brexit is a good idea after all.”

It was an interesting moment. Given the conflicting arguments in his book, I could imagine him equally well being an impassioned remainer as a vocal leaver. I decided to collapse this probability wave with a quick Google search, and sure enough …he’s strongly in favour of Brexit.

In theory, an author’s political views shouldn’t make any difference to a book about technology and progress. In practice, they barge into the narrative like boorish gatecrashers threatening to derail it entirely. The irony is that while Ridley is trying to make the case for rational optimism, his own personal political feelings are interspersed like a dusting of irrationality, undoing his own well-researched case.

It’s not just the argument that suffers. Those are the moments when the writing starts to get frothy, if not downright unhinged. There were a number of confusing and ugly sentences that pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder where the editor was that day.

The last time I remember reading passages of such poor writing in a non-fiction book was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. In the foreword, Taleb provides a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect by proudly boasting that he does not need an editor.

But there was another reason why I thought of The Black Swan while reading The Rational Optimist.

While Ridley’s anti-government feelings might have damaged his claim to rationality, surely his optimism is unassailable? Take, for example, his conclusions on climate change. He doesn’t (quite) deny that climate change is real, but argues persuasively that it won’t be so bad. After all, just look at the history of false pessimism that litters the twentieth century: acid rain, overpopulation, the Y2K bug. Those turned out okay, therefore climate change will be the same.

It’s here that Ridley succumbs to the trap that Taleb wrote about in his book: using past events to make predictions about inherently unpredictable future events. Taleb was talking about economics—warning of the pitfalls of treating economic data as though it followed a bell-curve curve, when it fact it’s a power-law distribution.

Fine. That’s simply a logical fallacy, easily overlooked. But where Ridley really lets himself down is in the subsequent defence of fossil fuels. Or rather, in his attack on other sources of energy.

When recounting the mistakes of the naysayers of old, he points out that their fundamental mistake is to assume stasis. Hence their dire predictions of war, poverty, and famine. Ehrlich’s overpopulation scare, for example, didn’t account for the world-changing work of Borlaug’s green revolution (and Ridley rightly singles out Norman Borlaug for praise—possibly the single most important human being in history).

Yet when it comes to alternative sources of energy, they are treated as though they are set in stone, incapable of change. Wind and solar power are dismissed as too costly and inefficient. The Rational Optimist was written in 2008. Eight years ago, solar energy must have indeed looked like a costly investment. But things have changed in the meantime.

As Matt Ridley himself writes:

It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change, and find it dire. This is not wrong. The future would indeed be dire if invention and discovery ceased.

And yet he fails to apply this thinking when comparing energy sources. If anything, his defence of fossil fuels feels grounded in a sense of resigned acceptance; a sense of …pessimism.

Matt Ridley rejects any hope of innovation from new ideas in the arena of energy production. I hope that he might take his own words to heart:

By far the most dangerous, and indeed unsustainable thing the human race could do to itself would be to turn off the innovation tap. Not inventing, and not adopting new ideas, can itself be both dangerous and immoral.

A brief history of the World Wide Web by web developers

The web will be so much better when we have images.

The web will be so much better when we can use more than 216 colours.

The web will be so much better when we have Cascading Style Sheets.

The web will be so much better when we have Cascading Style Sheets that work the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when we have JavaScript.

The web will be so much better when we have JavaScript that works the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when people stop using Netscape Navigator 4.

The web will be so much better when people stop using Internet Explorer 6.

The web will be so much better when we can access it on our mobile phones.

The web will be so much better when we have native video support.

The web will be so much better when we have native video support that works the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when Flash dies.

The web will be so much better when we have more than a handful of fonts.

The web will be so much better when nobody is running Windows XP anymore.

The web will be so much better when nobody is running Android 2 anymore.

The web will be so much better when we have smooth animations.

The web will be so much better when websites can still work offline.

The web will be so much better when we get push notifications.

The web will be so much better when…

Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.

The voice of MOL

The latest issue of Spaceflight—the magazine of the British Interplanetary Society—dropped through my door, adding to my weekend reading list. This issue contains a “whatever happened to” article about the military personnel who were supposed to crew the never-realised MOL project.

Before Salyut, Skylab, Mir, or the ISS, the Manned Orbital Laboratory was the first proposed space station. It would use a Gemini capsule and a Titan propellant tank.

Manned Orbital Laboratory

But this wasn’t to be a scientific endeavour. The plan was to use the MOL as a crewed spy satellite—human eyes in the sky watching the enemy below.

The MOL was cancelled (because uncrewed satellites were getting better at that sort of thing), so that particular orbital panopticon never came to pass.

I remember when I first heard of the MOL and I was looking it up on Wikipedia, that this little nugget of information stood out to me:

The MOL was planned to use a helium-oxygen atmosphere.

That’s right: instead of air (21% oxygen, 79% nitrogen), the spies in the sky would be breathing heliox (21% oxygen, 79% helium). Considering the effect that helium has on the human voice, I can only imagine that the grave nature of the mission would have been somewhat compromised.

Slight return

I’ve been in a contemplative mood lately, probably because I’ve been time travelling.

This year’s dConstruct—which wrapped up just under two weeks ago—marked ten continuous years of running the event. Ten years!

It feels like a lot happened ten years ago. 2005 was the year that Andy, Richard, and I started Clearleft. The evening after dConstruct this year, we threw a party to mark our decadal milestone. What happened at the Clearleft birthday party stays at the Clearleft birthday party.

I had already been living in Brighton for five years before Clearleft was born. That means I’ve been here for fifteen years now. Before that I was living in Freiburg in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest—that’s where Jessica and I first met. In one of those funny twists of fate, we found ourselves travelling back to Freiburg last week, the day after the Clearleft party. It’s like I was going further and further back in my own timeline.

I was in Freiburg to speak at Smashing Conference. I wasn’t on the line-up though. I was the mystery speaker. I took my mysterious duties seriously, so much so that I didn’t even tell Andy, who was also speaking at the event (it was worth it for the look on his face).

Once Smashing Conference was over, Jessica and I made our way to Prague for the Web Expo. When the website for the conference went live, it looked like a Clearleft school reunion: me, Andy H, Cennydd, Anna, and Paul were all on the home page.

I had been to Prague before …but I had never been to the Czech Republic.

That’s right—the last time I was in Prague, it was still in Czechoslovakia. I was there in the early nineties, just a few years after the Velvet Revolution. I was hitch-hiking and busking my way around Europe with my friend Polly (she played fiddle, I played mandolin). When I visit foreign countries now, I get to stay in hotel rooms and speak at conferences. Back then, I sang for my supper and slept wherever I could find a dry spot—usually in a park or on the outskirts of town, far from activity. I remember how cold it was on that first visit to Prague. We snuck into an apartment building to sleep in the basement.

But I also remember extraordinary acts of kindness. When we left Prague, we travelled south towards Austria. We were picked up by an old man in an old car who insisted we should stay the night at his house with his family. He didn’t have much, but he opened up his home to us. We could barely communicate, but it didn’t matter. I will never forget his name: Pan Karel Šimáček.

I remember walking over the border into Austria. That switchover was probably the biggest culture shock of the whole trip. There was quite a disparity in wealth between the two countries.

When we reached Vienna, we met another couple who were travelling through Europe. But whereas Polly and I were travelling out of choice, they were in desperate search of somewhere to call home. Their country, Yugoslavia, was breaking up. One of them was Serbian. The other was Croatian. They were in love. They couldn’t return to where they had come from, but they had nowhere to go. They peppered us with questions. “Do you think England would give us asylum?” I didn’t know what to say.

A few weeks later, we were crossing over the alps down into Italy. We got stuck at a service station for two full days. There wasn’t much there, but I remember there was a Bureau de Change with LCD numbers showing the conversion rates for the many currencies of Europe. Yugoslavia was in the list, but its LCD numbers weren’t illuminated.

100 words 084

Cobh really has become quite the tourist town. Today we—myself, Jessica, and my mother—took a boat over to Spike Island and enjoyed strolling around the fort and taking in the magnificent views. Then we went back across to town and had lunch where the White Star Line office used to be, sitting right next to the pier used to load goods and passengers for the Titanic.

We finished the evening in a pub listening to some great tunes (once the bodhrán player got the hint and left). Plenty of sunshine and plenty of pints. A really nice day.

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My friend Jeffrey has been writing on his website for twenty years. There are very few things on the web that last that long. I’m very, very glad that his website is one of them.

I remember finding Zeldman.com—and Ask Dr. Web, and the Ad Graveyard—back when I was first “going online.” I remember being so grateful for his generosity, but I also remember that what really struck me was the warmth and humility in the writing.

My own website will turn twenty in another few years. I never would have started it if it weren’t for Jeffrey.

100 words 055

Yesterday I wrote about a tenuous serendipitous connection between Spacewar and the creation of the internet. In the appendix to Stewart Brand’s 1972 Rolling Stone article I spotted a reference to the one and only Bob Kahn.

Except it turns out there is more than one Bob Kahn. A kindly email from Jack Dietz set me straight: there’s Robert Kahn who demoed ARPANET and then there’s Robert Kahn who advocated public access to computers.

This has taught me two important lessons:

  1. Names are not the best unique identifiers, and
  2. The best way to get feedback is to publish.

100 words 054

In between publishing the Whole Earth Catalog and spinning up the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand wrote an article in Rolling Stone magazine about one of the earliest video games, Spacewar.

Except it isn’t really about Spacewar at all. It’s about the oncoming age of the personal computer.

The article was published in 1972. At the end, there’s an appendix listing some communal places where “one can step in off the street and compute.” One of those places—with 16 terminals available—was run by a certain Bob Kahn.

Together with Vint Cerf he created the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol.

100 words 053

When I got back from Bletchley Park yesterday, I immediately started huffduffing more stories about cryptography and code-breaking.

One of the stories I found was an episode of Ockham’s Razor featuring Professor Mark Dodgson. He talks about the organisational structure at Bletchley Park:

The important point was the organization emphasised team-working and open knowledge sharing where it was needed, and demarcation and specialisation where it was most appropriate.

This reminds of another extraordinary place, also displaying remarkable levels of collaboration, that has an unusual lack of traditional hierarchies and structure: CERN.

Bletchley Park produced the computer. CERN produced the web.

100 words 052

There was a Clearleft outing to Bletchley Park today. I can’t believe I hadn’t been before. It was nerdvana—crypto, history, and science combined in one very English location.

Alan Turing’s work at Station X is rightly lauded, but I can’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable with the way we make heroes of those who work in the shadows. After the war, England’s fictional hero was James Bond, the creation of former Bletchley worker Ian Fleming. And now we have GCHQ spying on its own citizens.

Righteousness in the past doesn’t earn a country a free pass for the future.

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I grew up in Cobh—pronounced “cove”—Cork, Ireland. There’s a statue in the middle of town; an angel presiding over the figures of local fishermen who lost their lives 100 years ago when a German U-boat torpedoed and sank The Lusitania off the old head of Kinsale. They were attempting to rescue survivors.

On the outskirts of town there’s an old cemetery where a mass grave was dug for the bodies of the Lusitania victims.

Cobh’s history is filled with ill-fated ships. It was the last stop of The Titanic. The ships are now memorialised as pub names.

100 words 040

Yesterday was April 30th. On April 30th in 1993, the world changed. But this world-changing event was marked by the simplest of actions—a couple of signatures and a some rubber stamps.

Twenty two years ago the World Wide Web was placed into the public domain.

When I was at CERN a few years ago with my fellow hackers, Robert Cailliau produced his copy of this document. It passed around the table. When it came to me, I held it like a magic scroll.

“Be careful—there are only two copies of that,” he said. “And CERN have misplaced theirs.”

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It started when Jessica relayed something that happened when she was on a cultural walking tour of Sofia two weekends ago. The tour guide asked “Does anyone know who invented the computer?”

Alan Turing? Charles Babbage?

The tour guided pointed to a statue and said, “John Atanasoff.”

I had never heard of him. So of course I looked him up. That led me down the most incredible rabbit hole as I uncovered a courtroom drama filled with invalidated patents and mountains of court records.

Why had I never heard about this? It was eclipsed by a bigger legal drama: Watergate.

100 words 035

I went spelunking down the caves of the web’s history today. I went digging through the original proposal that Tim Berners-Lee presented to his boss, the late Mike Sendall. I explored the design issues that were raised in the creation the World Wide Web. I rifled through the initial vocabulary of HTML. I watched a video from the web’s twentieth anniversary featuring Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, and Jean-François Groff.

I was able to do all this because my computer was connected to the internet and I was running a piece of software that understood HTTP, URLs, and HTML’s A element.

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The Thracians were one of the first peoples to settle in Bulgaria.

The Romans arrived in the first century.

Four centuries later, Bulgaria became part of the Byzantine empire.

From the fourteenth century onward, the country was part of the Ottoman empire.

That lasted until the end of the nineteenth century, when the country was liberated by Russia.

At this point for some reason, the Bulgarians thought they ought to have a monarchy.

That whole monarchy thing only lasted until the end of the second world war. Then they gave communism a whirl.

Finally they got with the democracy programme.

Hope

Cennydd points to an article by Ev Williams about the pendulum swing between open and closed technology stacks, and how that pendulum doesn’t always swing back towards openness. Cennydd writes:

We often hear the idea that “open platforms always win in the end”. I’d like that: the implicit values of the web speak to my own. But I don’t see clear evidence of this inevitable supremacy, only beliefs and proclamations.

It’s true. I catch myself saying things like “I believe the open web will win out.” Statements like that worry my inner empiricist. Faith-based outlooks scare me, and rightly so. I like being able to back up my claims with data.

Only time will tell what data emerges about the eventual fate of the web, open or closed. But we can look to previous technologies and draw comparisons. That’s exactly what Tim Wu did in his book The Master Switch and Jonathan Zittrain did in The Future Of The Internet—And How To Stop It. Both make for uncomfortable reading because they challenge my belief. Wu points to radio and television as examples of systems that began as egalitarian decentralised tools that became locked down over time in ever-constricting cycles. Cennydd adds:

I’d argue this becomes something of a one-way valve: once systems become closed, profit potential tends to grow, and profit is a heavy entropy to reverse.

Of course there is always the possibility that this time is different. It may well be that fundamental architectural decisions in the design of the internet and the workings of the web mean that this particular technology has an inherent bias towards openness. There is some data to support this (and it’s an appealing thought), but again; only time will tell. For now it’s just one more supposition.

The real question—when confronted with uncomfortable ideas that challenge what you’d like to believe is true—is what do you do about it? Do you look for evidence to support your beliefs or do you discard your beliefs entirely? That second option looks like the most logical course of action, and it’s certainly one that I would endorse if there were proven facts to be acknowledged (like gravity, evolution, or vaccination). But I worry about mistaking an argument that is still being discussed for an argument that has already been decided.

When I wrote about the dangers of apparently self-evident truisms, I said:

These statements aren’t true. But they are repeated so often, as if they were truisms, that we run the risk of believing them and thus, fulfilling their promise.

That’s my fear. Only time will tell whether the closed or open forces will win the battle for the soul of the internet. But if we believe that centralised, proprietary, capitalistic forces are inherently unstoppable, then our belief will help make them so.

I hope that openness will prevail. Hope sounds like such a wishy-washy word, like “faith” or “belief”, but it carries with it a seed of resistance. Hope, faith, and belief all carry connotations of optimism, but where faith and belief sound passive, even downright complacent, hope carries the promise of action.

Margaret Atwood was asked about the futility of having hope in the face of climate change. She responded:

If we abandon hope, we’re cooked. If we rely on nothing but hope, we’re cooked. So I would say judicious hope is necessary.

Judicious hope. I like that. It feels like a good phrase to balance empiricism with optimism; data with faith.

The alternative is to give up. And if we give up too soon, we bring into being the very endgame we feared.

Cennydd finishes:

Ultimately, I vote for whichever technology most enriches humanity. If that’s the web, great. A closed OS? Sure, so long as it’s a fair value exchange, genuinely beneficial to company and user alike.

This is where we differ. Today’s fair value exchange is tomorrow’s monopoly, just as today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s tyrant. I will fight against that future.

To side with whatever’s best for the end user sounds like an eminently sensible metric to judge a technology. But I’ve written before about where that mindset can lead us. I can easily imagine Asimov’s three laws of robotics rewritten to reflect the ethos of user-centred design, especially that first and most important principle:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

…rephrased as:

A product or interface may not injure a user or, through inaction, allow a user to come to harm.

Whether the technology driving the system behind that interface is open or closed doesn’t come into it. What matters is the interaction.

But in his later years Asimov revealed the zeroeth law, overriding even the first:

A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

It may sound grandiose to apply this thinking to the trivial interfaces we’re building with today’s technologies, but I think it’s important to keep drilling down and asking uncomfortable questions (even if they challenge our beliefs).

That’s why I think openness matters. It isn’t enough to use whatever technology works right now to deliver the best user experience. If that short-time gain comes with a long-term price tag for our society, it’s not worth it.

I would much rather an imperfect open system to a perfect proprietary one.

I have hope in an open web …judicious hope.

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For a while there on Twitter yesterday, web people took some time to give props to other web people who have inspired them. #HonoringWebFolk was the hashy sack (or whatever that thing is called that the lawn kids use).

There are so many generous people I could mention: Veen, Zeldman, Champeon, Holzschlag, Çelik, Meyer…

But I want to give special mention to an unsung hero of the web: Dean Edwards, a JavaScript genius who created the mother of all polyfills—before polyfills were even a thing. Take a look through the annotated jQuery to see how large his influence looms.

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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.