Journal tags: ie

394

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One morning in the future

I had a video call this morning with someone who was in India. The call went great, except for a few moments when the video stalled.

“Sorry about that”, said the person I was talking to. “It’s the monkeys. They like messing with the cable.”

There’s something charming about an intercontinental internet-enabled meeting being slightly disrupted by some fellow primates being unruly.

It also made me stop and think about how amazing it was that we were having the call in the first place. I remembered Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions from 1964:

I’m thinking of the incredible breakthrough which has been possible by developments in communications, particularly the transistor and, above all, the communications satellite.

These things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on Earth even if we don’t know their actual physical location.

It will be possible in that age—perhaps only 50 years from now—for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.

The casual sexism of assuming that it would be a “man” conducting business hasn’t aged well. And it’s not the communications satellite that enabled my video call, but old-fashioned undersea cables, many in the same locations as their telegraphic antecedents. But still; not bad, Arthur.

After my call, I caught up on some email. There was a new newsletter from Ariel who’s currently in Antarctica.

Just thinking about the fact that I know someone who’s in Antarctica—who sent me a postcard from Antarctica—gave me another rush of feeling like I was living in the future. As I started to read the contents of the latest newsletter, that feeling became even more specific. Doesn’t this sound exactly like something straight out of a late ’80s/early ’90s cyberpunk novel?

Four of my teammates head off hiking towards the mountains to dig holes in the soil in hopes of finding microscopic animals contained within them. I hang back near the survival bags with the remaining teammate and begin unfolding my drone to get a closer look at the glaciers. After filming the textures of the land and ice from multiple angles for 90 minutes, my batteries are spent, my hands are cold and my stomach is growling. I land the drone, fold it up into my bright yellow Pelican case, and pull out an expired granola bar to keep my hunger pangs at bay.

Culture and style

Ever get the urge to style a good document?

No? Just me, then.

Well, the urge came over me recently so I started styling this single-page site:

A Few Notes On The Culture by Iain M Banks

I’ve followed this document across multiple locations over the years. It started life as a newsgroup post on rec.arts.sf.written in 1994. Ken McLeod published it there on Iain M Banks’s behalf.

The post complements the epic series of space opera books that Iain M Banks set in the anarcho-utopian society of The Culture. It’s a fascinating piece of world building, as well as an insight into the author’s mind.

I first became aware of it many few years later, after a copy had been posted to the web. That URL died, but Adrian Hon kept a copy on his site. Lots of copies keep stuff safe, so after contemplating linkrot, I made a copy on this site too.

But I recently thought that maybe it deserved a bit of art direction, so I rolled up my sleeves and started messing around, designing in the browser and following happy little accidents.

The finished result is still fairly sparse. It’s still entirely text, except for a background image that shows up if your screen is wide enough. That image of a planet originally started as an infra-red snapshot of Jupiter by the James Webb Space Telescope that I worked over until it was unrecognisable.

The text itself is the main focus of the design though. I knew I wanted to play around with a variable font. Mona Sans from Github was one of the first ones I tried and I found it instantly suitable. I had a lot of fun playing with different weights and widths.

After a bit of messing around, I realised that the heading styles were reminding me of some later reissues of The Culture novels, so I leant into that, deliberately styling the byline to resemble the treatment of the author’s name on those book covers.

There isn’t all that much CSS. I’ve embedded it in the head of the HTML rather than linking to a separate style sheet, so feel free to view source and poke around in there. You’ll see that I’m making liberal use of custom properties, the clamp function, and logical properties.

Originally I had a light mode and dark mode but I found that the dark mode was much more effective so I ditched the lighter option.

I did make sure to include some judicious styles for print, so if you fancy reading on paper, it should print out nicely.

Oh, and of course it’s a progressive web app that works offline.

I didn’t want to mess with the original document other than making some typographic tweaks to punctuation, but I wanted to break up the single wall of text. I wasn’t about to start using pull quotes on the web so in the end I decided to introduce some headings that weren’t in the original document:

  1. Government
  2. Economics
  3. Technology
  4. Philosophy
  5. Lifestyle
  6. Travel
  7. Habitat
  8. Legal System
  9. Politics
  10. Identity
  11. Nomenclature
  12. Cosmology

If your browser viewport is tall enough, the heading for the current section you’re reading will remain sticky as you scroll. No JavaScript required.

I’m pretty pleased with how this little project turned out. It was certainly fun to experiment with fluid type and a nice variable font.

I can add this to my little collection of single-page websites I’ve whittled over the years:

Mars distracts

A few years ago, I wrote about how much I enjoyed the book Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not everyone liked that book. A lot of people were put off by its structure, in which the dream of interstellar colonisation meets the harsh truth of reality and the book follows where that leads. It pours cold water over the very idea of humanity becoming interplanetary.

But our own solar system is doable, right? I mean, Kim Stanley Robinson is the guy who wrote the Mars trilogy and 2312, both of which depict solar system colonisation in just a few centuries.

I wonder if the author might regret the way that some have taken his Mars trilogy as a sort of manual, Torment Nexus style. Kim Stanley Robinson is very much concerned with this planet in this time period, but others use his work to do the opposite.

But the backlash to Mars has begun.

Maciej wrote Why Not Mars:

The goal of this essay is to persuade you that we shouldn’t send human beings to Mars, at least not anytime soon. Landing on Mars with existing technology would be a destructive, wasteful stunt whose only legacy would be to ruin the greatest natural history experiment in the Solar System. It would no more open a new era of spaceflight than a Phoenician sailor crossing the Atlantic in 500 B.C. would have opened up the New World. And it wouldn’t even be that much fun.

Manu Saadia is writing a book about humanity in space, and he has a corresponding newsletter called Against Mars: Space Colonization and its Discontents:

What if space colonization was merely science-fiction, a narrative, or rather a meta-narrative, a myth, an ideology like any other? And therefore, how and why did it catch on? What is so special and so urgent about space colonization that countless scientists, engineers, government officials, billionaire oligarchs and indeed, entire nations, have committed work, ingenuity and treasure to make it a reality.

What if, and hear me out, space colonization was all bullshit?

I mean that quite literally. No hyperbole. Once you peer under the hood, or the nose, of the rocket ship, you encounter a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ghoulish garbage.

Two years ago, Shannon Stirone went into the details of why Mars Is a Hellhole

The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the case for Mars colonisation is that its most ardent advocate turns out to be an idiotic small-minded eugenicist who can’t even run a social media company, much less a crewed expedition to another planet.

But let’s be clear: we’re talking here about the proposition of sending humans to Mars—ugly bags of mostly water that probably wouldn’t survive. Robots and other uncrewed missions in our solar system …more of that, please!

Blood

I gave blood yesterday. It was my sixteenth donation.

Yes, that’s a humblebrag. I feel like the gamification of blood donation is entirely reasonable. Levelling up in blood donation feels like the opposite of frequent flyer points. Instead of a growing sense of shame at how your accumulated activity is destroying the planet, you get increasing affirmation that you’re helping others.

Besides, I don’t have Strava, or Peleton, or rings to close, or whatever. I don’t even do Wordle. So this is the only “streak” I can legitimately boast about.

The more I give blood, the more I enjoy it.

I know that sounds weird. Surely having a needle shoved in your arm isn’t meant to be enjoyable?

It’s true that the first or second time you do it, it can feel intimidating, maybe even a little scary. I’m lucky that I don’t have much of an aversion to needles—much respect to those who do, but donate anyway.

But once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes routine. Actually, it’s more than routine. It’s like a ritual.

Not to get all spiritual here when we’re talking about an entirely biological process, but there is something special going on…

You join together with other members of your community. Strangers. People from all walks of life, all of them gathered in one place to do the same thing: sacrifice a small portion of themselves for the greater good.

It’s like a more egalitarian version of most religious narratives. Instead of a single saviour making a grand sacrifice, you get many individuals partaking in their own mini crucifixations. A little discomfort and that’s it. Multiply that by the number of people gathered together and you’ve got a magnificent network effect. Less dramatic than the hero’s journey, but far more effective.

Usually in our society, if you want to do good, it’s tied to money. You inherit wealth or accumulate it through work and luck, and then you can choose to do good by redistributing some of that moolah. The more you’ve got, the more you can choose to give away. So the amount of potential good that can be done comes down to the whims of the people who have the most money.

Giving blood doesn’t work like that. We’ve all got the same amount of blood.

The memento mori that are scattered through the history of human culture are there to remind us that death is the great leveller. Prince or pauper, we all meet the same end. That also applies to our blood. Prince or pauper, we’re all equal when it comes to blood donation.

That’s one of the reasons I like returning to give blood every few months. It restores my faith in humanity. I look around the room and see all these people that I don’t know, but we’re all there to complete our individual rituals. We all contribute the same amount. It’s a very personal choice, but there’s a communal feeling that comes from being with all these strangers who have made the same choice.

Besides, it’s just a nice opportunity to step away from the day-to-day. Bring a good book to read during the waiting periods before and after donation. During the donation itself, you’ve got this time to think and reflect. It’s quite meditative, opening and closing your hand to help the flow. Almost trance-like.

And then you get free biscuits.

That isn’t quite the end though. A few days later you get a text message telling you where your blood will be used. I love that part. It feels like closing the loop.

It’s funny that we often use the language of blood to describe supply chains: arterial networks carrying goods in and out of hubs; the pumping systems that keep society alive. When that text message arrives, it’s like a little bit of you is part of an infrastructure for helping others.

You can find a donation opportunity near you on the blood.co.uk website.

2022 in numbers

I posted 1057 times on adactio in 2022. sparkline

That’s a bit more than in 2021.

November was the busiest month with 137 posts. sparkline

February was the quietest with 65 posts. sparkline

That included about 237 notes with photos sparkline and 214 replies. sparkline

I published one article, the transcript of my talk, In And Out Of Style.

I watched an awful lot of television but managed to read 25 books. sparkline

Elsewhere, I huffduffed 130 audio files and added 55 tune settings on The Session in 2022.

I spoke at ten events.

I travelled within Europe and the USA to a total of 18 destinations. sparkline

Words I wrote in 2022

Here’s a highlight reel of some of my blog posts from 2022:

I also published the transcript of my conference talk, In And Out Of Style, a journey through the history of CSS.

Books I read in 2022

I read 25 books in 2022. I wish I had read more, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I think no matter how many books I read in any given year, I’ll always wish I had read more.

18 of the 25 books were written by women. I think that’s a pretty good ratio. But only 6 of the 25 books were written by Black authors. That’s not a great ratio.

Still, I’m glad that I’m tracking my reading so at least I can be aware of the disparity.

For the first half of the year, I stuck with my usual rule of alternating between fiction and non-fiction, never reading two non-fiction books or two fiction books back-to-back. Then I fell off the wagon. In the end, only 7 of the 25 books I read were non-fiction. We’ll see whether the balance gets redressed in 2023.

As is now traditional, I’m doing my end-of-year recap, complete with ridiculous star ratings.

I’m very stingy with my stars:

  • One star means a book is meh.
  • Two stars means a book is perfectly fine.
  • Three stars means a book is a good—consider it recommended.
  • Four stars means a book is exceptional.
  • Five stars is pretty much unheard of.

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar And Grille by Steven Brust

★★☆☆☆

Even the author doesn’t think this is a particularly good book, and he’s not wrong. But I have a soft spot for it. This was a re-read. I had already read this book years before, and all I rememberd was “sci-fi with Irish music.” That’s good enough for me. But truth be told, the book is tonally awkward, never quite finding its groove. Still a fun romp if you like the idea of a teleporting bar with a house band playing Irish folk.

A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

★★★★☆

Stunning. I still don’t know whether it’s fiction, autobiography, translation, or some weird mix of all of the above. All that matters is that the writing is incredible. It’s so evocative that the book practically oozes.

Parable Of The Talents by Octavia E. Butler

★★★★☆

A terrific follow-up to The Parable Of The Sower. It seems remarkably relevant and prescient. So much so that I’m actually glad I didn’t read this while Trump was in power—I think it would’ve been too much. It’s a harrowing read, but always with an unwavering current of hope throughout.

About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks by David Rooney

★★★☆☆

A great examination of history and colonialism through the lens of timekeeping. Even for a time-obsessed nerd like me, there are lots of new stories in here.

The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

★★★★☆

While I was reading this, I distinctly remember thinking “Oh, so this is what Philip K. Dick was trying to do!” And I say that as a huge fan of Philip K. Dick. But his exuction didn’t always match up to his ideas. Here, Le Guin shows how it’s done. Turns out she was a fan of Philip K. Dick and this book is something on an homage. I found its central premise genuinely disconcerting. I loved it.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

★★★★☆

When someone asked me what I was reading, I was honestly able to respond, “It’s a book about George Orwell and about roses.” I know that doesn’t sound like a great basis for a book, but I thought it worked really well. As a huge fan of Orwell’s work, I was biased towards enjoying this, but I didn’t expect the horticultural aspect to work so well as a lens for examining politics and power.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

★★★☆☆

A solid sequel to the classic The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not more of the same: we get a different setting, and a very different set of viewpoints. It didn’t have quite the same impact as the first book, but then very little could. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood stuck with her rule of only including shocking situations if they have actually occurred in the real world.

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

★★☆☆☆

I wrote about this book in more detail:

For a book that’s about defending liberty and progress, On Tyranny is puzzingly conservative at times.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

★★★★☆

Astonishing. I know that a person’s reaction to a book is a personal thing, but for me, this book had a truly emotional impact. I wrote about it at the time:

When I started reading No One Is Talking About This, I thought it might end up being the kind of book where I would admire the writing, but it didn’t seem like a work that invited emotional connection.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I can’t remember the last time a book had such an emotional impact on me. Maybe that’s because it so deliberately lowered my defences, but damn, when I finished reading the book, I was in pieces.

East West Street by Philippe Sands

★★★☆☆

An absorbing examination of the origins of international war crimes: genocide and crimes against humanity. The book looks at the interweaving lives of the two people behind the crime’s definitions …and takes in the author’s own family history on the way. A relative of mine ran in the same legal circles in wartime Lviv, and I can’t help but wonder if their paths crossed.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

★★★☆☆

Just as good as A Memory Called Empire, maybe even more enjoyable. Here we get a first contact story, but there’s still plenty of ongoing political intrigue powering the plot. I can’t wait for the next book in this series!

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova

★★★☆☆

A thoroughly enjoyable piece of long-form journalism. It’s ostensibly about the world of high-stakes poker, but there are inevitable life lessons along the way. The tone of this book is just right, with the author being very open and honest about her journey. Her cards are on the table, if you will.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

★★★☆☆

I wonder how much of an influence this book had on Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz? They’re both post-apocalyptic books of the Long Now. While this is no masterpiece, Brackett writes evocatively of her post-nuclear America.

Being You: A New Science of Consciousness by Anil Seth

★★★☆☆

A compelling and accessible examination of a big subject. It doesn’t shy away from inherently complex topics, but manages to always be understable and downright enjoyable. I liked this book so much, I asked Anil to speak at dConstruct.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

★★★☆☆

A good fast-paced sci-fi story that acts as a vehicle for issues of identity and socialisation. It’s brief and peppy. I’ll definitely be reading the subsequent books in the Murderbot Diaries series.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

★★★☆☆

Not in the same league as Station Eleven, but a solid work, looking at the events before and after the collapse of a Ponzi scheme. It’s not a ghost story, but it’s also not not a ghost story. And it’s not about crypto …but it’s not not about crypto.

The Alchemy Of Us by Ainissa Ramirez

★★☆☆☆

I was really looking forward to reading this, but I ended up disappointed. All the stories about historical inventions were terrifically told, but then each chapter would close with an attempt to draw parallels with modern technology. Those bits were eye-rollingly simplistic. Such a shame. I wonder if they were added under pressure from the publisher to try to make the book “more relevant”? In the end, they only detracted from what would’ve otherwise been an excellent and accessible book on the history of materials science.

Looking back, I notice that The Alchemy Of Us was the last non-fiction book I read this year.

Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler

★★★☆☆

After reading this, I decided to read the rest of the Patternist series in one go. This scene-setter is almost biblical in scope. The protagonist is like an embodiment of matriarchy, and the antogonist is a frightening archetype of toxic masculinity.

Mind Of My Mind by Octavia E. Butler

★★★☆☆

All of Butler’s works are about change in some way (as exemplified in the mantra of Earthseed: “God is change”). Change—often violent—is at the heart of Mind Of My Mind. As always, the world-building is entirely believable.

Clay’s Ark by Octavia E. Butler

★★★☆☆

This works as a standalone novel. Its connection to the rest of the Patternist series is non-existient for most of the book’s narrative. That sense of self-containment is also central to the tone of the novel. You find yourself rooting for stasis, even though you know that change is inevitable.

Pattern Master by Octavia E. Butler

★★★☆☆

By the final book in the Patternist series, the world has changed utterly. But as always, change is what drives the narrative. “The only lasting truth is Change.”

The Unreal And The Real: Selected Stories Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★☆

I’ve read quite of few of Le Guin’s novels, but I don’t think I had read any of her short stories before. That was a mistake on my part. These stories are terrific! There’s the classic The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas to kick things off, and the quality is maintained with plenty of stories from the Hainish universe. I was struck by how many of the stories were anthropological in nature, like the centrepiece story, The Matter of Seggri.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

The fourth and final book in the Wayfarers series was a satisfying conclusion. I still preferred Record Of A Spaceborn Few, but that’s probably just because I preferred the setting. As always, it’s a story of tolerance and understanding. Aliens are people too, y’know.

★★★☆☆

The Táin translated by Ciaran Carson

As a story, this is ludicrous and over the top, but that’s true of any near-mythological national saga. Even though this is an English translation, a working knowledge of Irish pronunciation is handy for all the people and places enumerated throughout. In retrospect, I think I would’ve liked having the source text to hand (even if I couldn’t understand it).

★★★☆☆

The Star Of The Sea by Joseph O’Connor

I’m less than half way through this, but I’m enjoying being immersed in its language and cast of characters. You’ll have to wait until the end of 2023 for an allocation of stars for this nautical tale of the Great Hunger.


There we have it. I think the lesson this year is: you can’t go wrong with Octavia E. Butler or Ursula K. Le Guin.

And now it’s time for me to pick one favourite fiction and one favourite non-fiction book that I read in 2022.

The pool is a bit smaller for the non-fiction books, and there were some great reads in there, but I think I have to go for Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses.

Now I have to pick a favourite work of fiction from the 18 that I read. This is hard. I loved The Lathe Of Heaven and Ghost In The Throat, but I think I’m going to have choose No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.

If you want to read any of the books I’ve mentioned, you can find them all in this list on Bookshop.org—support independent bookshops! I bought Octavia Butler’s Patternist books at Brighton’s excellent Afori Books, located in Clearleft’s old building at 28 Kensington Street. Do swing by if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Or try your local library. Libraries are like a sci-fi concept made real.

If you’re interested in previous installments of my annual reading updates, you can peruse:

Jamie

Jamie Freeman passed away yesterday.

I first met Jamie as a fellow web-nerd way back in the early 2000s when I was freelancing here in Brighton. I did a lot of work with him and his design studio, Message. Andy was working there too. It’s kind of where the seeds of Clearleft were planted.

I remember one day telling them about a development with Salter Cane. Our drummer, Catherine, was moving to Australia so we were going to have to start searching for someone new.

“I play drums”, said Jamie.

I remember thinking, “No, you don’t; you play guitar.” But I thought “What the heck”, and invited him along to a band practice.

Well, it turns that not only could he play drums, he was really good! Jamie was in the band.

It’s funny, I kept referring to Jamie as “our new drummer”, but he actually ended up being the drummer that was with Salter Cane the longest.

Band practices. Concerts. Studio recordings. We were a team for years. You can hear Jamie’s excellent drumming on our album Sorrow. You can also his drumming (and brilliant backing vocals) on an album of covers we recorded. He was such a solid drummer—he made the whole band sound tighter.

But as brilliant as Jamie was behind a drumkit, his heart was at the front of the stage. He left Salter Cane to front The Jamie Freeman Agreement full-time. I loved going to see that band and watching them get better and better. Jonathan has written lovingly about his time with the band.

After that, Jamie continued to follow his dreams as a solo performer, travelling to Nashville, and collaborating with loads of other talented people. Everyone loved Jamie.

This year started with the shocking news that he had inoperable cancer—a brain tumor. Everyone sent him all their love (we recorded a little video from the Salter Cane practice room—as his condition worsened, video worked better than writing). But somehow I didn’t quite believe that this day would come when Jamie was no longer with us. I mean, the thought was ridiculous: Jamie, the vegetarian tea-totaller …with cancer? Nah.

I think I’m still in denial.

The last time I had the joy of playing music with Jamie was also the last time that Salter Cane played a gig. Jamie came back for a one-off gig at the start of 2020 (before the world shut down). It was joyous. It felt so good to rock out with him.

Jamie was always so full of enthusiasm for other people, whether that was his fellow musicians or his family members. He had great stories from his time on tour with his brother Tim’s band, Frazier Chorus. And he was so, so proud of everything his brother Martin has done. It was so horrible when their sister died. I can’t imagine what they must be going through now, losing another sibling.

Like I said, I still can’t quite believe that Jamie has gone. I know that I’m really going to miss him.

I’m sending all my love and my deepest sympathies to Jamie’s family.

Fuck cancer.

Tweaking navigation sizing

Gerry talks about “top tasks” a lot. He literally wrote the book on it:

Top tasks are what matter most to your customers.

Seems pretty obvious, right? But it’s actually pretty rare to see top tasks presented any differently than other options.

Look at the global navigation on most websites. Typically all the options are given equal prominence. Even the semantics under the hood often reflect this egalitarian ideal, with each list in an unordered list. All the navigation options are equal, but I bet that the reality for most websites is that some navigation options are more equal than others.

I’ve been guilty of this on The Session. The site-wide navigation shows a number of options: tunes, events, discussions, etc. Each one is given equal prominence, but I can tell you without even looking at my server logs that 90% of the traffic goes to the tunes section—that’s the beating heart of The Session. That’s why the home page has a search form that defaults to searching for tunes.

I wanted the navigation to reflect the reality of what people are coming to the site for. I decided to make the link to the tunes section more prominent by bumping up the font size a bit.

I was worried about how weird this might look; we’re so used to seeing all navigation items presented equally. But I think it worked out okay (though it might take a bit of getting used to if you’re accustomed to the previous styling). It helps that “tunes” is a nice short word, so bumping up the font size on that word doesn’t jostle everything else around.

I think this adjustment is working well for this situation where there’s one very clear tippy-top task. I wouldn’t want to apply it across the board, making every item in the navigation proportionally bigger or smaller depending on how often it’s used. That would end up looking like a ransom note.

But giving one single item prominence like this tweaks the visual hierarchy just enough to favour the option that’s most likely to be what a visitor wants.

That last bit is crucial. The visual adjustment reflects what visitors want, not what I want. You could adjust the size of a navigation option that you want to drive traffic to, but in the long run, all you’re going to do is train people to trust your design less.

You don’t get to decide what your top task is. The visitors to your website do. Trying to foist an arbitrary option on them would be the tail wagging the dog.

Anway, I’m feeling a lot better about the site-wide navigation on The Session now that it reflects reality a little bit more. Heck, I may even bump that font size up a little more.

That fediverse feeling

Right now, Twitter feels like Dunkirk beach in May 1940. And look, here comes a plucky armada of web servers running Mastodon instances!

Others have written some guides to getting started on Mastodon:

There are also tools like Twitodon to help you migrate from Twitter to Mastodon.

Getting on board isn’t completely frictionless. Understanding how Mastodon works can be confusing. But then again, so was Twitter fifteen years ago.

Right now, many Mastodon instances are struggling with the influx of new sign-ups. But this is temporary. And actually, it’s also very reminiscent of the early unreliable days of Twitter.

I don’t want to go into the technical details of Mastodon and the fediverse—even though those details are fascinating and impressive. What I’m really struck by is the vibe.

In a nutshell, I’m loving it! It feels …nice.

I was fully expecting Mastodon to be full of meta-discussions about Mastodon, but in the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed people posting about stone circles, astronomy, and—obviously—cats and dogs.

The process of finding people to follow has been slow, but in a good way. I’ve enjoyed seeking people out. It’s been easier to find the techy folks, but I’ve also been finding scientists, journalists, and artists.

On the one hand, the niceness of the experience isn’t down to technical architecture; it’s all about the social norms. On the other hand, those social norms are very much directed by technical decisions. The folks working on the fediverse for the past few years have made very thoughtful design decisions to amplify niceness and discourage nastiness. It’s all very gratifying to experience!

Personally, I’m posting to Mastodon via my own website. As much as I’m really enjoying Mastodon, I still firmly believe that nothing beats having control of your own content on your domain.

But I also totally get that not everyone has the same set of priorities as me. And frankly, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to have their own domain name.

It’s like there’s a spectrum of ownership. On one end, there’s publishing on your own website. On the other end, there’s publishing on silos like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Instagram, and MySpace.

Publishing on Mastodon feels much closer to the website end of the spectrum than it does to the silo end of the spectrum. If something bad happens to the Mastodon instance you’re on, you can up and move to a different instance, taking your social graph with you.

In a way, it’s like delegating domain ownership to someone you trust. If you don’t have the time, energy, resources, or interest in having your own domain, but you trust someone who’s running a Mastodon instance, it’s the next best thing to publishing on your own website.

Simon described it well when he said Mastodon is just blogs:

A Mastodon server (often called an instance) is just a shared blog host. Kind of like putting your personal blog in a folder on a domain on shared hosting with some of your friends.

Want to go it alone? You can do that: run your own dedicated Mastodon instance on your own domain.

And rather than compare Mastodon to Twitter, Simon makes a comparison with RSS:

Do you still miss Google Reader, almost a decade after it was shut down? It’s back!

A Mastodon server is a feed reader, shared by everyone who uses that server.

Lots of other folks are feeling the same excitement in the air that I’m getting:

Bastian wrote:

Real conversations. Real people. Interesting content. A feeling of a warm welcoming group. No algorithm to mess around with our timelines. No troll army to destory every tiny bit of peace. Yes, Mastodon is rough around the edges. Many parts are not intuitive. But this roughness somehow added to the positive experience for me.

This could really work!

Brent Simmons wrote:

The web is wide open again, for the first time in what feels like forever.

I concur! Though, like Paul, I love not being beholden to either Twitter or Mastodon:

I love not feeling bound to any particular social network. This website, my website, is the one true home for all the stuff I’ve felt compelled to write down or point a camera at over the years. When a social network disappears, goes out of fashion or becomes inhospitable, I can happily move on with little anguish.

But like I said, I don’t expect everyone to have the time, means, or inclination to do that. Mastodon definitely feels like it shares the same indie web spirit though.

Personally, I recommend experiencing Mastodon through the website rather than a native app. Mastodon instances are progressive web apps so you can add them to your phone’s home screen.

You can find me on Mastodon as @adactio@mastodon.social

I’m not too bothered about what instance I’m on. It really only makes a difference to my local timeline. And if I do end up finding an instance I prefer, then I know that migrating will be quite straightforward, by design. Perhaps I should be on an instance with a focus on front-end development or the indie web. I still haven’t found much of an Irish traditional music community on the fediverse. I’m wondering if maybe I should start a Mastodon instance for that.

While I’m a citizen of mastodon.social, I’m doing my bit by chipping in some money to support it: sponsorship levels on Patreon start at just $1 a month. And while I can’t offer much technical assistance, I opened my first Mastodon pull request with a suggested improvement for the documentation.

I’m really impressed with the quality of the software. It isn’t perfect but considering that it’s an open source project, it’s better than most VC-backed services with more and better-paid staff. As Giles said, comparing it to Twitter:

I’m using Mastodon now and it’s not the same, but it’s not shit either. It’s different. It takes a bit of adjustment. And I’m enjoying it.

Most of all, I love, love, love that Mastodon demonstrates that things can be different. For too long we’ve been told that behavioural advertising was an intrinsic part of being online, that social networks must inevitably be monolithic centralised beasts, that we have to relinquish control to corporations in order to be online. The fediverse is showing us a better way. And this isn’t just a proof of concept either. It’s here now. It’s here to stay, if you want it.

Syndicating to Mastodon

I’ve been contemplating a checkbox. The label for this checkbox reads:

This is a bot account

Let me back up…

In what seems like decades ago, but was in fact just a few weeks, Elon Musk bought Twitter and began burning it to the ground. His admirers insist he’s playing some form of four-dimensional chess, but to the rest of us, his actions are indistinguishable from a spoilt rich kid not understanding what a social network is.

It wasn’t giving me much cause for anguish personally. For the past eight years, I’ve only used Twitter as a syndication endpoint for my own notes. But I understand that’s a very privileged position to be in. Most people on Twitter don’t have the same luxury of independence. It’s genuinely maddening and saddening to see their years of sharing destroyed by one cruel idiot.

Lots of people started moving to Mastodon. I figured I should do the same for my syndicated notes.

At first, I signed up for an account on mastodon.cloud. No particular reason. But that’s where I saw this very insightful post from Anil Dash:

When it came time to reckon with social media’s failings, nobody ran to the “web3” platforms. Nobody asked “can I get paid per message”? Nobody asked about the blockchain. The community of people who’ve been quietly doing this work for years (decades!) ended up being the ones who welcomed everyone over, as always.

I was getting my account all set up and beginning to follow some other folks, when I realised that I actually already had an exisiting account over on mastodon.social. Doh! Turns out that I signed up back in 2017 to kick the tyres, but never did much else because there weren’t many other people around back then. Oh, how times have changed!

Anyway, I thought I had really screwed up by having two accounts but this turned out to be an opportunity to experience some of the thoughtfulness in Mastodon’s design. The process of migrating from one Mastodon account to another—on a completely different instance—was very smooth! It was clear that this wasn’t an afterthought. This is an essential part of the fediverse and the design of the migration flow reflects that.

This gives me enormous peace of mind. If I ever want to switch to a different instance and still keep my network intact, I know it won’t be a problem. Mastodon is like the opposite of the roach-motel mentality that permeates most VC-backed so-called social networks.

As I played around some more—reading, following, exploring—my feelings of fondness only grew stronger. I like this place a lot!

I definitely wanted to syndicate my notes to Mastodon. At first, I implemented a straightforward RSS-to-Mastodon syndication using IFTTT (IF This, Then That), thanks to Matthias’s excellent tutorial.

But that didn’t feel quite right. When I syndicate to Twitter, I make a conscious choice each time. There’s a “Twitter” toggle that I can enable or disable in my posting interface. Mastodon deserved the same level of thoughtfulness.

So I switched off the IFTTT recipe and started exploring the Mastodon API. It’s going to sound like a humblebrag when I tell you that I got cross-posting working in almost no time at all, but that’s not a testament to my coding prowess (I’m really not very good), but rather a testament to the Mastodon API, which was a joy to work with.

  1. On your Mastodon instance, go to /settings/applications.
  2. Click on New Application.
  3. Fill in the details about your website and select write:statuses (and probably write:media) from the Scopes list.
  4. Copy Your access token to use in API calls.
  5. Write some sloppy code (in my case, PHP that uses CURL).

I did hit a wall when it came to posting images. That took me a while to get working, and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it something at Mastodon’s end while it was struggling under the influx of new users? As it turns out, no. It was entirely down to me being an idiot. (You know that situation where you’re working on a problem for ages and you’ve become convinced it’s an extremely gnarly rocket-science problem, but then turns out to be something stupid like a typo? Yeah. That.)

Then there’s the whole question of how to receive replies, likes, and reboosts from Mastodon here on my own site. Luckily, that was super easy, thanks to Brid.gy. One click and I was done. I love Brid.gy!

Take this note, for example. There’s a version on Twitter and a version on Mastodon. The original version on my own site gets responses from both places.

If I’m replying to a response on Twitter, I do not syndicate that to Mastodon.

Likewise, if I’m replying to a response on Mastodon, I do not syndicate that to Twitter.

Oh, one thing worth mentioning: if you’re sending a reply to something on Mastodon using the API, there’s an in_reply_to_id field for you to provide. But you should also include the full @username@instance of the person you’re replying to at the beginning of the message to ensure that it’s displayed as a reply rather than showing up as a regular post. Note the difference between this note on my site and its syndicated version on Mastodon.

Anyway, now I’m posting to Mastodon, but I’m doing it through the the interface of my own website. Which brings me to that checkbox in Mastodon’s profile settings:

This is a bot account

The help text reads:

Signal to others that the account mainly performs automated actions and might not be monitored

If I were doing the automatic cross-posting from RSS, I’d definitely tick that box. But as I’m making a conscious decision whenever I syndicate to Mastodon, I think I’m going to leave that checkbox unticked.

My cross-posting is not automated and I’m very much monitoring my Mastodon account …because I’m enjoying my Mastodon experience more than I’ve enjoyed anything online for quite some time. Highly recommended!

Negativity bias

When I wrote about my hopes and fears for the View Transitions API, a few people latched on to this sentiment:

If the View Transitions API only works for single page apps, it could be the single worst thing to happen to the web in years.

But I also wrote:

If the View Transitions API works across page navigations, it could be the single best thing to happen to the web in years.

I think it’s worth focusing on that.

Part of the problem is that I gave my hopes and fears an equal airing. But they’re not equally likely.

Take the possibility that the View Transitions API only ships for single page apps, but never ships for regular page transitions. The consequences of that would be big—the API would act as an incentive to build single page apps. But the likelihood of that happening is small. In fact, according to Jake, there’s already an implemention for page transitions in the works at Chrome.

Now what if the View Transitions API ships for pages? The consequences would be equally big—the API would act as an incentive to ditch single page apps and build in a more performant, resilient way. Best of all, the chances of that happening are very large indeed (pretty much a certainty now, given Jake’s update).

So I made a comparison between both of the consequences, which are equally large, but I didn’t make a corresponding comparison of the likelihoods, which are not equally large. Mea culpa!

I should’ve made it clearer that, although the consequences would be really bad if the View Transitions API only supports single page apps, the actual likelihood of that is pretty slim.

That’s probably my negativity bias showing through. (The reason I have a negativity bias is because I am a human. Like, have you ever noticed that if you get feedback on something and 98% of it is positive, you inevitably fixate on the 2%?)

Anyway, the real takeaway here is that if the View Transitions API ships for pages, then the consequences will be really, really good! It would be another nail in the coffin for monolithic JavaScript frameworks slowing down the web. And best of all, the likelihood of this happening is very high!

So let me amend my closing sentences from my previous post:

If the View Transitions API only works for single page apps—which is very unlikely—it could be the single worst thing to happen to the web in years.

If the View Transitions API works across page navigations—which is very, very likely—it could be the single best thing to happen to the web in years.

The glass is half full and it’s only going to get fuller. Time to start planning for a turbo-charged web now.

If you’ve got a website with full page navigations, start thinking about how you’ll be able to apply the View Transitions API as a progressive enhancement to improve the user experience.

If you’ve got a single page app, start thinking about how to ditch a whole bunch of uneccessary dependencies to make a more lightweight foundation of HTML instead of JavaScript, and still get all those slick transitions you get in a single page app!

Time for transitions

I am simultaneously very excited and very nervous about the View Transitions API.

You may know it by its former name—Shared Element Transitions. The name change is very recent.

I’ve been saying for years that some kind of API like this would be brilliant:

I honestly think if browsers implemented this, 80% of client-rendered Single Page Apps could be done as regular good ol’-fashioned websites.

Miriam Suzanne describes the theory of View Transitions succinctly:

Shared-element transitions are designed to work with standard web navigation across multiple page loads, as well as page transitions in ‘single-page’ apps (often called SPAs).

This all sounds brilliant. But the devil is in the implementation details. Right now, the API only works for single page apps. This is totally understandable. For purely pragmatic reasons, single page apps are a simple use case to solve for. It’s going to take a lot more work to get this API to work for multi-page apps (or as we used to call them, websites).

If we get a View Transitions API that works across page navigations, it could potentially turbo-charge the web. It will act as a disencentive to building single page apps—you’d be able to provide swish transitions without sacrificing performance or resilience at the alter of a heavy-handed JavaScript-only architecture.

But if the API only ever works for single page apps (which is the current situation), then it will act as an incentive to make any kind of website into a single page app, regardless of whether it’s actually the appropriate architecture.

That prospect has me very worried indeed.

I’m making my feelings on this known just in case any of the implementators out there are thinking, “Hey, maybe it’s fine that this API only works for single page apps—I’m sure most people would be happy with that.”

If the View Transitions API works across page navigations, it could be the single best thing to happen to the web in years.

If the View Transitions API only works for single page apps, it could be the single worst thing to happen to the web in years.

Update: Jake says:

We’re currently landing code in Chrome for the MPA version.

Very happy to hear that! It’s already in the spec, but it’s good to hear that the implementation isn’t going to lag too much.

Also, read this follow-up.

JavaScript

A recurring theme in my writing and talks is “lay off the JavaScript, people!” But I have to make a conscious effort to specify that I mean client-side JavaScript.

I thought it would be obvious from the context that I was talking about the copious amounts of JavaScript being shipped to end users to download, parse, and execute. But nothing’s ever really obvious. If I don’t explicitly say JavaScript in the browser, then someone inevitably thinks I’m having a go at JavaScript, the language.

I have absolutely nothing against JavaScript the language. Just like I have nothing against Python or Ruby or any other language that you might write with on your machine or your web server. But as soon as you deliver bytes over the wire, I start having opinions. It just so happens that JavaScript is the universal language for client-side coding so that’s why I call for restraint with JavaScript specifically.

There was a time when JavaScript only existed in web browsers. That changed with Node. Now it’s possible to write code for your web server and code for web browsers using the same language. Very handy!

But just because it’s the same language doesn’t mean you should treat it the same in both circumstance. As Remy puts it:

There are two JavaScripts.

One for the server - where you can go wild.

One for the client - that should be thoughtful and careful.

I was reading something recently that referred to Eleventy as a JavaScript library. It really brought me up short. I mean, on the one hand, yes, it’s a library of code and it’s written in JavaScript. It is absolutely technically correct to call it a JavaScript library.

But in my mind, a JavaScript library is something you ship to web browsers—jQuery, React, Vue, and so on. Whereas Eleventy executes its code in order to generate HTML and that’s what gets sent to end users. Conceptually, it’s like the opposite of a JavaScript library. Eleventy does its work before any user requests a URL—JavaScript libraries do their work after a user requests a URL.

To me it seems obvious that there should an entirely different mindset for writing code intended for a web browser. But nothing’s ever really obvious.

I remember when Node was getting really popular and npm came along as a way to manage all the bundles of code that people were assembling in their Node programmes. Makes total sense. But then I thought I heard about people using npm to do the same thing for client-side code. “That can’t be right!” I thought. I must’ve misunderstood. So I talked to someone from npm and explained how I must be misunderstanding something.

But it turned out that people really were treating client-side JavaScript no different than server-side JavaScript. People really were pulling in megabytes of other people’s code to ship to end users so that they could, I dunno, left pad numbers or something.

Listen, I don’t care what you get up to in the privacy of your own codebase. But don’t poison the well of the web with profligate client-side JavaScript.

Knowing

There’s a repeated catchphrase used throughout Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet: ignorance is our ammunition.

There are certainly situations where knowledge is regrettable. The somewhat-silly thought experiment of Roko’s basilisk is one example. Once you have knowledge of it, you can’t un-know it, and so you become complicit.

Or, to use another example, I think it was Jason who told me that if you want to make someone’s life miserable, just teach them about typography. Then they’ll see all the terrible kerning out there in the world and they won’t be able to un-see it.

I sometimes wish I could un-learn all I’ve learned about cryptobollocks (I realise that the term “cryptocurrency” is the more widely-used phrase, but it’s so inaccurate I’d rather use a clearer term).

I sometimes wish I could go back to having the same understanding of cryptobollocks as most people: some weird new-fangled technology thing that has something to do with “the blockchain.”

But I delved too deep. I wanted to figure out why seemingly-smart people were getting breathlessly excited about something that sounds fairly ludicrous. Yet the more I learned, the more ludicrous it became. Bitcoin and its ilk are even worse than the occassional headlines and horror stories would have you believe.

As Jules says:

The reason I have such a visceral reaction to crypto projects isn’t just that they’re irresponsibly designed and usually don’t achieve what they promise. It’s also that the thing they promise sounds like a fucking nightmare.

Or, as Simon responded to someone wondering why there was so much crypto hate:

We hate it because we understand it.

I have yet to encounter a crypto project that isn’t a Ponzi scheme. I don’t mean like a Ponzi scheme. I mean they’re literally Ponzi schemes: zero-sum racing to the bottom built entirely on the greater fool theory. The only difference between traditional Ponzi schemes and those built on crypto is that crypto isn’t regulated. Yet.

I recently read The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel with the collapse of a Ponzi scheme at its heart. In the aftermath of the scheme’s collapse, there are inevitable questions like “How could you not know?” The narrator answers that question:

It’s possible to both know and not know something.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

Supporting logical properties

I wrote recently about making the switch to logical properties over on The Session.

Initially I tried ripping the band-aid off and swapping out all the directional properties for logical properties. After all, support for logical properties is green across the board.

But then I got some reports of people seeing formating issues. These people were using Safari on devices that could no longer update their operating system. Because versions of Safari are tied to versions of the operating system, there was nothing they could do other than switch to using a different browser.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but as long as this situation continues, Safari is not an evergreen browser. (I also understand that problem lies with the OS architecture—it must be incredibly frustrating for the folks working on WebKit and/or Safari.)

So I needed to add fallbacks for older browsers that don’t support logical properties. Or, to put it another way, I needed to add logical properties as a progressive enhancement.

“No problem!” I thought. “The way that CSS works, I can just put the logical version right after the directional version.”

element {
  margin-left: 1em;
  margin-inline-start: 1em;
}

But that’s not true in this case. I’m not over-riding a value, I’m setting two different properties.

In a left-to-right language like English it’s true that margin-inline-start will over-ride margin-left. But in a right-to-left language, I’ve just set margin-left and margin-inline-start (which happens to be on the right).

This is a job for @supports!

element {
  margin-left: 1em;
}
@supports (margin-inline-start: 1em) {
  element {
    margin-left: unset;
    margin-inline-start: 1em;
  }
}

I’m doing two things inside the @supports block. I’m applying the logical property I’ve just tested for. I’m also undoing the previously declared directional property.

A value of unset is perfect for this:

The unset CSS keyword resets a property to its inherited value if the property naturally inherits from its parent, and to its initial value if not. In other words, it behaves like the inherit keyword in the first case, when the property is an inherited property, and like the initial keyword in the second case, when the property is a non-inherited property.

Now I’ve got three CSS features working very nicely together:

  1. @supports (also known as feature queries),
  2. logical properties, and
  3. the unset keyword.

For anyone using an up-to-date browser, none of this will make any difference. But for anyone who can’t update their Safari browser because they can’t update their operating system, because they don’t want to throw out their perfectly functional Apple device, they’ll continue to get the older directional properties:

I discovered that my Mom’s iPad was a 1st generation iPad Air. Apple stopped supporting that device in iOS 12, which means it was stuck with whatever version of Safari last shipped with iOS 12.

Let’s get logical

I was refactoring some CSS on The Session over the weekend. I thought it would be good to switch over to using logical properties exclusively. I did this partly to make the site more easily translatable into languages with different writing modes, but mostly as an exercise to help train me in thinking with logical properties by default.

All in all, it went pretty smoothly. You can kick the tyres by opening up dev tools on The Session and adding a writing-mode declaration to the body or html element.

For the most part, the switchover was smooth. It mostly involved swapping out property names with left, right, top, and bottom for inline-start, inline-end, block-start, and block-end.

The border-radius properties tripped me up a little. You have to use shorthand like border-start-end-radius, not border-block-start-inline-end-radius (that doesn’t exist). So you have to keep the order of the properties in mind:

border-{{block direction}}-{{inline-direction}}-radius

Speaking of shorthand, I also had to kiss some shorthand declarations goodbye. Let’s say I use this shorthand for something like margin or padding:

margin: 1em 1.5em 2em 0.5em;

Those values get applied to margin-top, margin-right, margin-bottom, and margin-left, not the logical equivalents (block-start, inline-end, block-end, and inline-start). So separate declarations are needed instead:

margin-block-start: 1em;
margin-inline-end: 1.5em;
margin-block-end: 2em;
margin-inline-start: 0.5em;

Same goes for shorthand like this:

margin: 1em 2em;

That needs to be written as two declarations:

margin-block: 1em;
margin-inline: 2em;

Now I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it feels really weird that you can’t use logical properties in media queries. Although as I said:

Now you could rightly argue that in this instance we’re talking about the physical dimensions of the viewport. So maybe width and height make more sense than inline and block.

But along comes the new kid on the block (or inline), container queries, ready to roll with container-type values like inline-size. I hope it’s just a matter of time until we can use logical properties in all our conditional queries.

The other place where there’s still a cognitive mismatch is in transforms and animations. We’ve got a translateX() function but no translate-inline(). We’ve got translateY() but no translate-block().

On The Session I’m using some JavaScript to figure out the details of some animation effects. I’m using methods like getBoundingClientRect(). It doesn’t return logical properties. So if I ever want to adjust my animations based on writing direction, I’ll need to fork my JavaScript code.

Oh, and one other thing: the aspect-ratio property takes values in the form of width/height, not inline/block. That makes sense if you’re dealing with images, videos, or other embedded content but it makes it really tricky to use aspect-ratio on elements that contain text. I mean, it works fine as long as the text is in a language using a top-to-bottom writing mode, but not for any other languages.

No code

When I wrote about democratising dev, I made brief mention of the growing “no code” movement:

Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.

But I didn’t describe what no-code is, as I understand it.

I’m taking the term at face value to mean a mechanism for creating a website—preferably on a domain you control—without having to write anything in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, or any back-end programming language.

By that definition, something like WordPress.com (as opposed to WordPress itself) is a no-code tool:

Create any kind of website. No code, no manuals, no limits.

I’d also put Squarespace in the same category:

Start with a flexible template, then customize to fit your style and professional needs with our website builder.

And its competitor, Wix:

Discover the platform that gives you the freedom to create, design, manage and develop your web presence exactly the way you want.

Webflow provides the same kind of service, but with a heavy emphasis on marketing websites:

Your website should be a marketing asset, not an engineering challenge.

Bubble is trying to cover a broader base:

Bubble lets you create interactive, multi-user apps for desktop and mobile web browsers, including all the features you need to build a site like Facebook or Airbnb.

Wheras Carrd opts for a minimalist one-page approach:

Simple, free, fully responsive one-page sites for pretty much anything.

All of those tools emphasise that don’t need to need to know how to code in order to have a professional-looking website. But there’s a parallel universe of more niche no-code tools where the emphasis is on creativity and self-expression instead of slickness and professionalism.

neocities.org:

Create your own free website. Unlimited creativity, zero ads.

mmm.page:

Make a website in 5 minutes. Messy encouraged.

hotglue.me:

unique tool for web publishing & internet samizdat

I’m kind of fascinated by these two different approaches: professional vs. expressionist.

I’ve seen people grapple with this question when they decide to have their own website. Should it be a showcase of your achievements, almost like a portfolio? Or should it be a glorious mess of imagery and poetry to reflect your creativity? Could it be both? (Is that even doable? Or desirable?)

Robin Sloan recently published his ideas—and specs—for a new internet protocol called Spring ’83:

Spring ‘83 is a protocol for the transmission and display of something I am calling a “board”, which is an HTML fragment, limited to 2217 bytes, unable to execute JavaScript or load external resources, but otherwise unrestricted. Boards invite publishers to use all the richness of modern HTML and CSS. Plain text and blue links are also enthusiastically supported.

It’s not a no-code tool (you need to publish in HTML), although someone could easily provide a no-code tool to sit on top of the protocol. Conceptually though, it feels like it’s an a similar space to the chaotic good of neocities.org, mmm.page, and hotglue.me with maybe a bit of tilde.town thrown in.

It feels like something might be in the air. With Spring ’83, the Block protocol, and other experiments, people are creating some interesting small pieces that could potentially be loosely joined. No code required.

Democratising dev

I met up with a supersmart programmer friend of mine a little while back. He was describing some work he was doing with React. He was joining up React components. There wasn’t really any problem-solving or debugging—the individual components had already been thoroughly tested. He said it felt more like construction than programming.

My immediate thought was “that should be automated.”

Or at the very least, there should be some way for just about anyone to join those pieces together rather than it requiring a supersmart programmer’s time. After all, isn’t that the promise of design systems and components—freeing us up to tackle the meaty problems instead of spending time on the plumbing?

I thought about that conversation when I was listening to Laurie’s excellent talk in Berlin last month.

Chatting to Laurie before the talk, he was very nervous about the conclusion that he had reached and was going to share: that the time is right for web development to be automated. He figured it would be an unpopular message. Heck, even he didn’t like it.

But I reminded him that it’s as old as the web itself. I’ve seen videos from very early World Wide Web conferences where Tim Berners-Lee was railing against the idea that anyone would write HTML by hand. The whole point of his WorldWideWeb app was that anyone could create and edit web pages as easily as word processing documents. It’s almost an accident of history that HTML happened to be just easy enough—but also just powerful enough—for many people to learn and use.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Laurie’s talk. (Except for a weird bit where he dunks on people moaning about “the fundamentals”. I think it’s supposed to be punching up, but I’m not sure that’s how it came across. As Chris points out, fundamentals matter …at least when it comes to concepts like accessibility and performance. I think Laurie was trying to dunk on people moaning about fundamental technologies like languages and frameworks. Perhaps the message got muddled in the delivery.)

I guess Laurie was kind of talking about this whole “no code” thing that’s quite hot right now. Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.

The problem is that unless they work 100%, and always produce good accessible performant code, then they’re going to be another example of the law of leaky abstractions. If a no-code tool can get someone 90% of the way to what they want, that seems pretty good. But if that person than has to spend an inordinate amount of time on the remaining 10% then all the good work of the no-code tool is somewhat wasted.

Funnily enough, the person who coined that law, Joel Spolsky, spoke right after Laurie in Berlin. The two talks made for a good double bill.

(I would link to Joel’s talk but for some reason the conference is marking the YouTube videos as unlisted. If you manage to track down a URL for the video of Joel’s talk, let me know and I’ll update this post.)

In a way, Joel was making the same point as Laurie: why is it still so hard to do something on the web that feels like it should be easily repeatable?

He used the example of putting an event online. Right now, the most convenient way to do it is to use a third-party centralised silo like Facebook. It works, but now the business model of Facebook comes along for the ride. Your event is now something to be tracked and monetised by advertisers.

You could try doing it yourself, but this is where you’ll run into the frustrations shared by Joel and Laurie. It’s still too damn hard and complicated (even though we’ve had years and years of putting events online). Despite what web developers tell themselves, making stuff for the web shouldn’t be that complicated. As Trys put it:

We kid ourselves into thinking we’re building groundbreakingly complex systems that require bleeding-edge tools, but in reality, much of what we build is a way to render two things: a list, and a single item. Here are some users, here is a user. Here are your contacts, here are your messages with that contact. There ain’t much more to it than that.

And yet here we are. You can either have the convenience of putting something on a silo like Facebook, or you can have the freedom of doing it yourself, indie web style. But you can’t have both it seems.

This is a criticism often levelled at the indie web. The barrier to entry to having your own website is too high. It’s a valid criticism. To have your own website, you need to have some working knowledge of web hosting and at least some web technologies (like HTML).

Don’t get me wrong. I love having my own website. Like, I really love it. But I’m also well aware that it doesn’t scale. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to learn new skills just to make a web page about, say, an event they want to publicise.

That’s kind of the backstory to the project that Joel wanted to talk about: the block protocol. (Note: it has absolutely nothing to do with blockchain—it’s just an unfortunate naming collision.)

The idea behind the project is to create a kind of crowdsourced pattern library—user interfaces for creating common structures like events, photos, tables, and lists. These patterns already exist in today’s silos and content management systems, but everyone is reinventing the wheel independently. The goal of this project is make these patterns interoperable, and therefore portable.

At first I thought that would be a classic /927 situation, but I’m pleased to see that the focus of the project is not on formats (we’ve been there and done that with microformats, RDF, schema.org, yada yada). The patterns might end up being web components or they might not. But the focus is on the interface. I think that’s a good approach.

That approach chimes nicely with one of the principles of the indie web:

UX and design is more important than protocols, formats, data models, schema etc. We focus on UX first, and then as we figure that out we build/develop/subset the absolutely simplest, easiest, and most minimal protocols and formats sufficient to support that UX, and nothing more. AKA UX before plumbing.

That said, I don’t think this project is a cure-all. Interoperable (portable) chunks of structured content would be great, but that’s just one part of the challenge of scaling the indie web. You also need to have somewhere to put those blocks.

Convenience isn’t the only thing you get from using a silo like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Medium. You also get “free” hosting …until you don’t (see GeoCities, MySpace, and many, many more).

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had a place on the web that they could truly call their own? Today you need to have an uneccesary degree of technical understanding to publish something at a URL you control.

I’d love to see that challenge getting tackled.

Directory enquiries

I was talking to someone recently about a forgotten battle in the history of the early web. It was a battle between search engines and directories.

These days, when the history of the web is told, a whole bunch of services get lumped into the category of “competitors who lost to Google search”: Altavista, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo.

But Yahoo wasn’t a search engine, at least not in the same way that Google was. Yahoo was a directory with a search interface on top. You could find what you were looking for by typing or you could zero in on what you were looking for by drilling down through a directory structure.

Yahoo wasn’t the only directory. DMOZ was an open-source competitor. You can still experience it at DMOZlive.com:

The official DMOZ.com site was closed by AOL on February 17th 2017. DMOZ Live is committed to continuing to make the DMOZ Internet Directory available on the Internet.

Search engines put their money on computation, or to use today’s parlance, algorithms (or if you’re really shameless, AI). Directories put their money on humans. Good ol’ information architecture.

It turned out that computation scaled faster than humans. Search won out over directories.

Now an entire generation has been raised in the aftermath of this battle. Monica Chin wrote about how this generation views the world of information:

Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

Dr. Saavik Ford confirms:

We are finding a persistent issue with getting (undergrad, new to research) students to understand that a file/directory structure exists, and how it works. After a debrief meeting today we realized it’s at least partly generational.

We live in a world ordered only by search:

While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?

There are still hold-outs. You can prise files from Scott Jenson’s cold dead hands.

More recently, Linus Lee points out what we’ve lost by giving up on directory structures:

Humans are much better at choosing between a few options than conjuring an answer from scratch. We’re also much better at incrementally approaching the right answer by pointing towards the right direction than nailing the right search term from the beginning. When it’s possible to take a “type in a query” kind of interface and make it more incrementally explorable, I think it’s almost always going to produce a more intuitive and powerful interface.

Directory structures still make sense to me (because I’m old) but I don’t have a problem with search. I do have a problem with systems that try to force me to search when I want to drill down into folders.

I have no idea what Google Drive and Dropbox are doing but I don’t like it. They make me feel like the opposite of a power user. Trying to find a file using their interfaces makes me feel like I’m trying to get a printer to work. Randomly press things until something happens.

Anyway. Enough fist-shaking from me. I’m going to ponder Linus’s closing words. Maybe defaulting to a search interface is a cop-out:

Text search boxes are easy to design and easy to add to apps. But I think their ease on developers may be leading us to ignore potential interface ideas that could let us discover better ideas, faster.