Tags: reading



2016 reading list

I was having a think back over 2016, trying to remember which books I had read during the year. To the best of my recollection, I think that this is the final tally…


  • Endurance by Alfred Lansing
  • The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
  • The Real World of Technology by Ursula Franklin
  • Design For Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher
  • Practical SVG by Chris Coyier
  • Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan
  • Working The Command Line by Remy Sharp


  • The Revenant by Michael Punke
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
  • Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss
  • High Rise by J.G. Ballard
  • The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
  • Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel
  • Greybeard by Brian Aldiss
  • Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Seems kinda meagre to me. Either I need to read more books or I need to keep better track of what books I’m reading when. Starting now.

The typography of a web book

I’m a sucker for classic old-style serif typefaces: Caslon, Baskerville, Bembo, Garamond …I love ‘em. That’s probably why I’ve always found the typesetting in Edward Tufte’s books so appealing—he always uses a combination of Bembo for body copy and Gill Sans for headings.

Earlier this year I stumbled on a screen version of Bembo used for Tufte’s digital releases called ET Book. Best of all, it’s open source:

ET Book is a Bembo-like font for the computer designed by Dmitry Krasny, Bonnie Scranton, and Edward Tufte. It is free and open-source.

When I was styling Resilient Web Design, I knew that the choice of typeface would be one of the most important decisions I would make. Remembering that open source ET Book font, I plugged it in to see how it looked. I liked what I saw. I found it particularly appealing when it’s full black on full white at a nice big size (with lower contrast or sizes, it starts to get a bit fuzzy).

I love, love, love the old-style numerals of ET Book. But I was disappointed to see that ligatures didn’t seem to be coming through (even when I had enabled them in CSS). I mentioned this to Rich and of course he couldn’t resist doing a bit of typographic sleuthing. It turns out that the ligature glyphs are there in the source files but the files needed a little tweaking to enable them. Because the files are open source, Rich was able to tweak away to his heart’s content. I then took the tweaked open type files and ran them through Font Squirrel to generate WOFF and WOFF2 files. I’ve put them on Github.

For this book, I decided that the measure would be the priority. I settled on a measure of around 55 to 60 characters—about 10 or 11 words per line. I used a max-width of 27em combined with Mike’s brilliant fluid type technique to maintain a consistent measure.

It looks great on small-screen devices and tablets. On large screens, the font size starts to get really, really big. Personally, I like that. Lots of other people like it too. But some people really don’t like it. I should probably add a font-resizing widget for those who find the font size too shocking on luxuriously large screens. In the meantime, their only recourse is to fork the CSS to make their own version of the book with more familiar font sizes.

The visceral reaction a few people have expressed to the font size reminds me of the flak Jeffrey received when he redesigned his personal site a few years back:

Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind.

I wonder how the people who complained then are feeling now, a few years on, in a world with Medium in it? Jeffrey’s redesign doesn’t look so extreme any more.

Resilient Web Design will be on the web for a very, very, very long time. I’m curious to see if its type size will still look shockingly large in years to come.

The Rational Optimist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Matt Ridley himself writes:

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

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

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

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

Why do pull quotes exist on the web?

There you are reading an article when suddenly it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s repeating something you just read in the previous paragraph. Or it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s spoiling a sentence that you are about to read in subsequent paragraphs.

There you are reading an article when suddenly it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s repeating something you just read in the previous paragraph.

To be honest, I find pull quotes pretty annoying in printed magazines too, but I can at least see the justification for them there: if you’re flipping through a magazine, they act as eye-catching inducements to stop and read (in much the same way that good photography does or illustration does). But once you’re actually reading an article, they’re incredibly frustrating.

You either end up learning to blot them out completely, or you end up reading the same sentence twice.

You either end up learning to blot them out completely, or you end up reading the same sentence twice. Blotting them out is easier said than done on a small-screen device. At least on a large screen, pull quotes can be shunted off to the side, but on handheld devices, pull quotes really make no sense at all.

Are pull quotes online an example of a skeuomorph? “An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material.”

I think they might simply be an example of unexamined assumptions. The default assumption is that pull quotes on the web are fine, because everyone else is doing pull quotes on the web. But has anybody ever stopped to ask why? It was this same spiral of unexamined assumptions that led to the web drowning in a sea of splash pages in the early 2000s.

I think they might simply be an example of unexamined assumptions.

I’m genuinely curious to hear the design justification for pull quotes on the web (particularly on mobile), because as a reader, I can give plenty of reasons for their removal.

Content Buddy

I have a new role at Clearleft. It’s not a full-time role. It’s in addition to my existing role of …um …whatever it is I do at Clearleft.

Anyway, my new part-time role is that of being a content buddy. Sounds a little dismissive when I put it like that. Let me put in capitals…

My new part-time role is that of being a Content Buddy.

This is Ellen’s idea. She’s been recruiting Content Guardians and Content Buddies. The Guardians will be responsible for coaxing content out of people, encouraging to write that blog post, article, or case study. The role of the Content Buddy is to help shepherd those pieces into the world.

I have let it be known throughout the office that I am available—day or night, rain or shine—for proof-reading, editing, and general brain-storming and rubber-ducking.

On my first official day as a Content Buddy on Friday I helped Ben polish off a really good blog post (watch this space), listened to a first run-through of Charlotte’s upcoming talk at the Up Front conference in Manchester (which is shaping up to be most excellent), and got together with Paul for a mutual brainstorming session for future conference talks. The fact that Paul is no longer a full-time employee at Clearleft is a mere technicality—Content Buddies for life!

Paul is preparing a talk on design systems for Smashing Conference in Freiburg in September. I’m preparing a talk on the A element for the HTML Special part of CSS Day in Amsterdam in just one month’s time (gulp!). We had both already done a bit of mind-mapping to get a jumble of ideas down on paper. We learned that from Ellen’s excellent workshop.

Talk prep, phase 1: doodling.

Then we started throwing ideas back and forth, offering suggestions, and spotting patterns. Once we had lots of discrete chunks of stuff outlined (but no idea how to piece them together), we did some short intense spurts of writing using the fiendish TheMostDangerousWritingApp.com. I looked at Paul’s mind map, chose a topic from it for him, and he had to write on that non-stop for three to five minutes. Meanwhile he picked a topic from my mind map and I had to do the same. It was exhausting but also exhilarating. Very quickly we had chunks of content that we could experiment with, putting them in together in different ways to find different narrative threads. I might experiment with publishing them as short standalone blog posts.

The point was not to have polished, finished content but rather to get to the “shitty first draft” stage quickly. We were following Hemingway’s advice:

Write drunk, edit sober.

…but not literally. Mind you, I could certainly imagine combining beer o’clock on Fridays with Content Buddiness. That wasn’t an option on this particular Friday though, as I had to run off to band practice with Salter Cane. A very different, and altogether darker form of content creation.

Machine supplying

I wrote a little something recently about some inspiring projects that people are working on. Like Matt’s Machine Supply project. There’s a physical side to that project—a tweeting book-vending machine in London—but there’s also the newsletter, 3 Books Weekly.

I was honoured to be asked by Matt to contribute three book recommendations. That newsletter went out last week. Here’s what I said…

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

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.”

Ancillary Justice: 1 (Imperial Radch) by Ann Leckie

After I finished reading the final Iain M. Banks novel I was craving more galaxy-spanning space opera. The premise of Ancillary Justice with its description of “ship minds” led me to believe that this could be picking up the baton from the Culture series. It isn’t. This is an entirely different civilisation, one where song-collecting and tea ceremonies have as much value as weapons and spacecraft. Ancillary Justice probes at the deepest questions of identity, both cultural and personal. As well as being beautifully written, it’s also a rollicking good revenge thriller.

The City & The City by China Miéville

China Miéville’s books are hit-and-miss for me, but this one is a direct hit. The central premise of this noir-ish tale defies easy description, so I won’t even try. In fact, one of the great pleasures of this book is to feel the way your mind is subtly contorted by the author to accept a conceit that should be completely unacceptable. Usually when a book is described as “mind-altering” it’s a way of saying it has drug-like properties, but The City & The City is mind-altering in an entirely different and wholly unique way. If Borges and Calvino teamed up to find The Maltese Falcon, the result would be something like this.

When I sent off my recommendations, I told Matt:

Oh man, it was so hard to narrow this down! So many books I wanted to mention: Station 11, The Peripheral, The Gone-Away World, Glasshouse, Foucault’s Pendulum, Oryx and Crake, The Wind-up Girl …this was so much tougher than I thought it was going to be.

And Matt said:

Tell you what — if you’d be up for writing recommendations for another 3 books, from those ones you mentioned, I’d love to feature those in the machine!


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven made think about the purpose of art and culture. If art, as Brian Eno describes it, is “everything that you don’t have to do”, what happens to art when the civilisational chips are down? There are plenty of post-pandemic stories of societal collapse. But there’s something about this one that sets it apart. It doesn’t assume that humanity will inevitably revert to an existence that is nasty, brutish and short. It’s also a beautifully-written book. The opening chapter completely sucker-punched me.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

On the face of it, this appears to be another post-Singularity romp in a post-scarcity society. It is, but it’s also a damning critique of gamification. Imagine the Stanford prison experiment if it were run by godlike experimenters. Stross’s Accelerando remains the definitive description of an unfolding Singularity, but Glasshouse is the one that has stayed with me.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

This isn’t an easy book to describe, but it’s a very easy book to enjoy. A delightful tale of a terrifying apocalypse, The Gone-Away World has plenty of laughs to balance out the existential dread. Try not to fall in love with the charming childhood world of the narrator—you know it can’t last. But we’ll always have mimes and ninjas.

I must admit, it’s a really lovely feeling to get notified on Twitter when someone buys one of the recommended books.

Small lessons, loosely learned

When Charlotte published her end-of-year report, she outlined her plans for 2016, which included “Document my JavaScript learning journey.”

I want to get into the habit of writing one JavaScript post every week to make sure I keep up with learning it. Even if it’s just a few words about some relevant terminology; it can be as long or short as desired or time allows, as long as it happens.

An excellent plan! If you really want to make sure you’ve understood something, write down an explanation of it. There’s nothing quite like writing to really test your grasp of an idea. Even if nobody else ever reads it, it’s still an extremely valuable exercise for yourself.

Charlotte has already started. Here’s a short post on using JavaScript to pick a random an item at random from an array:

Math.round(Math.random() * (array.length - 1))

It might seem like a small thing, but look what you have to understand:

  • How Math.round works (pretty straightforward—it rounds a floating point number to the nearest whole number).
  • How Math.random works (less straightforward—it gives a random number between zero and one, meaning you have to multiply it to do anything useful with the result).
  • How array.length works (seems straightforward—it gives you the total number of items in an array, but then catches you out when you realise there can never be an index with that total value because the indices are counted from zero …which gives rise to an entire class of programming error).

I really like this approach to learning: document each small thing as you go instead of waiting until all those individual pieces click together. That’s the approach Andy took when he was learning CSS and it led to him writing a book on the subject.

When it comes to problem-solving in general (and JavaScript in particular), I have a similar bias towards single-purpose solutions. Rather than creating a monolithic framework that attempts to solve all possible problems, I prefer a collection of smaller scripts that only do one thing, but do it really well; the UNIX philosophy.

Take, for example, Remy’s bind.js. It does two-way data-binding and nothing else. If you only need one-way data-binding, there’s Simulacra.js, which takes a similar minimalist, hands-off approach.

This approach of breaking large problems down into a collection of smaller problems also came up in a completely unrelated discussion at work recently. I floated the idea of starting a book club at Clearleft. Quite a few people are into the idea, but they’re not sure they could commit the time to reading a book on a deadline. Fair enough. Perhaps we could have the book club on a chapter-by-chapter basis? I don’t think that would work all that well for novels, but it did make me think of something related to Charlotte’s stated goal of learning more JavaScript…

Graham has been raving about the You Don’t Know JS book series by the supersmart Kyle Simpson. I suggested to Charlotte that we read through the books at the rate of one chapter a week. The first book is called Up and Going and our first chapter will be Into Programming, starting this week. Then at the end of the week we’ll get together to compare notes.

I’m hoping that by doing this together, there’s more chance that we’ll actually see it through to completion:

Why can I hit deadlines imposed by others, but not those imposed by myself?

Links from a talk

I’m coming to a rest after a busy period of travelling and speaking. In the last five or six weeks I’ve been to Copenhagen, Freiburg, Prague, Portland, Seattle, and Austin.

The trip to Austin was lovely. It was so nice to be there when it wasn’t South by Southwest (the infrastructure of the whole town creaks under the sheer weight of the event). I wasn’t just there to eat tacos and drink beer in the sunshine. I was there to talk at An Event Apart.

Like I said months before the event:

Everyone in the line up is one of my heroes.

It was, as always, a great event. A personal highlight for me was getting to meet Lara Hogan for the first time. She was kind enough to sign my copy of her fantastic book. She gave an equally fantastic talk at the conference, featuring some of the most deftly-handled Q&A I’ve ever seen.

I spoke at the end of the conference (no pressure!), giving a brand new talk called Resilience—I gave a shortened version at Coldfront and Smashing Conference but this was my first chance to go all out with an hour long talk. It was my chance to go full James Burke.

I assembled some related links for the attendees. Here they are…




Related posts on adactio.com

Here’s a readlist of those links.

Further reading

Here’s a readlist of those links.

See also: other links tagged with “progressive enhancement” on adactio.com

Recently speculative

I was a guest on the Boagworld podcast—neither Andy nor Richard were available so Paul and Marcus were stuck with me. We talked boring business stuff, but only after an extended—and much more interesting—preamble wherein we chatted about sci-fi books.

When prompted for which books I would recommend, I was able to instantly recall some recent reads, but inevitably I forgot to mention some others. I’m not sure if I even mentioned William Gibson’s The Peripheral, an unsurprisingly excellent book.

I’m pretty sure I mentioned The Girl In The Road. It has a magical realism quality to it that reminded me a bit of Lauren’s Zoo City. Its African/Indian setting makes for a refreshing change. Having said that, I still haven’t read Ian McDonald’s Indian-set River Of Gods or Cyberabad Days, both of which are sitting on my bookshelf alongside McDonald’s Out On Blue Six, which I have read and can heartily recommend—its imagining of a society where the algorithm decides the fate of all feels very ahead of its time.

One book I recommended without hesitation was Station Eleven. Maybe it was because I read it right after reading a book I found to be so-so—Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through—but the writing in Station Eleven sucker-punched me right from the first chapter. Have a listen to the Boagworld podcast episode for some more ramblings on why I liked it.

Somehow I managed not to mention Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. That’s unforgivable. They are easily amongst the best works of sci-fi I’ve read in a read long time. It feels quite exciting to be anticipating the third part in what will clearly be a long-time classic series, right up there with the all-time greats.

I first came across Ancillary Justice through some comparisons that were being made to Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. I was reading his final work, The Hydrogen Sonata, trying to take it slow, knowing that there would be no further books from that universe. But I ended up tearing through it because it was damned enjoyable (not necessarily brilliantly-written, mind; like most of Banks’s books, it’s a terrific and thought-provoking romp but missing the hand of a sterner editor). Anyway, I heard there were some similarities to the Ship Minds to be found in Leckie’s debut novel so I gave it a whirl. As it turns out, there are very few similarities and that’s all for the best. The universe that Leckie is describing has a very different but equally compelling richness.

I read Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy—Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance—and while I can’t say I enjoyed them as such, I can recommend them …though they are insidiously disturbing, dripping with atmosphere. I’m very intrigued by the news that Alex Garland is working on a screenplay.

So if you’re looking for some good recent speculative fiction, try:

Alongside the newer stuff, I’ve been catching up with some golden oldies in the form of tattered second-hand novels like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse. I’m currently working my way through Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and loving every minute of it.

100 words 030

Andy Parker kindly deposited a couple of books on my desk recently. One was The Martian. I had already read that one, thanks to Tim Kadlec’s recommendation. The other was the much-hyped Ready Player One.

I read it while I was travelling to and from Bulgaria. It was the ideal travel companion—an airport novel for geeks. It’s not exactly the finest prose ever written, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable popcorn entertainment. It reads like fan fiction and I mean that in a good way. It’s like Scott Pilgrim crossed with Snowcrash. It certainly passed the time on some airplane rides.

August in America, day fifteen

Being a beachy surfer kind of place, it made sense that we spent our last day in San Diego hanging out by the beach. We went to La Jolla. We watched people swim, snorkel, and paddle-board. In amongst the human activity, we also saw the occasional seal pop its head out of the water.

It was another beautiful day in San Diego. It was also my last day in San Diego: tomorrow I head north to San Francisco.

I was all set for another flight until disastrously my Kindle gave up the ghost. The e-ink display is b0rked, permanently showing half of Jane Austen and half of a New Aesthetic glitch. So on the way to dinner at the Stone Brewery this evening, we stopped off at a Best Buy so I could slap down some money to buy a bog-standard non-touch, non-white Kindle.

Imagine my disgust when I get it home, charged it up, connected it to a WiFi network, registered it, and discovered that it comes encumbered with advertising that can’t be switched off (the Amazon instructions for unsubscribing from these “special offers”—by paying to do so—don’t work if your device is registered with a UK Amazon account).

A little bit of Googling revealed that the advertising infestation resides in a hidden folder named /system/.assets. If you replace this folder with an empty file (and keep WiFi switched off by having your Kindle in airplane mode), then the advertising is cast out.

So connect your Kindle—that you bought, with your money—to your Mac, open up the Terminal and type:

cd /Volumes/Kindle/system
rm -r .assets
touch .assets

Now I can continue to read The Shining Girls in peace on my flight to San Francisco tomorrow.

August in America, day eight

Today was a travel day. It was time to leave our most excellent hosts in Philadelphia and make our way to Jessica’s parents in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

I spent most of the travel time with my headphones on, listening to music and reading on my Kindle. I finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a thoroughly enjoyable—if not exactly tightly-plotted—romp around the solar system, and started in on Lauren’s latest, The Shining Girls. It’s a real page-turner. Or, in the case of the Kindle, a real button-pusher.

For take-off and landing, headphones and Kindles have to be stowed so I always make sure I’ve got a good ol’ dead-tree tome with me on any plane journey. On this occasion I started into a copy Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge that I picked up at a second-hand bookstore in Alexandria earlier this week.

There was no direct way to get from Philadelphia to Tucson, the nearest airport to Sierra Vista. Layovers were inevitable. We flew with Delta, which meant that our layover would be at their hub in Atlanta.

The flight from Philly to Atlanta was pretty straightforward, but we could see storm clouds brewing. After a stopover in Atlanta for a couple of hours, we continued on to Tucson, by which time the storm clouds were brewed and angry.


As we chased the sunset, we flew over a landscape of explosions in the sky. Dark cloudscapes erupted with light every minute or so. It looked like a bombardment of multiple timezones. At one point, Jessica saw a shooting star. It was as if the Perseids were MIRVing to deliver angry payloads of light flashes while we flew unscathed above it all.

Explosions in the sky

Billboards and Novels by Jon Tan

Jon is at An Event Apart in Atlanta to talk about Billboards and Novels. That means: impact vs. immersion.

Who in the audience has ever had to explain layout and design decisions? And who has struggled to do that? Jon has. That’s why he wants to talk about the differences between designing for impact—to grab attention—and immersion—to get out of the way and allow for absorbing involvement.

Jon examines the difference between interruption and disruption. You want to grab attention, but the tone has to be right. This is how good advertising works. So sometimes impact is a good thing, but not if you’re trying to read.

The web is reading.

Understanding how people read is a core skill for anyone designing and developing for the web. First, you must understand language. There’s a great book by Robert Bringhurst called What Is Reading For?, the summation of a symposium. Paraphrasing Eric Gill, he says that words are neither things, nor pictures of things; they are gestures.

Words as gestures …there are #vss (very short stories) on Twitter that manage to create entire backstories in your mind using the gestures of words.

A study has shown that aesthetics does not affect perceived usability, but it does have an effect on post-use perceived aesthetics. Even though a “designed” and “undesigned” thing might work equally well, our memory the the designed thing is more positive.

Good typography and poor typography appear to have no affect on reading comprehension. This was tested with a New Yorker article that was typeset well, and the same article typeset badly. The people who had the nicely typeset article underestimated how long it had taken them to read it. Objectively it had taken just as long as reading the poorly-typeset version, but because it was more pleasing, it put them in a good mood.

Good typography induces a good mood. And if you are in a good mood, you perform tasks better …and you will think that the tasks took less time. Time flies when you’re having fun.

What about type on screens?

  • David Berlow describes the web as “crude media.”
  • Jonathan Hoefler describes how he produces fonts differently for different media: the idea (behind the typeface) gives rise to a variety of forms.
  • Matthew Carter designed Bell Centennial to work at one size in one environment: the crappy paper of the telephone book. He left gaps in the letterforms for the ink to spread into.
  • The Siri typeface was redrawn anew as SiriCore specifically for the screen.

When Jon is evaluating typefaces, he is aware that some fonts are more optimised for the screen than others. He tests the smallest text first, in the most adverse environment: a really old HP machine running Windows XP. He also looks at language support, and features and variants like lining numerals: what are the mechanics of the font?

We take quiet delight in the smallest details of a typeface.

Legibility is so important. Kevin Larson analysed how we read. We take a snapshot of a bunch of letters, and our brains rearrange them into a word. We read by skipping along lines in “saccades” with pauses or “fixations” that allow us to understand a group of letters before reading on.

Jon tells the story of how Seb was fooled by a spoof Twitter account for the London Olympics. The account name was London20l2 (with a letter L), not London2012 (with the letter one). Depending on the typeface, that difference can be very hard to spot. Here’s a handy string:

agh! iIl1 o0

Stick that into Fontdeck and you’ll get a good idea of the mechanics of the font you’re looking at. You’re looking out for ambiguities that would interrupt the reader.

The same goes for typesetting: use the right quotes and apostrophes; not primes. Use ligatures when they help. But some ligatures are just showing off and they interrupt your reading. Typesetting should help reading, not interrupt or disrupt.

You can use text-rendering: optimizeLegibility but test it. You can use hyphens: auto but test it. You can add a non-breaking space before the last two words in a paragraph to prevent orphans. It will improve the mood.

A good example of interruption is the Ampersand 2012 website. There’s a span on the letter that should receive a flourish. But you can also use expert subsets. You can use Opentype features. There are common and discretionary ligatures. Implement them wisely. Use discretionary ligatures when you want to draw attention, like in a headline.

Scantastic readability. We wander around the page or screen in the same way as we read with saccades: our eyes jump around the place. Our scan path is a roughly Z-shaped pattern. You can design for this scan path: deliberately interrupt …but not disrupt. Jon uses the squint test when he is designing, to see what jumps out and interrupts.

Measure (line-length) is really important. Long lines tire us out. Bringhurst mentioned 45-75 character measures. But the measure is also bound to the prose: the content might be very short and snappy.

Contrast can give you careful, deliberate interruptions. Position, density, size …these are all tools we can use to interrupt without disrupting. The I Love Typography article on The Origins of ABC is a beautiful example of this. Compare it to the disruption of faddish parallax sites.

But there are no rules, just good decisions.

It’s all so emotional. Sometimes there are no words. Think of the masterful storytelling of the first twenty minutes of Wall-E.

We react incredibly quickly to faces. We can see and recognise a human face in 40 milliseconds, before we even consciously process that we’ve seen a face.

When we try to write about music, the result can be some really purple prose.

We have an emotional reaction to faces, colour, music …and type.

Jon demonstrates the effect on us that a friendly typeface has compared to a harsh typeface …even though the friendly typeface is used for the Malay word for “hate” and the harsh typeface is used for the Malay word for “love.” Our amygdala is reacting directly. It’s a physiological, visceral reaction we have before we even understand what we’re looking at.

Fonts are wayfinding apps for emotions. There’s a difference between designing places and designing postcards of places.

The Milwaukee Police News website is very impactful …but there’s no immersion. It doesn’t communicate beyond the initial reaction.

Places are defined by type and form: New York, London, Paris. A website for Barcelona or Brooklyn should reflect the flavour of those places.

All these things combine: impact, immersion, contrast, colour, type. We can affect people’s experiences. We can put them in a better mood.

Type shapes our experience. It paints pictures that echo in our memory long after we’ve left.

Eric Spiekermann said:

Details in typefaces are not to be seen, but felt.

Those details have to work in the greater context (of colour, contrast, layout).

Bruce Lee said:

Don’t think; feel.

Returning control

In his tap essay Fish, Robin sloan said:

On the internet today, reading something twice is an act of love.

I’ve found a few services recently that encourage me to return to things I’ve already read.

Findings is looking quite lovely since its recent redesign. They may have screwed up with their email notification anti-pattern but they were quick to own up to the problem. I’ve been taking the time to read back through quotations I’ve posted, which in turn leads me to revisit the original pieces that the quotations were taken from.

Take, for example, this quote from Dave Winer:

We need to break out of the model where all these systems are monolithic and standalone. There’s art in each individual system, but there’s a much greater art in the union of all the systems we create.

…which leads me back to the beautifully-worded piece he wrote on Medium.

At the other end of the scale, reading this quote led me to revisit Rob’s review of Not Of This Earth on NotComing.com:

Not of This Earth is an early example of a premise conceivably determined by the proverbial writer’s room dartboard. In this case, the first two darts landed on “space” and “vampire.” There was no need to throw a third.

Although I think perhaps my favourite movie-related quotation comes from Gavin Rothery’s review of Saturn 3:

You could look at this film superficially and see it as a robot gone mental chasing Farrah Fawcett around a moonbase trying to get it on with her and killing everybody that gets in its way. Or, you could see through that into brilliance of this film and see that is in fact a story about a robot gone mental chasing Farrah Fawcett around a moonbase trying to get it on with her and killing everybody that gets in its way.

The other service that is encouraging me to revisit articles that I’ve previously read is Readlists. I’ve been using it to gather together pieces of writing that I’ve previously linked to about the Internet of Things, the infrastructure of the internet, digital preservation, or simply sci-fi short stories.

Frank mentioned Readlists when he wrote about The Anthologists:

Anthologies have the potential to finally make good on the purpose of all our automated archiving and collecting: that we would actually go back to the library, look at the stuff again, and, holy moses, do something with it. A collection that isn’t revisited might as well be a garbage heap.

I really like the fact that while Readlists is very much a tool that relies on the network, the collected content no longer requires a network connection: you can send a group of articles to your Kindle, or download them as one epub file.

I love tools like this—user style sheets, greasemonkey scripts, Readability, Instapaper, bookmarklets of all kinds—that allow the end user to exercise control over the content they want to revisit. Or, as Frank puts it:

…users gain new ways to select, sequence, recontextualize, and publish the content they consume.

I think the first technology that really brought this notion to the fore was RSS. The idea that the reader could choose not only to read your content at a later time, but also to read it in a different place—their RSS reader rather than your website—seemed quite radical. It was a bitter pill for the old guard to swallow, but once publishing RSS feeds became the norm, even the stodgiest of old media producers learned to let go of the illusion of control.

That’s why I was very surprised when Aral pushed back against RSS. I understand his reasoning for not providing a full RSS feed:

every RSS reader I tested it in displayed the articles differently — completely destroying my line widths, pull quotes, image captions, footers, and the layout of the high‐DPI images I was using.

…but that kind of illusory control just seems antithetical to the way the web works.

The heart of the issue, I think, is when Aral talks about:

the author’s moral rights over the form and presentation of their work.

I understand his point, but I also value the reader’s ideas about the form and presentation of the work they are going to be reading. The attempt to constrain and restrict the reader’s recontextualising reminds me of emails I used to read on Steve Champeon’s Webdesign-L mailing list back in the 90s that would begin:

How can I force the user to …?


How do I stop the user from …?

The questions usually involved attempts to stop users “getting at” images or viewing the markup source. Again, I understand where those views come from, but they just don’t fit comfortably with the sprit of the web.

And, of course, the truth was always that once something was out there on the web, users could always find a way to read it, alter it, store it, or revisit it. For Aral’s site, for example, although he refuses to provide a full RSS feed, all I have to is use Reeder with its built-in Readability functionality to get the full content.

Breaking Things

This is an important point: attempting to exert too much control will be interpreted as damage and routed around. That’s exactly why RSS exists. That’s why Readability and Instapaper exist. That’s why Findings and Readlists exist. Heck, it’s why Huffduffer exists.

To paraphrase Princess Leia, the more you tighten your grip, the more content will slip through your fingers. Rather than trying to battle against the tide, go with the flow and embrace the reality of what Cameron Koczon calls Orbital Content and what Sara Wachter-Boettcher calls Future-Ready Content.

Both of those articles were published on A List Apart. But feel free to put them into a Readlist, or quote your favourite bits on Findings. And then, later, maybe you’ll return to them. Maybe you’ll read them twice. Maybe you’ll love them.

Building Matter

When I was preparing my Responsive Enhancement workshop for last year’s dConstruct, I thought I should create an example site to demonstrate the various techniques I would be talking about to demonstrate how responsive design could be combined with progressive enhancement to make something works great on any device.

Round about that time, while I was scratching my head trying to figure out what the fake example site should be, I got an email from Bobbie asking if I wanted to meet up for a coffee and a chat. We met up and he told me about a project he wanted to do with his colleague Jim Giles. They wanted to create a place for really good long-form journalism on science and technology.

“The thing is,” said Bobbie, “we want to make sure it’s readable on phones, on tablets, on Kindles, everything really. But we don’t know the best approach to take for that.”

“Well, Bobbie, it’s funny you should mention that,” I said. “I’m currently putting together a workshop all about responsive design, which sounds perfect for what you want to do. And I need to create an example site to showcase the ideas.”

It was a perfect match. Bobbie gave me his design principles, personas, and—most importantly—content. In return, he would get a prototype that would demonstrate how that content could be readable on any device; perfect for drumming up interest and investment.

The workshop went really well, and some great ideas came out of the brainstorming the attendees were doing.

A few months later, Bobbie and Jim put the project—now called Matter—up on Kickstarter. They met their target, and then some. Clearly there was a lot of interest in well-written original journalism on the web. Now they had to build it.

They got hold of Phil to do the backend so that was sorted but Bobbie asked me if I knew any kick-ass designers and front-end developers.

“Well, I would love to work on it,” I said. “So how about working with Clearleft?”

“I didn’t think you guys would be available,” he said. “I’d love to work with you!”

And so we began a very fun collaboration. Paul moved his desk next to mine and we started playing around with the visual design and front-end development. Phil and Bobbie came by and we hammered out design principles, user journeys, and all that fun stuff.

Finishing up a great day of project planning with Bobbie and Phil

It was really nice to work on a project where readability took centre stage. “Privilege the reading experience” was our motto.

Paul did some fantastic work, not just on creating a typographic system, but also creating a brand identity including what I think is a really great logo.

Wearing my @ReadMatter T-shirt

I started putting together a system of markup and CSS patterns, using the device lab to test them. Phil started implementing those patterns using Django. It all went very smoothly indeed.

Testing Placekittening

Today is launch day. Matter is live. If you backed the project on Kickstarter, you’ve got mail. If not, you can buy the first issue for a mere 99 cents.

The first piece is a doozy. It’s called Do No Harm:

Why do some people want to amputate a perfectly healthy limb? And why would any doctor help them?

If this is indicative of the kind of work that Matter will be publishing, it will definitely live up to its ambitious promise:

MATTER commissions, crafts and publishes unmissable journalism about science, technology and the ideas shaping our future.

Responsive readlist

I’m in Madison, Wisconsin where myself and Aaron are wrapping up three days of workshopping with Shopbop. It’s all going swimmingly.

This last of the three days is being spent sketching, planning and hacking some stuff together based on all the things that Aaron and I have been talking about for the first two days: progressive enhancement, responsive design, HTML5, JavaScript, ARIA …all the good stuff that Aaron packed into Adaptive Web Design.

We’re also assigning some homework: reading material for the Shopbop gang to read at their leisure after we have departed Madison. Aaron created a readlist called Adaptive Web Design and I’ve made a readlist called Responsive Enhancement.

Feel free to peruse the links contained therein and send them all to your Kindle or download them all as an epub file for the iPhone/iPad/Readmill/whatever.


Put the kettle on, make yourself a cup of tea, and settle down to read a couple of thought-provoking pieces about networked devices.

First up, Scott Jenson writes Of Bears, Bats, and Bees: Making Sense of the Internet of Things:

The Internet of Things is a growing, changing meme. Originally it was meant to invoke a giant swarm of cheap computation across the globe but recently has been morphing and blending, even insinuating, into established product concepts.

Secondly, Charles Stross has published an abridged version of a talk he gave back in June called How low (power) can you go?:

The logical end-point of Moore’s Law and Koomey’s Law is a computer for every square metre of land area on this planet — within our lifetimes. And, speaking as a science fiction writer, trying to get my head around the implications of this technology for our lives is giving me a headache. We’ve lived through the personal computing revolution, and the internet, and now the advent of convergent wireless devices — smartphones and tablets. Ubiquitous programmable sensors will, I think, be the next big step, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their impact is as big as all the earlier computing technologies combined.

And I’ll take this opportunity to once again point to one of my favourite pieces on the “Internet of Things” by Russell Davies:

The problem, though, with the Internet Of Things is that it falls apart when it starts to think about people. When big company Internet Of Things thinkers get involved they tend to spawn creepy videos about sleek people in sleek homes living optimised lives full of smart objects. These videos seem to radiate the belief that the purpose of a well-lived life is efficiency. There’s no magic or joy or silliness in it. Just an optimised, efficient existance. Perhaps that’s why the industry persists in inventing the Internet Fridge. It’s top-down design, not based on what people might fancy, but on what technologies companies are already selling.

Fortunately, though, there’s another group of people thinking about the Internet of Things - enthusiasts and inventors who are building their own internet connected things, adding connectivity and intelligence to the world in their own ways.

You can read it on your networked device or you can listen to it on your networked device …while you’re having your cup of tea …in a non-networked cup …with water from a non-networked kettle.

BBC - Podcasts - Four Thought: Russell M. Davies 21 Sept 2011 on Huffduffer


I like my Kindle. I mean, I hate the DRM and the ludicrous overpriced badly-typeset books but I really like having a browser with a free internet connection just about anywhere in the world.

The Kindle is a particularly handy device when travelling. I can load it up with science fiction and popular science books without weighing down my carry-on luggage.

But when travelling by plane, there are two points in the journey when the Kindle must be stowed. Even though it’s using e-ink, it is technically an electronic device so it must be switched off for take-off and landing. So I still find myself packing some good old-fashioned paper in my bag.

I noticed that almost all of the printed items I’ve been travelling with aren’t available from bricks’n’mortar shops. These books are generated by the internet.

Books generated by the internet

Adaptive Web Design

Aaron’s book is a great read: nice and short but with plenty of meaty hands-on practical stuff. If you haven’t bought it yet, go ahead and read the first chapter to get a taste for the quality of the writing.

Everything published by A Book Apart

I’ll admit that I’m biased because I wrote the first book and penned the foreword for the most recent one, but c’mon: these little beauties are perfect for travelling with.

Back in March when I was bouncing around within the States, Mandy gave me a copy of Erin’s brand new Elements Of Content Strategy at the start of my trip in Austin. By the time I got to the Pacific Northwest later that month, I had finished the book …just from reading it during aircraft ascents and descents.

Six-Penny Anthems II

Kevin’s somewhat-twisted sense of humour appeals to me. A lot. Six-Penny Anthems II is a great hodge-podge of his cartoons.

I distinctly remember reading this during the landing at the end of a transatlantic flight and giggling uncontrollably to myself. I may have worried my fellow passengers.


Actually, I’m not sure if this excellent collaboration between Warren Ellis, Matt Brooker and the BERG gang is suitable for take-off and landing. That’s because the accompanying ultra-violet light is technically an electronic device. But you should definitely get your hands on it.

The Manual

If you fancy some thoughtful reading material delivered in a beautiful vessel, be sure to get your hands on the first issue of Andy’s creation. Each essay is written by a web professional but you’ll find no talk of software or hardware.

I’m flying across the Atlantic to New York tomorrow for Brooklyn Beta, which I’m looking forward to immensely. I’ll have my Kindle with me for the flight. I’ll also be bringing one of those artefacts of the network with me.

The Kindle connection

There is little to do on the bus ride from Brighton to Heathrow other than to listen to an iPod. So that’s exactly what I did on Thursday morning, using the time to catch up on some podcasts.

I listened to a Radiolab short called Pass the Science featuring the author Richard Holmes. Robert Krulwich positively raves about his book The Age of Wonder.

Immediately after that, I listened to an interview with Freeman Dyson. I had to grit my teeth through the climate denialism to get to the good bits about .

Dyson on Heresy, Climate Change, and Science on Huffduffer

During the interview, the subject of books came up. I knew that Dyson occasionally reviewed a book or two, having read his article about James Gleick’s The Information. He mentioned that one of the finest books he had recently read was …The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

The coincidence was too much. I decided I had to have this book. I jotted down the name of it in my notebook. Then I remembered …I had my Kindle with me.

Risking motion sickness, I turned it on just long enough to navigate to Amazon and download the book, overcoming my loathing of its hateful DRM.

Just to recap: based on recommendations received through audio signals sent from a handheld device that stored time-shifted conversations, I connected to a global network of machines to exchange currency and download a file onto another handheld device—all whilst travelling in a moving vehicle.

Living in the future feels pretty cool.

It was even cooler when I entered a heavier-than-air metal craft that was capable of counteracting the force of gravity long enough to take me halfway around the world in just half a day.

Wandering around Shanghai in a semi-jetlagged state also feels like living in the future—given timezone considerations, I kind of am in the future—and it also feels pretty cool.

The problem with seeing so many new sights and experiencing so many new experiences is that I have grown used to sharing them with the world via Twitter. Alas, the Great Firewall of China was forcing me to go cold turkey.

But then Jessica discovered something: it turns out that the 3G Kindle can circumvent China’s censorship (for now). My feeling of disconnectedness vanished the moment I pulled up mobile.twitter.com and saw the beautifully mundane updates from my friends across the world.

I still hate the DRM and I still have issues with the ludicrous pricing models of digital books but that’s twice now in as many days that the Kindle has given me something more than just a good reading experience.

Have Kindle, will travel

I’m on my way from Florida to the Pacific Northwest. I don’t mean I’m about to set out. I mean, right now I’m in a plane flying across North America from Orlando to Seattle. This in-flight WiFi lark is quite wonderful.

There are some other technological inventions that make long journeys more bearable. There’s podcasts, of course. I’m catching up on all the audio I’ve been huffduffing and there’s some truly wonderful stuff in there.

Then there’s the Kindle. Having a choice of reading material packed into a small but comfortable to read device is extremely convenient. Mind you, for take off and landing, you’ll still need a nice slim non-electronic book, such as Erin’s marvelous The Elements of Content Strategy.

But for all of its convenience, some things about the Kindle really stick in my craw.

First of all, there’s the DRM. It’s utterly, utterly pointless and may even be infringing copyright by violating —remember kids, copyright isn’t just about protecting the rights of the content producer; it’s about the rights of the consumer too.

Then there’s the pricing. There are some books I’d really like to buy right now. I’ve got my credit in my hand, ready to hand my money over to Amazon, but then I see that the Kindle edition costs more than the paperback. Often, the Kindle edition is closer in price to the hardback. That’s just not right—or even if it is “right” for economic and legal reasons, it doesn’t intuitively feel right to me, the potential customer.

Kevin Kelly figures that electronic books will cost about a dollar within five years. Sounds about right to me. He also extrapolated that Kindles could be free by November.

The ludicrous asking price for DRM’d electrons is even more galling when the publishers clearly put no effort whatsoever into the production of the work. I really wanted to buy Surface Detail, the latest Culture novel from Iain M. Banks, but when I found reviews bemoaning the conversion quality, I put my credit card away:

I read the Kindle version, and the Kindle version has been lazily put together, I’m guessing from an earlier manuscript version. It has missing or half completed paragraphs. Very frustrating.

Jessica had already bought The City And The City by China Miéville—another book I really want to read—but she had to get a refund because the formatting was so awful.

Phil Gyford, speaking in the context of shoddily-printed physical books, sums up my frustration with the way publishers are treating Kindle editions:

I want to love books, but if the publisher treats them merely as interchangeable units, where the details don’t matter so long as the bits, the “content”, is conveyed as cheaply as possible, then we may be falling out of love.

Cennydd doesn’t even bother with the book-reading aspect of the Kindle, using it instead as an interface onto Instapaper.

The Kindle is a great lightweight reading device that’s particularly handy for travelling with—and the 3G version provides an almost miraculous permanent internet connection without any monthly contract—but the Kindle ecosystem, for all its Whispernet wonderment, is kind of nasty.

Now Amazon have decided that this ecosystem will not include third-party additions like Lendle. Even nastier.