This one is a bit different. Whereas previous episodes focused on specific topics—design systems, service design—this one is a case study. And, wow, what a case study! The whole time I was putting the episode together, I kept thinking “The team really did some excellent work here.”
I’m not sure what makes more sense: listen to the podcast episode first and then visit the site in question …or the other way around? Maybe the other way around. In which case, be sure to visit the website for Wildlife Photographer Of The Year.
This episode of the podcast ended up being half an hour long. It should probably be shorter but I just couldn’t bring myself to cut any of the insights that Helen, James, Chris, and Trys were sharing. I’m probably too close to the subject matter to be objective about it. I’m hoping that others will find it equally fascinating to hear about the process of the project. Research! Design! Dev! This has got it all.
I had a lot of fun with the opening of the episode. I wanted to create a montage effect like the scene-setting opening of a film that has overlapping news reports. I probably spent far too long doing it but I’m really happy with the final result.
And with this episode, we’re halfway through the first season of the podcast already! I figured a nice short run of six episodes is enough to cover a fair bit of ground and give a taste of what the podcast is aiming for, without it turning into an overwhelming number of episodes in a backlog for you to catch up with. Three down and three to go. Seems manageable, right?
Anyway, enough of the backstory. If you haven’t already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, you should do that. Then do these three things in whichever order you think works best:
Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.
On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.
But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.
When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?
At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.
Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.
For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).
In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.
I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:
Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.
The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.
Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.
I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.
I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:
The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.
Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”
Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.
The timeline of Gopher and HTTP can be evidenced by their default port numbers. Gopher is 70, HTTP 80. The HTTP port was assigned (likely by Jon Postel at the IANA) at the request of Tim Berners-Lee sometime between 1990 and 1992.
Kimberly was spelunking down the original source code, when she came across this line in the HTUtils.h file:
#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */
We showed this to Jean-François Groff, who worked on the original web technologies like libwww, the forerunner to libcurl. He remembers that day. It felt like they had “made it”, receiving the official blessing of Jon Postel (in the same RFC, incidentally, that gave port 70 to Gopher).
Then he told us something interesting about the next line of code:
#define OLD_TCP_PORT 2784 /* Try the old one if no answer on 80 */
Port 2784? That seems like an odd choice. Most of us would choose something easy to remember.
Well, it turns out that 2784 is easy to remember if you’re Tim Berners-Lee.
Those were the last four digits of his parents’ phone number.
The web turned 30 this year. When I was back at CERN to mark this anniversary, there was a lot of introspection and questioning the direction that the web has taken. Everyone I know that uses the web is in agreement that tracking and surveillance are out of control. It seems only right to question whether the web has lost its way.
Without cookies, the web was stateless. This was by design. Now, I totally understand why cookies—or something like cookies—were needed. Without some way of keeping track of state, there’s no good way for a website to “remember” what’s in your shopping cart, or whether you’ve authenticated yourself.
But why would cookies ever need to work across domains? Authentication, shopping carts and all that good stuff can happen on the same domain. Third-party cookies, on the other hand, seem custom made for tracking and frankly, not much else.
Browsers allow you to disable third-party cookies, though it’s not yet the default. If enough people do it—and complain about the sites that stop working when third-party cookies are disabled—then maybe it can become the default.
Firefox is taking steps in this direction, automatically disabling some third-party cookies—the ones that known trackers. Safari is also taking steps to prevent cross-site tracking. It’s not too late to change the tide of third-party cookies.
Embedding video, audio, and maps would get a lot finickier.
Analytics would need to be self-hosted. I don’t think that would bother any site owners. An analytics platform like Google Analytics that tracks people across domains is doing it for its own benefit rather than that of site owners.
Advertising wouldn’t be creepy and annoying. Instead of what’s so euphemistically called “personalisation”, advertisers would have to rely on serving relevant ads based on the content of the site rather than an invasive psychological profile of the user. (I honestly think that advertisers would benefit from this kind of targetting.)
93% of pages include at least one third-party resource, 76% of pages issue a request to an analytics domain, the median page requests content from at least 9 unique third-party domains that represent 35% of their total network activity, and the most active 10% of pages issue a whopping 175 third-party requests or more.
This was a fun talk to put together. The first challenge was figuring out the right format for a two-person talk. It quickly became clear that Remy’s focus would be on the events of the five days we spent at CERN, whereas my focus would be on the history of computing, hypertext, and networks leading up to the creation of the web.
Now, we could’ve just done everything chronologically, but that would mean I’d do the first half of the talk and Remy would do the second half. That didn’t appeal. And it sounded kind of boring. So then we come up with the idea of interweaving the two timelines.
That worked remarkably well. The talk starts with me describing the creation of CERN in the 1950s. Then Remy talks about the first day of the hack week. I then talk about events in the 1960s. Remy talks about the second day at CERN. This continues until we join up about half way through the talk: I’ve arrived at the moment that Tim Berners-Lee first published the proposal for the World Wide Web, and Remy has arrived at the point of having running code.
At this point, the presentation switches gears and turns into a demo. I do not have the fortitude to do a live demo, so this was all down to Remy. He did it flawlessly. I have so much respect for people brave enough to do live demos, and do them well.
But the talk doesn’t finish there. There’s a coda about our return to CERN a month after the initial hack week. This was an opportunity for both of us to close out the talk with our hopes and dreams for the World Wide Web.
I know I’m biased, but I thought the structure of the presentation worked really well: two interweaving timelines culminating in a demo and finishing with the big picture.
There was a forcing function on preparing this presentation: Remy was moving house, and I was already going to be away speaking at some other events. That limited the amount of time we could be in the same place to practice the talk. In the end, I think that might have helped us make the most of that time.
We were both feeling the pressure to tell this story well—it means so much to us. Personally, I found that presenting with Remy made me up my game. Like I said:
It’s been a real treat working with Remy on this. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s kind of a web hero of mine, so this was a real honour and a privilege for me.
This talk could have easily turned into a boring slideshow of “what we did on our holidays”, but I think we managed to successfully avoid that trap. We’re both proud of this talk and we’d love to give it again some time. If you’d like it at your event, get in touch.
I few months ago, I got an email from Thomas about the new event he’s running in Copenhagen called Techfestival. He was wondering if there was some way of making the WorldWideWeb project part of the event. We ended up settling on having a stand—a modern computer running a modern web browser running a recreation of the first ever web browser from almost three decades ago.
So I showed up at Techfestival and found that the computer had been set up in a Shoreditchian shipping container. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to do, so I just hung around nearby until someone wandering by would pause and start tentatively approaching the stand.
“Would you like to try the time machine?” I asked. Nobody refused the offer. I explained that they were looking at a recreation of the world’s first web browser, and then showed them how they could enter a URL to see how the oldest web browser would render a modern website.
Lots of people entered facebook.com or google.com, but some people had their own websites, either personal or for their business. They enjoyed seeing how well (or not) their pages held up. They’d take photos of the screen.
People asked lots of questions, which I really enjoyed answering. After a while, I was able to spot the themes that came up frequently. Some people were confusing the origin story of the internet with the origin story of the web, so I was more than happy to go into detail on either or both.
The experience helped me clarify in my own mind what was exciting and interesting about the birth of the web—how much has changed, and how much and stayed the same.
The World Wide Web turned 30 years old this year. To mark the occasion, a motley group of web nerds gathered at CERN, the birthplace of the web, to build a time machine. The first ever web browser was, confusingly, called WorldWideWeb. What if we could recreate the experience of using it …but within a modern browser! Join (Je)Remy on a journey through time and space and code as they excavate the foundations of Tim Berners-Lee’s gloriously ambitious and hacky hypertext system that went on to conquer the world.
Neither of us is under any illusions about the nature of a joint talk. It’s not half as much work; it’s more like twice the work. We’ve both seen enough uneven joint presentations to know what we want to avoid.
We’ve been honing the material and doing some run-throughs at the Clearleft HQ at 68 Middle Street this week. The talk has a somewhat unusual structure with two converging timelines. I think it’s going to work really well, but I won’t know until we actually deliver the talk in Amsterdam. I’m excited—and a bit nervous—about it.
Whether it’s in a shipping container in Copenhagen or on a stage in Amsterdam, I’m starting to realise just how much I enjoy talking about web history.
One evening last month, during An Event Apart Seattle, a bunch of the speakers were gathered in the bar in the hotel lobby, shooting the breeze and having a nightcap before the next day’s activities. In a quasi-philosophical mode, the topic of goals came up. Not the sporting variety, but life and career goals.
As I everyone related (confessed?) their goals, I had to really think hard. I don’t think I have any goals. I find it hard enough to think past the next few months, much less form ideas about what I might want to be doing in a decade. But then I remembered that I did once have a goal.
Back in the ’90s, when I was living in Germany and first starting to make websites, there was a website I would check every day for inspiration: Project Cool’s Cool Site Of The Day. I resolved that my life’s goal was to one day have a website I made be the cool site of the day.
About a year later, to my great shock and surprise, I achieved my goal. An early iteration of Jessica’s site—complete with whizzy DHTML animations—was the featured site of the day on Project Cool. I was overjoyed!
I never bothered to come up with a new goal to supercede that one. Maybe I should’ve just retired there and then—I had peaked.
The early web was simply teeming with declarations of cool: Cool Sites of the Day, the Night, the Week, the Year; Cool Surf Spots; Cool Picks; Way Cool Websites; Project Cool Sightings. Coolness awards once besieged the web’s virtual landscape like an overgrown trophy collection.
It’s a terrific piece that ponders the changing nature of the web, and the changing nature of that word: cool.
Perhaps the word will continue to fall out of favour. Tim Berners-Lee may have demonstrated excellent foresight when he added this footnote to his classic document, Cool URIs don’t change—still available at its original URL, of course:
Historical note: At the end of the 20th century when this was written, “cool” was an epithet of approval particularly among young, indicating trendiness, quality, or appropriateness.
In the end, March 12, 1989 is as good a date as any to mark the birth of the web. The date that Tim Berners-Lee shared his proposal. That’s when the work began.
Exactly thirty years later, myself, Martin, and Remy are registered and ready to attend the anniversay event in the very same room where the existence of the Higgs boson was announced. There’s coffee, and there are croissants, but despite the presence of Lou Montulli, there are no cookies.
The doors to the auditorium open and we find some seats together. The morning’s celebrations includes great panel discussions, and an interview with Tim Berners-Lee himself. In the middle of it all, they show a short film about our hack week recreating the very first web browser.
It was surreal. There we were, at CERN, in the same room as the people who made the web happen, and everyone’s watching a video of us talking about our fun project. It was very weird and very cool.
Afterwards, there was cake. And a NeXT machine—the same one we had in the room during our hack week. I feel a real attachment to that computer.
We chatted with lots of lovely people. I had the great pleasure of meeting Peggie Rimmer. It was her late husband, Mike Sendall, who gave Tim Berners-Lee the time (and budget) to pursue his networked hypertext project. Peggie found Mike’s copy of Tim’s proposal in a cupboard years later. This was the copy that Mike had annotated with his now-famous verdict, “vague but exciting”. Angela has those words tattooed on her arm—Peggie got a kick out of that.
Eventually, Remy and I had to say our goodbyes. We had to get to the airport to catch our flight back to London. Taxi, airport, plane, tube; we arrived at the Science Museum in time for the evening celebrations. We couldn’t have been far behind Tim Berners-Lee. He was making a 30 hour journey from Geneva to London to Lagos. We figured seeing him at two out of those three locations was plenty.
By the end of the day we were knackered but happy. The day wasn’t all sunshine and roses. There was a lot of discussion about the negative sides of the web, and what could be improved. A lot of that was from Sir Tim itself. But mostly it was a time to think about just how transformative the web has been in our lives. And a time to think about the next thirty years …and the web we want.
I’m back at CERN because tomorrow, March 12th, 2019, is exactly thirty years on from when Tim Berners-Lee submitted his original “vague but exciting” Information Management: A Proposal. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, there’s an event at CERN called Web@30.
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.
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.
I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of h-events:
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:
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.
Nine people came together at CERN for five days and made something amazing. I still can’t quite believe it.
Coming into this, I thought it was hugely ambitious to try to not only recreate the experience of using the first ever web browser (called WorldWideWeb, later Nexus), but to also try to document the historical context of the time. Now that it’s all done, I’m somewhat astounded that we managed to achieve both.
Behold! A simulation of using the first ever web browser, recreated inside your web browser.
Now you could try clicking around on the links on the opening doucment—remembering that you need to double-click on links to activate them—but you’ll quickly find that most of them don’t work. They’re long gone. So it’s probably going to be more fun to open a new page to use as your starting point. Here’s how you do that:
Select Document from the menu options on the left.
A new menu will pop open. Select Open from full document reference.
Type a URL, like, say https://adactio.com
Press that lovely chunky Open button.
You are now surfing the web through a decades-old interface. Double click on a link to open it. You’ll notice that it opens in a new window. You’ll also notice that there’s no way of seeing the current URL. Back then, the idea was that you would navigate primarily by clicking on links, creating your own “associative trails”, as first envisioned by Vannevar Bush.
But the WorldWideWeb application wasn’t just a browser. It was a Hypermedia Browser/Editor.
From that Document menu you opened, select New file…
Type the name of your file; something like test.html
Start editing the heading and the text.
In the main WorldWideWeb menu, select Links.
Now focus the window with the document you opened earlier (adactio.com).
With that window’s title bar in focus, choose Mark all from the Links menu.
Go back to your test.html document, and highlight a piece of text.
With that text highlighted, click on Link to marked from the Links menu.
If you want, you can even save the hypertext document you created. Under the Document menu there’s an option to Save a copy offline (this is the one place where the wording of the menu item isn’t exactly what was in the original WorldWideWeb application). Save the file so you can open it up in a text editor and see what the markup would’ve looked it.
I don’t know about you, but I find this utterly immersive and fascinating. Imagine what it must’ve been like to browse, create, and edit like this. Hypertext existed before the web, but it was confined to your local hard drive. Here, for the first time, you could create links across networks!
After five days time-travelling back thirty years, I have a new-found appreciation for what Tim Berners-Lee created. But equally, I’m in awe of what my friends created thirty years later.
Of course Mark wanted to make sure the font was as accurate as possible. He and Brian went down quite a rabbit hole, and with remote help from David Jonathan Ross, they ended up recreating entire families of fonts.
I wrapped up last year with a list of some of the best audio I listened to in 2017. This year I huffduffed about 260 pieces of audio, so I could do a similar end-of-year list for 2018. But I thought I’d do something a little different this time.
It seems like podcasting is going from strength to strength with each passing year. Some friends of mine started new podcasts in 2018. Matt started Hobby Horse, where he talks to people about their tangential obsessions. Meanwhile Khoi started Wireframe, a jolly good podcast about design.
Apart from the trend of everyone having their own podcast these days, there’s also been a trend for quite short and manageable “seasons” of podcasts. See, for example, Horizon Line by Atlas Obscura, which is just four episodes long. Given the cherry-picking nature of my usual audio consumption (the very reason I made Huffduffer in the first place), this trend suits me quite well. There have been a few podcast runs in 2018 that I can recommend in their entirety.
The Secret History Of The Future is a collaboration between Seth Stevenson and Tom Standage, one of my favourite non-fiction authors. They look at modern technology stories through the lens of the past, much like Standage has done in books like The Victorian Internet. There are annoying sponsor blurbs to skip past, but apart from that, it’s a top-notch podcast.
I discovered Settling The Score this year. It’s a podcast all about film scores. The two hosts have spent the year counting down the top 25 scores in the American Film Institute’s list of (supposedly) greatest scores in American cinema history. It’s a pleasure to listen to them take a deep dive into each film and its score, analysing what works and what doesn’t. It will also make you want to rewatch the movie in question.
By far my favourite podcast listening experience this year was with Stephen Fry’s Great Leap Years. It’s just six episodes long, but it manages to tell the sweep of human history and technology in an entertaining and fascinating way. I’ll admit I’m biased because it dwells on many of my hobby horses: the printing press, the telegraph, Claude Shannon and information theory. There are no annoying sponsorship interruptions, and best of all, you’ve got the wonderful voice of Stephen Fry in your earholes the whole time. Highly recommended!
So there you have it: three podcasts from 2018 that are worth subscribing to in their entirety:
At first, I found the book to be a rollicking good read. It told the sweep of history in an engaging way, backed up with footnotes and references to prime sources. But then the author transitions from relaying facts to taking flights of fancy without making any distinction between the two (the only “tell” is that the references dry up).
Just as Matt Ridley had personal bugbears that interrupted the flow of The Rational Optimist, Yuval Noah Harari has fixated on some ideas that make a mess of the narrative arc of Sapiens. In particular, he believes that the agricultural revolution was, as he describes it, “history’s biggest fraud.” In the absence of any recorded evidence for this, he instead provides idyllic descriptions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that have as much foundation in reality as the paleo diet.
When the book avoids that particular historical conspiracy theory, it fares better. But even then, the author seems to think he’s providing genuinely new insights into matters of religion, economics, and purpose, when in fact, he’s repeating the kind of “college thoughts” that have been voiced by anyone who’s ever smoked a spliff.
I know I’m making it sound terrible, and it’s not terrible. It’s just …generally not that great. And when it is great, it only makes the other parts all the more frustrating. There’s a really good book in Sapiens, but unfortunately it’s interspersed with some pretty bad editorialising. I have to agree with Galen Strawson’s review:
Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism.
Towards the end of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari casts his eye on our present-day world and starts to speculate on the future. This is the point when I almost gave myself an injury with the amount of eye-rolling I was doing. His ideas on technology, computers, and even science fiction are embarrassingly childish and incomplete. And the bad news is that his subsequent books—Home Deus and 21 Lessons For The 21st Century—are entirely speculations about humanity and technology. I won’t be touching those with all the ten foot barge poles in the world.
In short, although there is much to enjoy in Sapiens, particularly in the first few chapters, I can’t recommend it.
On 5th August 1944 “Zośka” the scouts’ battalion of the “Radosław” unit Armia Krajowa captured the German concentration camp “Gęsiówka” and liberated 348 Jewish prisoners, citizens of various European countries, many of whom later fought and fell in the Warsaw Uprising.
I knew about the plaque—and the incredible events it commemorates—thanks to a piece of writing called The Gęsiówka Story by Edward Kossoy, a relative of mine.
My ancestral lineage is an unusual mix. I’ve got generations of Irish on my mother’s side, and generations of Eastern European jews on my father’s side.
Edward wasn’t closely related to me. He was my grandfather’s cousin. My father’s father (from whom I got my middle name, Ivan) was driving ambulances in London during the war. Meanwhile his cousin Edward in Poland was trying desperately to get his family out. Separated from his wife and daughter, he was arrested by the Russians in Ukraine and sentenced to hard labour in a gulag. He survived. His wife and child were did not. They were murdered by the nazis during Operation Harvest Festival.
Edward was a lawyer. He spent the rest of his life fighting for reparations for victims of the Holocaust. He represented tens of thousands of jews, Poles, and Roma. He lived in Tel Aviv, Munich, and finally Geneva. That was where he met the Polish war hero Wacław Micuta who first told him about what happened at Gęsiówka. What he heard sounded implausible, but when he found Gęsiówka survivors among his own clientelle, Edward was able to corrobarate Micuta’s story.
(Micuta, by the way, had much to discuss with Edward’s second wife Sonia. She fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, escaping by being smuggled out in a suitcase.)
As well as being a lawyer, Edward was also an author. In 2004 he wrote The Gęsiówka Story for the journal Yad Vashem Studies. I came across it in PDF form while I was searching for more details of Edward’s life and legacy. I was completely astonished by what I read—if it were a Hollywood film, you would think it too far-fetched to be true.
I decided to transfer the story into a more durable format. I’ve marked it up, styled it, and published it here:
The subheading of The Gęsiówka Story is “A Little Known Page of Jewish Fighting History.” I certainly think it’s a piece of history that deserves to be more widely known. That’s why I’ve turned it into a web page.
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. And I think the web is well-suited to documenting the stories and experiences of our forebears.
Edward died six years ago, just one year shy of a hundred. I never got to meet him in person, which is something I very much regret. But by taking his words and working with them while trying my best to treat them with respect, I’ve come to feel a bit closer to this great man.
This was a little labour of love for me. I hope I did his words justice. And I hope you’ll read The Gęsiówka Story.
I huffduffed 290 pieces of audio in 2017. I’ve still got a bit of a backlog of items I haven’t listened to yet, but I thought I’d share some of my favourite items from the past year. Here are twelve pieces of audio, one for each month of 2017…
Essentially every single aspect of the web is terrible. It was designed as a static document presentation system with hyperlinks.
It appears to be a universally accepted truth. The web was designed for sharing documents, and was never meant for the kind of applications we can build these days.
I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s fairer to say that the first use case for the web was document retrieval. And yes, that initial use case certainly influenced the first iteration of HTML. But right from the start, the vision for the web wasn’t constrained by what it was being asked to do at the time. (I mean, if you need an example of vision, Tim Berners-Lee called it the World Wide Web when it was just on one computer!)
The original people working on the web—Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Jean-Francois Groff, etc.—didn’t to try define the edges of what the web would be capable of. Quite the opposite. All of them really wanted a more interactive read-write web where documents could not only be read, but also edited and updated.
As for the idea of having a programming language in browsers (as well as a markup language), Tim Berners-Lee was all for it …as long as it could be truly ubiquitous.
To say that the web was made for sharing documents is like saying that the internet was made for email. It’s true in the sense that it was the most popular use case, but that never defined the limits of the system.
The secret sauce of the internet lies in its flexibility—it’s a deliberately dumb network that doesn’t care about the specifics of what runs on it. This lesson was then passed on to the web—another deliberately simple system designed to be agnostic to use cases.
The web (like the internet upon which it runs) was designed to be flexible, and to adjust to future use-cases that couldn’t be predicted in advance. The best proof of this flexibility is the fact that we can and do now build rich interactive applications on the World Wide Web. If the web had truly been designed only for documents, that wouldn’t be possible.
Every now and then, I like to revisit Vannevar Bush’s classic article from the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think in which he describes a theoretical machine called the memex.
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.
1945! Apart from its analogue rather than digital nature, it’s a remarkably prescient vision. In particular, there’s the idea of “associative trails”:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.
My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability.
As John Sheridan from the UK’s National Archives points out, hypertext is the perfect medium for laws:
Despite the drafter’s best efforts to create a narrative structure that tells a story through the flow of provisions, legislation is intrinsically non-linear content. It positively lends itself to a hypertext based approach. The need for legislation to escape the confines of the printed form predates the all major innovators and innovations in hypertext, from Vannevar Bush’s vision in ” As We May Think“, to Ted Nelson’s coining of the term “hypertext”, through to and Berners-Lee’s breakthrough world wide web. I like to think that Nelson’s concept of transclusion was foreshadowed several decades earlier by the textual amendment (where one Act explicitly alters – inserts, omits or amends – the text of another Act, an approach introduced to UK legislation at the beginning of the 20th century).
There’s an associative trail from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson that takes some other interesting turns…
Picture a new American naval recruit in 1945, getting ready to ship out to the pacific to fight against the Japanese. Just as the ship as leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. And so instead of fighting across the islands of the pacific, this young man finds himself in a hut on the Philippines, reading whatever is to hand. There’s a copy of The Atlantic Monthly, the one with an article called As We May Think. The sailor was Douglas Engelbart, and a few years later when he was deciding how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, that article led him to pursue the goal of augmenting human intellect. He gave the mother of all demos, featuring NLS, a working hypermedia system.
Later, thanks to Bill Atkinson, we’d get another system called Hypercard. It was advertised with the motto Freedom to Associate, in an advertising campaign that directly referenced Vannevar Bush.
And now I’m using the World Wide Web, a hypermedia system that takes in the whole planet, to create an associative trail. In this post, I’m linking (without asking anyone for permission) to six different sources, and in doing so, I’m creating a unique associative trail. And because this post has a URL (that won’t change), you are free to take it and make it part of your own associative trail on your digital memex.
Myself and Jessica were on our way over to Ireland for a few days to visit my mother. It’s a straightforward combination of three modes of transport: a car to Brighton train station; a train to Gatwick airport; a plane to Cork.
We got in the taxi to start the transport relay. “Going anywhere nice?” asked the taxi driver. “Ireland”, I said. He mentioned that he had recently come back from a trip to Crete. “Lovely place”, he said. “Great food.” That led to a discussion of travel destinations, food, and exchange rates. The usual taxi banter. We mentioned that we were in Iceland recently, where the exchange rate was eye-watering. “Iceland?”, he said, “Did you see the Northern Lights?” We hadn’t, but we mentioned some friends of ours who travelled to Sweden recently just to see the Aurorae. That led to a discussion of the weirdness of the midnight sun. “Yeah”, he said, “I was in the Barents Sea once and it was like broad daylight in the middle of the night.” We mentioned being in Alaska in Summer, and how odd the daylight at night was, but now my mind was preoccupied. As soon as there was a lull in the conversation I asked “So …what brought you to the Barents Sea?”
He paused. Then said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Then he told us.
“We were on a secret mission. It was the ’80s, the Cold War. The Russians had a new submarine, the Typhoon. Massive, it was. Bigger than anything the Americans had. We were there with the Americans. They had a new camera that could see through smoke and cloud. The Russians wouldn’t know we were filming them. I was on a support ship. But one time, at four in the morning, the Russians shot at us—warning shots across the bow. I remember waking up and it was still so light, and there were this explosions of water right by the ship.”
“Wow!” was all I could say.
“It was so secret, that mission”, he said, “that if you didn’t go on it, you’d have to spend the duration in prison.”
By this time we had reached the station. “Do you believe me?” he asked us. “Yes”, we said. We paid him, and thanked him. Then I added, “And thanks for the story.”
I’m in New York. Again. This time it’s for Google’s AMP Conf, where I’ll be giving ‘em a piece of my mind on a panel.
The conference starts tomorrow so I’ve had a day or two to acclimatise and explore. Seeing as Google are footing the bill for travel and accommodation, I’m staying at a rather nice hotel close to the conference venue in Tribeca. There’s live jazz in the lounge most evenings, a cinema downstairs, and should I request it, I can even have a goldfish in my room.
Looming above my hotel is 32 Avenue of the Americas. On the outside the building looks like your classic Gozer the Gozerian style of New York building. Inside, the lobby features a mosaic on the ceiling, and another on the wall extolling the connective power of radio and telephone.
The same architects also designed 60 Hudson Street, which has a similar Art Deco feel to it. Inside, there’s a cavernous hallway running through the ground floor but I can’t show you a picture of it. A security guard told me I couldn’t take any photos inside …which is a little strange seeing as it’s splashed across the website of the building.
I walked around the outside of 60 Hudson, taking more pictures. Another security guard asked me what I was doing. I told her I was interested in the history of the building, which is true; it was the headquarters of Western Union. For much of the twentieth century, it was a world hub of telegraphic communication, in much the same way that a beach hut in Porthcurno was the nexus of the nineteenth century.
For a 21st century hub, there’s the third and final corner of the triangle at 33 Thomas Street. It’s a breathtaking building. It looks like a spaceship from a Chris Foss painting. It was probably designed more like a spacecraft than a traditional building—it’s primary purpose was to withstand an atomic blast. Gone are niceties like windows. Instead there’s an impenetrable monolith that looks like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi film.
Brutalist on the outside, its interior is host to even more brutal acts of invasive surveillance. The Snowden papers revealed this AT&T building to be a centrepiece of the Titanpointe programme:
They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.
But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States…
Looking at the building, it requires very little imagination to picture it as the lair of villainous activity. Laura Poitras’s short film Project X basically consists of a voiceover of someone reading an NSA manual, some ominous background music, and shots of 33 Thomas Street looming in its oh-so-loomy way.
A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on classified NSA documents, Project X reveals the inner workings of a windowless skyscraper in downtown Manhattan.