Journal tags: ie



Multi-page web apps

I received this email recently:

Subject: multi-page web apps

Hi Jeremy,

lately I’ve been following you through videos and texts and I’m curious as to why you advocate the use of multi-page web apps and not single-page ones.

Perhaps you can refer me to some sources where your position and reasoning is evident?

Here’s the response I sent…


You can find a lot of my reasoning laid out in this (short and free) online book I wrote called Resilient Web Design:

The short answer to your question is this: user experience.

The slightly longer answer…

For most use cases, a website (or multi-page app if you prefer) is going to provide the most robust experience for the most number of users. That’s because a user’s web browser takes care of most of the heavy lifting.

Navigating from one page to another? That’s taken care of with links.

Gathering information from a user to process on a server? That’s taken care of with forms.

This frees me up to concentrate on the content and the design without having to reinvent the wheels of links and form fields.

These (let’s call them) multi-page apps are stateless, and for most use cases that’s absolutely fine.

There are some cases where you’d want a state to persist across pages. Let’s say you’re playing a song, or a podcast episode. Ideally you’d want that player to continue seamlessly playing even as the user navigates around the site. In that situation, a single-page app would be a suitable architecture.

But that architecture comes at a cost. Now you’ve got stop the browser doing what it would normally do with links and forms. It’s up to you to recreate that functionality. And you can’t do it with HTML, a robust fault-tolerant declarative language. You need to reimplement all that functionality in JavaScript, a less tolerant, more brittle language.

Then you’ve got to ship all that code to the user before they can use your site. It might be JavaScript code you’ve written yourself or it might be a third-party library designed for building single-page apps. Either way, the user pays a download tax (and a parsing tax, and an execution tax). Whereas with links and forms, all of that functionality is pre-bundled into the user’s web browser.

So that’s my reasoning. At least nine times out of ten, a multi-page approach is leaner, more robust, and simpler.

Like I said, there are times when a single-page approach makes sense—it all comes down to whether state needs to be constantly preserved. But these use cases are the exceptions, not the rule.

That’s why I find the framing of your question a little concerning. It should be inverted. The default approach should be to assume a multi-page approach (which is the way the web works by default). Deciding to take a JavaScript-driven single-page approach should be the exception.

It’s kind of like when people ask, “Why don’t you have children?” Surely the decision to have a child should require deliberation and commitment, rather than the other way around.

When it comes to front-end development, I’m worried that we’ve reached a state where the more complex over-engineered approach is viewed as the default.

I may be committing a fundamental attribution error here, but I think that we’ve reached this point not because of any consideration for users, but rather because of how it makes us developers feel. Perhaps building an old-fashioned website that uses HTML for navigations feels too easy, like it’s beneath us. But building an “app” that requires JavaScript just to render text on a screen feels like real programming.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that other developers will start to consider user experience first and foremost when making architectural decisions.

Anyway. That’s my answer. User experience.



Lovers in a dangerous time

Being in Croatia last week got me thinking about the country’s history.

I remember the break-up of Yugoslavia, but I was quite out of touch with the news for a while back in 1991. That’s because I was hitch-hiking and busking around Europe with my musical partner Polly from Cornwall. I had my mandolin, she had her fiddle.

We went from Ireland to England to France to Germany to Czechoslovakia (still a single country back then), to Austria to Italy, back to France, and back to England. A loop around Europe.

We set off on August 21st, 1991. The only reason I know the date is because I remember we had been to a gig in Cork the night before.

Sonic Youth were playing in Sir Henry’s (a great venue that no longer exists). The support band was a group from Seattle called Nirvana. I remember that some of my friends decided to skip the support band to stay in the pub next door until Sonic Youth came on because the pints were cheaper there.

By the time Polly and I got back from our travels, Nirvana were the biggest band on the planet. It all happened very quickly.

The same could be said for the situation in Yugoslavia.

I remember when we were stuck for a day at a petrol station in the alps trying to get from Austria to Italy. There was a bureau de change listing currency exchange rates. This was before the euro came in so there were lots of different currencies; pounds, francs, lira, deutsche marks. Then there was the listing for the Yugoslav dinar. It read:

  • We buy: 00.00
  • We sell: 00.00

That really struck me, seeing the situation summarised so clinically.

But what really got to me was an encounter in Vienna.

Polly and I did well in that city. On our first evening of busking, not only did we make some good money, but we also met a local folk singer. This young man very generously took us in and put us up in his flat.

At some point during our stay, we were on one of the city’s trams. That’s when we met another young couple who were on the road. Somehow there was always a connection between fellow travellers. I can’t remember who spoke to who first, but we bonded straight away.

It soon became clear that our situations were only superfically similar. This was a young couple deeply in love. One of them was Serbian. The other was Croatian. It wasn’t safe for either of them back where they used to call home.

I could return home at any point. I always knew that when I was sleeping rough, or struggling to make enough money to eat.

They couldn’t return. All they wanted was to be together somewhere safe. They started asking us about Ireland and England. “Do you think they’d give us asylum?” they asked with so much hope. It broke my heart to see their desperation, the pleading look in their eyes.

I felt so useless. I wished there was something I could’ve done for them.

I think about them a lot.

The syndicate

Social networks come and social networks go.

Right now, there’s a whole bunch of social networks coming (Blewski, Freds, Mastication) and one big one going, thanks to Elongate.

Me? I watch all of this unfold like Doctor Manhattan on Mars. I have no great connection to any of these places. They’re all just syndication endpoints to me.

I used to have a checkbox in my posting interface that said “Twitter”. If I wanted to add a copy of one of my notes to Twitter, I’d enable that toggle.

I have, of course, now removed that checkbox. Twitter is dead to me (and it should be dead to you too).

I used to have another checkbox next to that one that said “Flickr”. If I was adding a photo to one of my notes, I could toggle that to send a copy to my Flickr account.

Alas, that no longer works. Flickr only allows you to post 1000 photos before requiring a pro account. Fair enough. I’ve actually posted 20 times that amount since 2005, but I let my pro membership lapse a while back.

So now I’ve removed the “Flickr” checkbox too.

Instead I’ve now got a checkbox labelled “Mastodon” that sends a copy of a note to my Mastodon account.

When I publish a blog post like the one you’re reading now here on my journal, there’s yet another checkbox that says “Medium”. Toggling that checkbox sends a copy of my post to my page on Ev’s blog.

At least it used to. At some point that stopped working too. I was going to start debugging my code, but when I went to the documentation for the Medium API, I saw this:

This repository has been archived by the owner on Mar 2, 2023. It is now read-only.

I guessed I missed the memo. I guess Medium also missed the memo, because is still live. It proudly proclaims:

Medium’s Publishing API makes it easy for you to plug into the Medium network, create your content on Medium from anywhere you write, and expand your audience and your influence.

Not a word of that is accurate.

That page also has a link to the Medium engineering blog. Surely the announcement of the API deprecation would be published there?


Moving on…

I have an account on Bluesky. I don’t know why.

I was idly wondering about sending copies of my notes there when I came across a straightforward solution:

That’s yet another place where I have an account. They make syndication very straightfoward. You can go to your account and point to a feed from your own website.

That’s it. Syndication enabled.

It gets better. can also cross-post to other services. One of those services is Bluesky. I gave permission to to syndicate to Bluesky so now my notes show up there too.

It’s like dominoes falling: I post something on my website which updates my RSS feed which gets picked up by which passes it on to Bluesky.

I noticed that one of the other services that can post to is Medium. Hmmm …would that still work given the abandonment of the API?

I gave permission to to cross-post to Medium when my feed of blog posts is updated. It seems to have worked!

We’ll see how long it lasts. We’ll see how long any of them last. Today’s social media darlings are tomorrow’s Friendster and MySpace.

When the current crop of services wither and die, my own website will still remain in full bloom.

Five books

Quite a few people have been linking to this list on The Verge of what they consider the greatest tech books of all time.

To be clear, this is a fairly narrow definition of technology. It’s really a list of books about the history of computing. But there’s some great stuff in there.

I’ve been thinking the books about computing and technology that I’ve managed to get around to reading, and which ones made an impact on me. Some of these made it on The Verge’s list too, which is nice to see.

Broad Band by Clare L. Evans

I was blown away by the writing and the stories uncovered in “the untold story of the women who made the internet.” Here’s what I wrote when I read the book:

This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.

It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

I read this one in 2020, not too long after it came out. In my end of year round-up, I described it like this:

A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.

Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman

I read this in 2018, many years after it first came out. Here’s how it came across to me:

Lots of ’90s feels in this memoir. A lot of this still resonates today. It’s kind of fascinating to read it now with the knowledge of how this whole internet thing would end up going.

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

This book is mostly excellent. But as I wrote when I got my hands on an advance copy, the juxtaposition of memoir and manifesto didn’t work for me:

Abolish Silicon Valley is 80% memoir and 20% manifesto. I worry that the marketing isn’t making that clear. It would be a shame if this great book didn’t find its audience.

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

Okay, this isn’t technically about computing, it’s about the telegraph. But it’s got the word “internet” in the title, and it’s a terrific read. Here’s what I wrote when I put it in Matt’s book-vending machine:

A book about the history of telegraphy might not sound like the most riveting read, but The Victorian Internet is both fascinating and entertaining. Techno-utopianism, moral panic, entirely new ways of working, and a world that has been utterly transformed: the parallels between the telegraph and the internet are laid bare. In fact, this book made me realise that while the internet has been a great accelerator, the telegraph was one of the few instances where a technology could truly be described as “disruptive.”

When Jason linked to the list of books on The Verge he said:

I’m baffled that Tracy Kidder’s amazing The Soul of a New Machine didn’t make the top 5 or even 10.

I’m more surprised that this book is held in such high esteem. It has not aged well. I read it in 2019 and had this to say:

This is a well-regarded book amongst people whose opinion I value. It’s also a Pulitzer prize winner. Strange, then, that I found it so unengaging. The prose is certainly written with gusto, but it all seems so very superficial to me. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a chronicle of a bunch of guys—and oh, boy, are they guys—making a commercial computer. Testosterone and solder—not my cup of tea.

Add view transitions to your website

I must admit, when Jake told me he was leaving Google, I got very worried about the future of the View Transitions API.

To recap: Chrome shipped support for the API, but only for single page apps. That had me worried:

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.

Well, the multi-page version still hasn’t yet shipped in Chrome stable, but it is available in Chrome Canary behind a flag, so it looks like it’s almost here!

Robin took the words out of my mouth:

Anyway, even this cynical jerk is excited about this thing.

Are you the kind of person who flips feature flags on in nightly builds to test new APIs?

Me neither.

But I made an exception for the View Transitions API. So did Dave:

I think the most telling predictor for the success of the multi-page View Transitions API – compared to all other proposals and solutions that have come before it – is that I actually implemented this one. Despite animations being my bread and butter for many years, I couldn’t be arsed to even try any of the previous generation of tools.

Dave’s post is an excellent step-by-step introduction to using view transitions on your website. To recap:

Enable these two flags in Chrome Canary:


Then add this meta element to the head of your website:

<meta name="view-transition" content="same-origin">

You could stop there. If you navigate around your site, you’ll see that the navigations now fade in and out nicely from one page to another.

But the real power comes with transitioning page elements. Basically, you want to say “this element on this page should morph into that element on that page.” And when I say morph, I mean morph. As Dave puts it:

Behind the scenes the browser is rasterizing (read: making an image of) the before and after states of the DOM elements you’re transitioning. The browser figures out the differences between those two snapshots and tweens between them similar to Apple Keynote’s “Magic Morph” feature, the liquid metal T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day, or the 1980s cartoon series Turbo Teen.

If those references are lost on you, how about the popular kids book series Animorphs?

Some classic examples would be:

  • A thumbnail of a video on one page morphs into the full-size video on the next page.
  • A headline and snippet of an article on one page morphs into the full article on the next page.

I’ve added view transitions to The Session. Where I’ve got index pages with lists of titles, each title morphs into the heading on the next page.

Again, Dave’s post was really useful here. Each transition needs a unique name, so I used Dave’s trick of naming each transition with the ID of the individual item being linked to.

In the recordings section, for example, there might be a link like this on the index page:

<a href="/recordings/7812" style="view-transition-name: recording-7812">The Banks Of The Moy</a>

Which, if you click on it, takes you to the page with this heading:

<h1><span style="view-transition-name: recording-7812">The Banks Of The Moy</span></h1>

Why the span? Well, like Dave, I noticed some weird tweening happening between block and inline elements. Dave solved the problem with width: fit-content on the block-level element. I just stuck in an extra inline element.

Anyway, the important thing is that the name of the view transition matches: recording-7812.

I also added a view transition to pages that have maps. The position of the map might change from page to page. Now there’s a nice little animation as you move from one page with a map to another page with a map. View Transitions

That’s all good, but I found myself wishing that I could just have those enhancements. Every single navigation on the site was triggering a fade in and out—the default animation. I wondered if there was a way to switch off the default fading.

There is! That default animation is happening on a view transition named root. You can get rid of it with this snippet of CSS:

::view-transition-image-pair(root) {
  isolation: auto;
::view-transition-new(root) {
  animation: none;
  mix-blend-mode: normal;
  display: block;

Voila! Now only the view transitions that you name yourself will get applied.

You can adjust the timing, the easing, and the animation properites of your view transitions. Personally, I was happy with the default morph.

In fact, that’s one of the things I like about this API. It’s another good example of declarative design. I say what I want to happen, but I don’t need to specify the details. I’ll let the browser figure all that out.

That’s what’s got me so excited about this API. Yes, it’s powerful. But just as important, it’s got a very low barrier to entry.

Chris has gathered a bunch of examples together in his post Early Days Examples of View Transitions. Have a look around to get some ideas.

If you like what you see, I highly encourage you to add view transitions to your website now.

“But wait,” I hear you cry, “this isn’t supported in any public-facing browser yet!”

To which, I respond “So what?” It’s a perfect example of progressive enhancement. Adding one meta element and a smidgen of CSS will do absolutely no harm to your website. And while no-one will see your lovely view transitions yet, once browsers do start shipping with support for the API, your site will automatically get better.

Your website will be enhanced. Progressively.

Update: Simon Pieters quite rightly warns against adding view transitions to live sites before the API is done:

in general, using features before they ship in a browser isn’t a great idea since it can poison the feature with legacy content that might break when the feature is enabled. This has happened several times and renames or so were needed.

Good point. I must temper my excitement with pragmatism. Let me amend my advice:

I highly encourage you to experiment with view transitions on your website now.


There are two kinds of time-travel stories.

There are time-travel stories that explore the many-worlds hypothesis. Going back in time and making a change forks the universe. But the universe is constantly forking anyway. So effectively the time travel is a kind of universe-hopping (there’s a big crossover here with the alternative history subgenre).

The problem with multiverse stories is that there’s always a reset available. No matter how bad things get, there’s a parallel universe where everything is hunky dory.

The other kind of time travel story explores the idea of a block universe. There is one single timeline.

This is what you’ll find in Tenet, for example, or for a beautiful reduced test case, the Ted Chiang short story What’s Expected Of Us. That gets straight to the heart of the biggest implication of a block universe—the lack of free will.

There’s no changing what has happened or what will happen. In fact, the very act of trying to change the past often turns out to be the cause of what you’re trying to prevent in the present (like in Twelve Monkeys).

I’ve often referred to these single-timeline stories as being like Greek tragedies. But only recently—as I’ve been reading quite a bit of Greek mythology—have I realised that the reverse is also true:

Greek tragedies are time-travel stories.

Hear me out…

Time-travel stories aren’t actually about physically travelling in time. That’s just a convenience for the important part—information travelling in time. That’s at the heart of most time-travel stories; informaton from the future travelling back to the past.

William Gibson’s The Peripheral—very much a many-worlds story with its alternate universe “stubs”—takes this to its extreme. Nothing phyiscal ever travels in time. But in an age of telecommuting, nothing has to. Our time travellers are remote workers.

That book also highlights the power dynamics inherent in information wealth. Knowledge of the future gives you an advantage that you can exploit in the past. This is what Mark Twain’s Connecticut yankee does in King Arthur’s court.

This power dynamic is brilliantly inverted in Octavia Butler’s brilliant Kindred. No amount of information can help you if your place in society is determined by the colour of your skin.

Anyway, the point is that information flow is what matters in time-travel stories. Therefore any story where information travels backwards in time is a time-travel story.

That includes any story with a prophecy. A prophecy is information about the future, like:

Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother.

You can try to change your fate, but you’ll just end up triggering it instead.

Greek tragedies are time-travel stories.


The last talk at the last dConstruct was by local clever clogs Anil Seth. It was called Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality. It’s well worth a listen.

Anil covers a lot of the same ground in his excellent book, Being You. He describes a model of consciousness that inverts our intuitive understanding.

We tend to think of our day-to-day reality in a fairly mechanical cybernetic manner; we receive inputs through our senses and then make decisions about reality informed by those inputs.

As another former dConstruct speaker, Adam Buxton, puts it in his interview with Anil, it feels like that old Beano cartoon, the Numskulls, with little decision-making homonculi inside our head.

But Anil posits that it works the other way around. We make a best guess of what the current state of reality is, and then we receive inputs from our senses, and then we adjust our model accordingly. There’s still a feedback loop, but cause and effect are flipped. First we predict or guess what’s happening, then we receive information. Rinse and repeat.

The book goes further and applies this to our very sense of self. We make a best guess of our sense of self and then adjust that model constantly based on our experiences.

There’s a natural tendency for us to balk at this proposition because it doesn’t seem rational. The rational model would be to make informed calculations based on available data …like computers do.

Maybe that’s what sets us apart from computers. Computers can make decisions based on data. But we can make guesses.

Enter machine learning and large language models. Now, for the first time, it appears that computers can make guesses.

The guess-making is not at all like what our brains do—large language models require enormous amounts of inputs before they can make a single guess—but still, this should be the breakthrough to be shouted from the rooftops: we’ve taught machines how to guess!

And yet. Almost every breathless press release touting some revitalised service that uses AI talks instead about accuracy. It would be far more honest to tout the really exceptional new feature: imagination.

Using AI, we will guess who should get a mortgage.

Using AI, we will guess who should get hired.

Using AI, we will guess who should get a strict prison sentence.

Reframed like that, it’s easy to see why technologists want to bury the lede.

Alas, this means that large language models are being put to use for exactly the wrong kind of scenarios.

(This, by the way, is also true of immersive “virtual reality” environments. Instead of trying to accurately recreate real-world places like meeting rooms, we should be leaning into the hallucinatory power of a technology that can generate dream-like situations where the pleasure comes from relinquishing control.)

Take search engines. They’re based entirely on trust and accuracy. Introducing a chatbot that confidentally conflates truth and fiction doesn’t bode well for the long-term reputation of that service.

But what if this is an interface problem?

Currently facts and guesses are presented with equal confidence, hence the accurate descriptions of the outputs as bullshit or mansplaining as a service.

What if the more fanciful guesses were marked as such?

As it is, there’s a “temperature” control that can be adjusted when generating these outputs; the more the dial is cranked, the further the outputs will stray from the safest predictions. What if that could be reflected in the output?

I don’t know what that would look like. It could be typographic—some markers to indicate which bits should be taken with pinches of salt. Or it could be through content design—phrases like “Perhaps…”, “Maybe…” or “It’s possible but unlikely that…”

I’m sure you’ve seen the outputs when people request that ChatGPT write their biography. Perfectly accurate statements are generated side-by-side with complete fabrications. This reinforces our scepticism of these tools. But imagine how differently the fabrications would read if they were preceded by some simple caveats.

A little bit of programmed humility could go a long way.

Right now, these chatbots are attempting to appear seamless. If 80% or 90% of their output is accurate, then blustering through the other 10% or 20% should be fine, right? But I think the experience for the end user would be immensely more empowering if these chatbots were designed seamfully. Expose the wires. Show the workings-out.

Mind you, that only works if there is some way to distinguish between fact and fabrication. If there’s no way to tell how much guessing is happening, then that’s a major problem. If you can’t tell me whether something is 50% true or 75% true or 25% true, then the only rational response is to treat the entire output as suspect.

I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding behind the design of these chatbots that goes all the way back to the Turing test. There’s this idea that the way to make a chatbot believable and trustworthy is to make it appear human, attempting to hide the gears of the machine. But the real way to gain trust is through honesty.

I want a machine to tell me when it’s guessing. That won’t make me trust it less. Quite the opposite.

After all, to guess is human.

The past is a foreign country

I tried watching a classic Western this weekend, How The West Was Won. I did not make it far. Let’s just say that in the first few minutes, the Spencer Tracy voiceover that accompanies the sweeping vistas sets out an attitude toward the indigenous population that would not fly today.

It’s one thing to be repulsed by a film from another era, but it’s even more uncomfortable to revisit the films from your own teenage years.

Tim Carmody has written about the real hero of Top Gun:

Iceman’s concern for Maverick and the safety of his fighter unit is totally understandable. He tries, however awkwardly, to discuss Goose’s death with Maverick. There’s no discussion of blame. And when they’re assigned to fly into combat together, Iceman briefly and discreetly raises the issue of Maverick’s fitness to fly with his superior officer and withdraws his concern once a decision is made.

I know someone who didn’t watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off until they were well into adulthood. Their sympathies lay squarely with Dean Rooney.

And I think we can all agree in hindsight that Walter Peck was completely correct in his assessment of the dangers in Ghostbusters.

Oh, and The Karate Kid was the real bully.

This week, George wrote I’ve fallen out of love with Indiana Jones. Indy’s attitude of “it belongs in a museum” is the same worldview that got the Parthenon Marbles into the British Museum (instead of, y’know, the Parthenon where they belong).

Adrian Hon invites us to imagine what it would be like if the tables were turned. He wrote a short piece of speculative fiction called The Taking of Stonehenge:

We selected these archaeological sites based on their importance to our collective understanding of human and galactic history, and their immediate risk of irreparable harm from pollution, climate change, neglect, and looting. We are sympathetic to claims that preserving these sites in their “original” context is important, but our duty of care outweighs such emotional considerations.

Home stream

Ben wrote a post a little while back about maybe organising his home page differently. It’s currently a stream.

That prompted Om to ask is “stream” as a design paradigm over? Mind you, he’s not talking about personal websites:

Across the web, one can see “streams” losing their preeminence. Social networks are increasingly algorithmically organized, so their stream isn’t really a free-flowing stream. It is more like a river that has been heavily dammed. It is organized around what the machine thinks we need to see based on what we have seen in the past.

Funnily enough, I’ve some recent examples of personal homepages become more like social networks, at least in terms of visual design. A lot of people I know are liking the recent redesigns from Adam and Jhey.

Here on my site, my home page is kind of a stream. I’ve got notes, links, and blog posts one after another in chronological order. The other sections of my site are ways of focusing in on the specific types of content links, short notes, blog posts in my journal.

Behind the scenes, entries those separate sections of my site are all stored in the same database table. In some ways, the separation into different sections of the site is more like tagging. So the home page is actually the simplest bit to implement: grab the latest 20 entries out of that database table.

I don’t make too much visual distinction between the different kinds of posts. My links and my notes look quite similar. And if I post a lot of commentary with a link, it looks a lot like a blog post.

Maybe I should make them more distinct, visually. Because I actually like the higgedly-piggedly nature of a stream of different kinds of stuff. I want the vibe to be less like a pristine Apple store, and more like a chaotic second-hand bookstore.

Going back to what Ben wrote about his site:

As of right now, the homepage is a mix of long-form posts, short thoughts, and links I consider interesting, presented as a stream. It’s a genuine representation of what I’m reading and thinking about, and each post’s permalink page looks fine to me, but it doesn’t quite hold together as a whole. If you look at my homepage with fresh eyes, my stream is a hodgepodge. There’s no through line.

For me, that’s a feature, not a bug. There’s no through line on my home page either. I like that.

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!


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 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—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 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

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, 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 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 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 One click and I was done. I love!

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!