Journal tags: life

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Hemimastigophora

Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.

Jessica and I were taking turns at the microscope when we were told that.

Let me back up a bit and explain how we found ourselves in this this situation…

It all started with The Session, the traditional Irish music community site that I run. There’s a big focus on getting together and playing music—something that’s taken a big hit during this global pandemic. Three sections of the website are devoted to face-to-face gatherings: events (like concerts and festivals), sessions, and the most recent addition, trips.

The idea with trips is that you input somewhere you’re going to be travelling to, along with the dates you’ll be there. It’s like a hyper-focused version of Dopplr. The site then shows you if any events are happening, if there are any sessions on, and also if there are any members of the site in that locality (if those members have added their location to their profiles).

Last August, I added the trips I would be taking in the States. There’s be a trip to Saint Augustine to hang out with Jessica’s family, a trip to Chicago to speak at An Event Apart, and a trip to New York for a couple of days because that’s where the ocean liner was going to deposit us after our transatlantic crossing.

A fellow member of The Session named Aaron who is based in New York saw my trip and contacted me to let me know about the session he goes to (he plays tin whistle). Alas, that session didn’t coincide with our short trip. But he also added:

I work at the American Museum of Natural History, and if you have time and interest, I can provide you with vouchers for tickets to as many special exhibits and such as you’d like!

Ooh, that sounded like fun! He also said:

In fact I could give you a quick behind-the-scenes tour if you’re interested.

Jessica and I didn’t have any set plans for our time in New York, so we said why not?

That’s how we ended spending a lovely afternoon being shown around the parts of the museum that the public don’t usually get to see. It’s quite the collection of curiosities back there!

There’s also plenty of research. Aaron’s particular area was looking into an entirely different kingdom of life—neither animal, nor plant, nor fungus. Remarkably, these microscopic creatures were first identified—by a classmate of Aaron’s—by happenstance in 2016:

The hemimastigotes analyzed by the Dalhousie team were found by Eglit during a spring hike with some other students along the Bluff Wilderness Trail outside Halifax a couple of years ago. She often has empty sample vials in her pockets or bags, and scooped a few tablespoons of dirt into one of them from the side of the trail.

That’s like a doctor announcing that they’d come across a hitherto-unknown limb on the human body. The findings were published in the paper, Hemimastigophora is a novel supra-kingdom-level lineage of eukaryotes in 2018.

In the “backstage” area of the American Museum of Natural History, Aaron had samples of them. He put them under the microscope for us. As we took turns looking at them wriggling their flagella, Aaron said:

Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.

Nice

Yesterday was Wednesday. Wednesday evening is when I play in an Irish trad session at The Jolly Brewer. It’s a highlight of my week.

Needless to say, there was no session yesterday. I’ll still keep playing tunes while we’re all socially distancing, but it’s not quite the same. I concur with this comment:

COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.

It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.

But it’s not the same though, is it?

I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”

Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:

It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.

Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.

I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”

2019

So that was 2019. Quite a year.

Looking back, there were some real highlights for me…

Then there were the usual benefits that come with speaking at international conferences like An Event Apart and Beyond Tellerrand. I got to visit interesting places, eat excellent food, and meet good people.

Not everything was rosy. There were some sad life events for friends and family. And of course the whole political situation here in the UK has been just awful in 2019.

So onwards to 2020. I need to remind myself that many things are going well in the world but it can be hard to keep that in mind. At a local—nay, parochial—level, there’s a good chance that 2020 will deliver a hard Brexit. I have no faith in the competence or motivations of the current government to do otherwise (I keep reminding myself that I don’t have to stay in this country if it falls apart). And at the global scale, our attempts to mitigate the climate crisis are proceeding too slowly.

That’s something I need to take more personal responsibility for in 2020: fewer plane journeys, more trains, and more carbon offsetting.

Ultimately, it’s a fairly arbitrary moment in time but I do like to pause for a moment and look back at the year that’s just been. For all its faults, I have happy memories. I’m healthy. I played lots of music. I ate well. I spent time with friends and family.

I look forward to more of that in the third decade of the 21st century.

eLife goes live

The World Wide Web was forged in the crucible of science. Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, a remarkable place where the pursuit of knowledge—rather than the pursuit of profit—is the driving force.

I often wonder whether the web as we know it—an open, decentralised system—could’ve been born anywhere else. These days it’s easy to focus on the success stories of the web in the worlds of commerce and social networking, but I still find there’s something that really “clicks” with the web and the science (Zooniverse being a classic example).

At Clearleft we’ve been lucky enough to work on science-driven projects like the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust. It’s incredibly rewarding to work on projects where the bottom line is measured in knowledge-sharing rather than moolah. So when we were approached by eLife to help them with an upcoming redesign, we jumped at the chance.

We usually help organisations through our expertise in user-centred design, but in this case the design and UX were already in hand. The challenge was in the implementation. The team at eLife knew that they wanted a modular pattern library to keep their front-end components documented and easily reusable. Given Clearleft’s extensive experience with building pattern libraries, this was a match made in heaven (or whatever the scientific non-theistic equivalent of heaven is).

A group of us travelled up from Brighton to Cambridge to kick things off with a workshop. Before diving into code, it was important to set out the aims for the redesign, and figure out how a pattern library could best support those aims.

Right away, I was struck by the great working relationship between design and front-end development within eLife—there was a great collaborative spirit to the endeavour.

Some goals for the redesign soon emerged:

  • Promote the HTML reading experience as a 1st choice for readers.
  • Align the online experience with the eLife visual identity.

That led to some design principles:

  • Focus on content not site furniture.
  • Remove visual clutter and provide no more than the user needs at any stage of the experience.
  • Aid discovery of value added content beyond the manuscript.

Those design principles then informed the front-end development process. Together we came up with a priority of concerns:

  1. Access
  2. Maintainability
  3. Performance
  4. Taking advantage of browser capabilities
  5. Visual appeal

It’s interesting that maintainability was such a high priority that it superseded even performance, but we also proposed a hypothesis at the same time:

Maintainability doesn’t negatively impact performance.

The combination of the design principles and priorities led us to formulate approaches that could be used throughout the project:

  • Progressive enhancement.
  • Small-screen first responsive images.
  • Only add libraries as needed.

Then we dived into the tech stack: build tools, version control approaches, and naming methodologies. BEM was the winner there.

None of those decisions were set in stone, but they really helped to build a solid foundation for the work ahead. Graham camped out in Cambridge for a while, embedding himself in the team there as they began the process of identifying, naming, and building the components.

The work continued after Clearleft’s involvement wrapped up, and I’m happy to say that it all paid off. The new eLife site has just gone live. It’s looking—and performing—beautifully.

What a great combination: the best of the web and the best of science!

eLife is a non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science.

Someone will read this

After Responsive Field Day I had the chance to spend some extra time in Portland. I was staying with one Andy, with occasional welcome opportunities to hang out with the other Andy.

Over an artisanal, hand-crafted, free-range lunch one day, I took a moment to thank Andy B. I thanked him for a link. Links are very much his stock-in-trade, but there was one in particular that he had shared which stuck in my soul.

It started when he offered a bribe for a good link:

Paul Thompson won the bounty:

The link was to a page on Tilde Town, one of the many old-school web rings set up in the spirit of Paul Ford’s Tilde Club. The owner of this page had taken it upon himself to perform a really interesting—and surprisingly moving—experiment:

  1. Find blog posts where people have written “no one will ever read this”, and
  2. Read them aloud.

I’ve written before about how powerful the sound of a human voice can be. There was something about hearing these posts—which were written with a resigned acceptance of indifference—being given the time and respect to be read aloud. I listened to every single one, sometimes bemused, sometimes horrified, always fascinated.

You should listen to all of them too. They deserve it.

One in particular haunted me. It was written in 2008. After listening to it, I had to know more. I felt creepy and voyeuristic, but I transcribed a sentence from the audio file and pasted it in to Google.

I found her blog on the old my-diary.org domain. She only wrote nine entries in total. Her last one was in November 2009.

That was six years ago. I wonder how things turned out for her. I wonder if life got better for her when she left her teenage years behind. I wonder if she ever found peace.

I hope she’s okay.

Going Postel

I wrote a little while back about my feelings on hash-bang URLs:

I feel so disappointed and sad when I see previously-robust URLs swapped out for the fragile #! fragment identifiers. I find it hard to articulate my sadness…

Fortunately, Mike Davies is more articulate than I. He’s written a detailed account of breaking the web with hash-bangs.

It would appear that hash-bang usage is on the rise, despite the fact that it was never intended as a long-term solution. Instead, the pattern (or anti-pattern) was intended as a last resort for crawling Ajax-obfuscated content:

So the #! URL syntax was especially geared for sites that got the fundamental web development best practices horribly wrong, and gave them a lifeline to getting their content seen by Googlebot.

Mike goes into detail on the Gawker outage that was a direct result of its “sites” being little more than single pages that require JavaScript to access anything.

I’m always surprised when I come across as site that deliberately chooses to make its content harder to access.

Though it may not seem like it at times, we’re actually in a pretty great position when it comes to front-end development on the web. As long as we use progressive enhancement, the front-end stack of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript is remarkably resilient. Remove JavaScript and some behavioural enhancements will no longer function, but everything will still be addressable and accessible. Remove CSS and your lovely visual design will evaporate, but your content will still be addressable and accessible. There aren’t many other platforms that can offer such a robust level of .

This is no accident. The web stack is rooted in . If you serve an HTML document to a browser, and that document contains some tags or attributes that the browser doesn’t understand, the browser will simply ignore them and render the document as best it can. If you supply a style sheet that contains a selector or rule that the browser doesn’t recognise, it will simply pass it over and continue rendering.

In fact, the most brittle part of the stack is JavaScript. While it’s far looser and more forgiving than many other programming languages, it’s still a programming language and that means that a simple typo could potentially cause an entire script to fail in a browser.

That’s why I’m so surprised that any front-end engineer would knowingly choose to swap out a solid declarative foundation like HTML for a more brittle scripting language. Or, as Simon put it:

Gizmodo launches redesign, is no longer a website (try visiting with JS disabled): http://gizmodo.com/

Read Mike’s article, re-read this article on URL design and listen to what John Resig has to say in this interview .

adactumblr

I tend to compulsively sign up to just about every new web-based tool or social networking site that comes along. Most of my accounts then languish unused because the service turns out to suck in a fairly fundamental manner.

I signed up for Tumblr a while back. On the face of it, it doesn’t really have anything new to offer; it’s basically just a blogging tool but one designed for micro-content rather than long posts. But there’s something about it that’s—forgive the nineties term—sticky.

Tumblr allows you to pull in feeds from other places. At first, this is what I did but I realised that there wasn’t much point in that because I already have a lifestream. The lifestream aspect of Tumblr just made it harder to filter the Tumblr-specific content. Jaiku does a better job of that, allowing not just the author, but also the reader, to filter content by source.

I don’t use Tumblr for posting links—I’ve got del.icio.us for that. And I don’t use it for photos—that’s what Flickr is for. So I focus on the things that Tumblr is particularly good at handling: videos and quotes.

The Tumblr bookmarklet is pretty clever. If I click it when I’m on YouTube, it guesses that I probably want to post that video. If I highlight some text on a page and then click the bookmarklet, the selected text will be added as a quote. Most importantly of all, the process of posting is very fast and unobtrusive; one or two clicks and I’m done. That means there’s no tagging, which might make refindability difficult, but the speed and ease of posting makes me more likely to click that bookmarklet.

Tumblr has a kind of casual throwaway feel to it and that’s how I’ve been using it: videos and quotes that don’t quite warrant a blog post or a del.icio.us link. Tumblr isn’t the most fully-featured service out there but that’s also its strength. If you’re interested, you can look at my Tumblr account.

Watching the stream

Ever since I hacked up my little life stream experiment and wrote about it, it’s been very gratifying to see how people have taken the idea and run with it. Emily Chang has written about the resources she came across when she was putting her life stream together. Sam Sethi has been talking about life streams as a rich vein of attention data (which reminded me of John Allsopp’s thoughts on why blogging as we know it is over).

Of course this idea of mashing up time-stamped (micro)content—usually through RSS—isn’t anything new. Tom Armitage touched on this during his presentation at Reboot in Copenhagen last year:

Whenever I publish anything with a date attached, there’s a framework for ongoing narrative. The item published is our narrative, but the date gives it ongoingness. It takes time for the pattern to emerge; initially, throwing data at that black box, it seems random. For instance: I upload photos to Flickr at arbitrary intervals. I go silent on my blog without explanation. It may seem, in the short-term, like a blip, but in the long-term, it’s an important part of my story. My blog is full of delicious bookmarks right now because I’ve been busy at work, and writing this talk. That’ll be reflected in the longer game, when I write my post-Reboot blog entry, and suddenly the pattern becomes clear.

If you haven’t yet done so, I strongly urge you to read the rest of Telling Stories — What Homer, Dickens, and Comic Books can teach your (social) software. It’s quite brilliant and discusses many issues that are even more relevant today with the rise of OpenID and the clamour for portable social networks.

Jeff Croft has been pioneering the life stream idea for quite a while now, originally calling it a tumblelog. His implementation uses APIs rather than plain ol’ RSS. He’s right in thinking that APIs are a more robust solution for long-term archiving but I think of my life stream as being a fleeting snapshot of current activity.

As Jeff points out:

The result is that most people’s lifestream looks great for the first several days back, but then get all sparse at the bottom, where only one or two sources are still providing information.

CSS to the rescue. I’ve updated my life stream to give vibrant colours to newer entries and faded, eventually illegible colours to older, less relevant content. It’s kind of like Shaun’s recent experiments with age and colour.

I love APIs but when something as simple as RSS does the job, I’ll go for the simple solution every time (hence my love of microformats). In fact, I see RSS as being a kind of low-level short-term API or, as Rob Purdie put it, the vaseline of Web 2.0.

The ubiquity of RSS is what makes Yahoo Pipes possible. Now anybody can make a life stream by plugging in some RSS feeds into a pipe. Here’s one I made earlier. When I tried to do this a few days ago, I couldn’t get it to sort by date properly: it was sorting the pubDate field alphabetically—that seems to be fixed now.

Using Yahoo Pipes isn’t quite as straightforward as it could be. It still feels kind of techy and intimidating for non-geeks. This is the same problem that Ning used to have. Its services were ostensibly being provided so that non-techy people could start mashing stuff up but the presentation was impenetrably techy. That’s all changed now.

Ning has completely rebranded as a social network builder. Personally, I think this is a brilliant move. After just a few seconds on the front page, it’s absolutely clear what you can do. By providing example sites, they make the point even clearer. You can still make all the same stuff that you always could on Ning—videos, photos, blogs—but now it’s all wrapped up as part of a clearer goal: creating your own social network site.

When Yahoo Pipes launched, it looked like it might be competing directly with Ning. Now that’s not the case. The two services have diverged and are concentrating on different tasks for different audiences.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Ning to see how it deals with the issue of portable social networks. I’ll be watching Yahoo Pipes as a tool for creating life streams.