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A workshop on evaluating technology

After hacking away at Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf, I stuck around for Beyond Tellerrand. I ended up giving a talk, stepping in for Ellen. I was a poor substitute, but I hope I entertained the lovely audience for 45 minutes.

After Beyond Tellerrand, I got on a train to Nuremberg …along with a dozen of my peers who were also at the event.

All aboard the Indie Web Train from Düsseldorf to Nürnberg. Indie Web Train.

I arrived right in the middle of Web Week Nürnberg. Among the many events going on was a workshop that Joschi arranged for me to run called Evaluating Technology. The workshop version of my Beyond Tellerrand talk, basically.

This was an evolution of a workshop I ran a while back. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous going into this. I had no tangible material prepared; no slides, no handouts, nothing. Instead the workshop is a collaborative affair. In order for it to work, the attendees needed to jump in and co-create it with me. Luckily for me, I had a fantastic and enthusiastic group of people at my workshop.

Evaluating Technology

We began with a complete braindump. “Name some tools and technologies,” I said. “Just shout ‘em out.” Shout ‘em out, they did. I struggled to keep up just writing down everything they said. This was great!

Evaluating Technology

The next step was supposed to be dot-voting on which technologies to cover, but there were so many of them, we introduced an intermediate step: grouping the technologies together.

Evaluating Technology Evaluating Technology

Once the technologies were grouped into categories like build tools, browser APIs, methodologies etc., we voted on which categories to cover, only then diving deeper into specific technologies.

I proposed a number of questions to ask of each technology we covered. First of all, who benefits from the technology? Is it a tool for designers and developers, or is it a tool for the end user? Build tools, task runners, version control systems, text editors, transpilers, and pattern libraries all fall into the first category—they make life easier for the people making websites. Browser features generally fall into the second category—they improve the experience for the end user.

Looking at user-facing technologies, we asked: how well do they fail? In other words, can you add this technology as an extra layer of enhancement on top of what you’re building or do you have to make it a foundational layer that’s potentially a single point of failure?

For both classes of technologies, we asked the question: what are the assumptions? What fundamental philosophy has been baked into the technology?

Evaluating Technology Evaluating Technology

Now, the point of this workshop is not for me to answer those questions. I have a limited range of experience with the huge amount of web technologies out there. But collectively all of us attending the workshop will have a good range of experience and knowledge.

Interesting then that the technologies people voted for were:

  • service workers,
  • progressive web apps,
  • AMP,
  • web components,
  • pattern libraries and design systems.

Those are topics I actually do have some experience with. Lots of the attendees had heard of these things, they were really interested in finding out more about them, but they hadn’t necessarily used them yet.

And so I ended up doing a lot of the talking …which wasn’t the plan at all! That was just the way things worked out. I was more than happy to share my opinions on those topics, but it was of a shame that I ended up monopolising the discussion. I felt for everyone having to listen to me ramble on.

Still, by the end of the day we had covered quite a few topics. Better yet, we had a good framework for categorising and evaluating web technologies. The specific technologies we covered were interesting enough, but the general approach provided the lasting value.

All in all, a great day with a great group of people.

Evaluating Technology

I’m already looking forward to running this workshop again. If you think it would be valuable for your company, get in touch.

Going offline at Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf

I’ve just come back from a ten-day trip to Germany. The trip kicked off with Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf over the course of a weekend.

IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017

Once again the wonderful people at Sipgate hosted us in their beautiful building, and once again myself and Aaron helped facilitate the two days.

IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017

Saturday was the BarCamp-like discussion day. Plenty of interesting topics were covered. I led a session on service workers, and that’s also what I decided to work on for the second day—that’s when the talking is done and we get down to making.

IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017 IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017 IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017 IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017

I like what Ethan is doing on his offline page. He shows a list of pages that have been cached, but instead of just listing URLs, he shows a title and description for each page.

I’ve already got a separate cache for pages that gets added to as the user browses around my site. I needed to figure out a way to store the metadata for those pages so that I could then display it on the offline page. I came up with a workable solution, and interestingly, it involved no changes to the service worker script at all.

When you visit any blog post, I put metadata about the page into localStorage (after first checking that there’s an active service worker):

if (navigator.serviceWorker && navigator.serviceWorker.controller) {
  window.addEventListener('load', function() {
    var data = {
      "title": "A minority report on artificial intelligence",
      "description": "Revisiting Spielberg’s films after a decade and a half.",
      "published": "May 7th, 2017",
      "timestamp": "1494171049"
    };
    localStorage.setItem(
      window.location.href,
      JSON.stringify(data)
    );
  });
}

In my case, I’m outputting the metadata from the server, but you could just as easily grab some from the DOM like this:

var data = {
  "title": document.querySelector("title").innerText,
  "description": document.querySelector("meta[name='description']").getAttribute("contents")
}

Meanwhile in my service worker, when you visit that same page, it gets added to a cache called “pages”. Both localStorage and the cache API are using URLs as keys. I take advantage of that on my offline page.

The nice thing about writing JavaScript on my offline page is that I know the page will only be seen by modern browsers that support service workers, so I can use all sorts of fancy from ES6, or whatever we’re calling it now.

I start by looping through the keys of the “pages” cache (that’s right—the cache API isn’t just for service workers; you can access it from any script). Then I check to see if there is a corresponding localStorage key with the same string (a URL). If there is, I pull the metadata out of local storage and add it to an array called browsingHistory:

const browsingHistory = [];
caches.open('pages')
.then( cache => {
  cache.keys()
  .then(keys => {
    keys.forEach( request => {
      let data = JSON.parse(localStorage.getItem(request.url));
        if (data) {
          data['url'] = request.url;
          browsingHistory.push(data);
      }
    });

Then I sort the list of pages in reverse chronological order:

browsingHistory.sort( (a,b) => {
  return b.timestamp - a.timestamp;
});

Now I loop through each page in the browsing history list and construct a link to each URL, complete with title and description:

let markup = '';
browsingHistory.forEach( data => {
  markup += `
<h2><a href="${ data.url }">${ data.title }</a></h2>
<p>${ data.description }</p>
<p class="meta">${ data.published }</p>
`;
});

Finally I dump the constructed markup into a waiting div in the page with an ID of “history”:

let container = document.getElementById('history');
container.insertAdjacentHTML('beforeend', markup);

All those steps need to be wrapped inside the then clause attached to caches.open("pages") because the cache API is asynchronous.

There you have it. Now if you’re browsing adactio.com and your network connection drops (or my server goes offline), you can choose from a list of pages you’ve previously visited.

The current situation isn’t ideal though. I’ve got a clean-up operation in my service worker to limit the number of items stored in my “pages” cache. The cache never gets bigger than 35 items. But there’s no corresponding clean-up of metadata stored in localStorage. So there could be a lot more bits of metadata in local storage than there are pages in the cache. It’s not harmful, but it’s a bit wasteful.

I can’t do a clean-up of localStorage from my service worker because service workers can’t access localStorage. There’s a very good reason for that: the localStorage API is synchronous, and everything that happens in a service worker needs to be asynchronous.

Service workers can access indexedDB: it’s asynchronous. I could use indexedDB instead of localStorage, but I’m not a masochist. My best bet would be to use the localForage library, which wraps indexedDB in the simple syntax of localStorage.

Maybe I’ll do that at the next Homebrew Website Club here in Brighton.

Sponsoring Patterns Day

It didn’t take long for Patterns Day to sell out (in the sense of the tickets all being sold; not in the sense of going mainstream and selling out to The Man).

I’m very pleased about the ticket situation. It certainly makes my life easier. Now I can concentrate on the logistics for the day, without having to worry about trying to flog tickets AKA marketing.

But I also feel bad. Some people who really, really wanted to come weren’t able to get tickets in time. This is usually because they work at a company where to have to get clearance for the time off, and the cost of the ticket. By the time the word came down from on high that they’ve got the green light, the tickets were already gone. That’s a real shame.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope on the horizon. There is one last chance to get tickets for Patterns Day, and that’s through sponsorship.

Here’s the deal: if I can get some things sponsored (like recordings of the talks, tea and coffee for the day, or an after-party), I can offer a few tickets in return. I can also offer your logo on the Patterns Day website, your logo on the slide between talks, and a shout-out on stage. But that’s pretty much it. I can’t offer a physical stand at the event—there just isn’t enough room. And I certainly can’t offer you a list of attendee details for your marketing list—that’s just wrong.

In order of priority, here’s what I would love to get sponsored, and here’s what I can offer in return:

  1. £2000: Sponsoring video recordings of the talks—4 tickets. This is probably the best marketing opportunity for your company; we can slap your logo at the start and end of each video when they go online.
  2. £2000: Sponsoring tea and coffee for attendees for the day—4 tickets. This is a fixed price, set by the venue.
  3. £2000+: Sponsoring an after-party near the conference—4 tickets. Ideally you’d take care of booking a venue for this, and you can go crazy decking it out with your branding. Two pubs right across from the conference venue have upstairs rooms you can book: The Joker, and The Hare And Hounds.

There you have it. There’s no room for negotiation, I’m afraid, but I think they’re pretty good deals. Remember, by sponsoring Patterns Day you’ll also have my undying gratitude, and the goodwill of all my peers coming to this event.

Reckon you can convince your marketing department? Drop me a line, let me know which sponsorship option you’d like to snap up, and those four tickets could be yours.

Patterns Day speakers

Ticket sales for Patterns Day are going quite, quite briskly. If you’d like to come along, but you don’t yet have a ticket, you might want to remedy that. Especially when you hear about who else is going to be speaking…

Sareh Heidari works at the BBC building websites for a global audience, in as many as twenty different languages. If you want to know about strategies for using CSS at scale, you definitely want to hear this talk. She just stepped off stage at the excellent CSSconf EU in Berlin, and I’m so happy that Sareh’s coming to Brighton!

Patterns Day isn’t the first conference about design systems and pattern libraries on the web. That honour goes to the Clarity conference, organised by the brilliant Jina Anne. I was gutted I couldn’t make it to Clarity last year. By all accounts, it was excellent. When I started to form the vague idea of putting on an event here in the UK, I immediately contacted Jina to make sure she was okay with it—I didn’t want to step on her toes. Not only was she okay with it, but she really wanted to come along to attend. Well, never mind attending, I said, how about speaking?

I couldn’t be happier that Jina agreed to speak. She has had such a huge impact on the world of pattern libraries through her work with the Lightning design system, Clarity, and the Design Systems Slack channel.

The line-up is now complete. Looking at the speakers, I find myself grinning from ear to ear—it’s going to be an honour to introduce each and every one of them.

This is going to be such an excellent day of fun and knowledge. I can’t wait for June 30th!

Styling the Patterns Day site

Once I had a design direction for the Patterns Day site, I started combining my marked-up content with some CSS. Ironically for an event that’s all about maintainability and reusability, I wrote the styles for this one-page site with no mind for future use. I treated the page as a one-shot document. I even used ID selectors—gasp! (the IDs were in the HTML anyway as fragment identifiers).

The truth is I didn’t have much of a plan. I just started hacking away in a style element in the head of the document, playing around with colour, typography, and layout.

I started with the small-screen styles. That wasn’t a conscious decision so much as just the way I do things automatically now. When it came time to add some layout for wider viewports, I used a sprinkling of old-fashioned display: inline-block so that things looked so-so. I knew I wanted to play around with Grid layout so the inline-block styles were there as fallback for non-supporting browsers. Once things looked good enough, the fun really started.

I was building the site while I was in Seattle for An Event Apart. CSS Grid layout was definitely a hot topic there. Best of all, I was surrounded by experts: Jen, Rachel, and Eric. It was the perfect environment for me to dip my toes into the waters of grid.

Jen was very patient in talking me through the concepts, syntax, and tools for using CSS grids. Top tip: open Firefox’s inspector, select the element with the display:grid declaration, and click the “waffle” icon—instant grid overlay!

For the header of the Patterns Day site, I started by using named areas. That’s the ASCII-art approach. I got my head around it and it worked okay, but it didn’t give me quite the precision I wanted. I switched over to using explicit grid-row and grid-column declarations.

It’s definitely a new way of thinking about layout: first you define the grid, then you place the items on it (rather than previous CSS layout systems where each element interacted with the elements before and after). It was fun to move things around and not have to worry about the source order of the elements …as long as they were direct children of the element with display:grid applied.

Without any support for sub-grids, I ended up having to nest two separate grids within one another. The logo is a grid parent, which is inside the header, also a grid parent. I managed to get things to line up okay, but I think this might be a good use case for sub-grids.

The logo grid threw up some interesting challenges. I wanted each letter of the words “Patterns Day” to be styleable, but CSS doesn’t give us any way to target individual letters other than :first-letter. I wrapped each letter in a b element, made sure that they were all wrapped in an element with an aria-hidden attribute (so that the letters wouldn’t be spelled out), and then wrapped that in an element with an aria-label of “Patterns Day.” Now I could target those b elements.

For a while, I also had a br element (between “Patterns” and “Day”). That created some interesting side effects. If a br element becomes a grid item, it starts to behave very oddly: you can apply certain styles but not others. Jen and Eric then started to test other interesting elements, like hr. There was much funkiness and gnashing of specs.

It was a total nerdfest, and I loved every minute of it. This is definitely the most excitement I’ve felt around CSS for a while. It feels like a renaissance of zen gardens and layout reservoirs (kids, ask your parents).

After a couple of days playing around with grid, I had the Patterns Day site looking decent enough to launch. I dabbled with some other fun CSS stuff in there too, like gratuitous clip paths and filters when hovering over the speaker images, and applying shape-outside with an image mask.

Go ahead and view source on the Patterns Day page if you want—I ended up keeping all the CSS in the head of the document. That turned out to be pretty good for performance …for first-time visits anyway. But after launching the site, I couldn’t resist applying some more performance tweaks.

Designing the Patterns Day site

Patterns Day is not one of Clearleft’s slick’n’smooth conferences like dConstruct or UX London. It’s more of a spit’n’sawdust affair, like Responsive Day Out.

You can probably tell from looking at the Patterns Day website that it wasn’t made by a crack team of designers and developers—it’s something I threw together over the course of a few days. I had a lot of fun doing it.

I like designing in the browser. That’s how I ended up designing Resilient Web Design, The Session, and Huffduffer back in the day. But there’s always the initial problem of the blank page. I mean, I had content to work with (the information about the event), but I had no design direction.

My designery colleagues at Clearleft were all busy on client projects so I couldn’t ask any of them to design a website, but I thought perhaps they’d enjoy a little time-limited side exercise in producing ideas for a design direction. Initially I was thinking they could all get together for a couple of hours, lock themselves in a room, and bash out some ideas as though it were a mini hack farm. Coordinating calendars proved too tricky for that. So Jon came up with an alternative: a baton relay.

Remember Layer Tennis? I once did the commentary for a Layer Tennis match and it was a riot—simultaneously terrifying and rewarding.

Anyway, Jon suggested something kind of like that, but instead of a file being batted back and forth between two designers, the file would passed along from designer to designer. Each designer gets one art board in a Sketch file. You get to see what the previous designers have done, leaving you to either riff on that or strike off in a new direction.

The only material I supplied was an early draft of text for the website, some photos of the first confirmed speakers, and some photos I took of repeating tiles when I was in Porto (patterns, see?). I made it clear that I wasn’t looking for pages or layouts—I was interested in colour, typography, texture and “feel.” Style tiles, yes; comps, no.

Jon

Jon’s art board.

Jon kicks things off and immediately sets the tone with bright, vibrant colours. You can already see some elements that made it into the final site like the tiling background image of shapes, and the green-bordered text block. There are some interesting logo ideas in there too, some of them riffing on LEGO, others riffing on illustrations from Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language. Then there’s the typeface: Avenir Next. I like it.

James G

James G’s art board.

Jimmy G is up next. He concentrates on the tiles idea. You can see some of the original photos from Porto in the art board, alongside his abstracted versions. I think they look great, and I tried really hard to incorporate them into the site, but I couldn’t quite get them to sit with the other design elements. Looking at them now, I still want to get them into the site …maybe I’ll tinker with the speaker portraits to get something more like what James shows here.

Ed

Ed’s art board.

Ed picks up the baton and immediately iterates through a bunch of logo ideas. There’s something about the overlapping text that I like, but I’m not sure it fits for this particular site. I really like the effect of the multiple borders though. With a bit more time, I’d like to work this into the site.

James B

Batesy’s art board.

Batesy is the final participant. He has some other nice ideas in there, like the really subtle tiling background that also made its way into the final site (but I’ll pass on the completely illegible text on the block of bright green). James works through two very different ideas for the logo. One of them feels a bit too busy and chaotic for me, but the other one …I like it a lot.

I immediately start thinking “Hmm …how could I make this work in a responsive way?” This is exactly the impetus I needed. At this point I start diving into CSS. Not only did I have some design direction, I’m champing at the bit to play with some of these ideas. The exercise was a success!

Feel free to poke around the Patterns Day site. And while you’re there, pick up a ticket for the event too.

Announcing Patterns Day: June 30th

Gather ‘round, my friends. I’ve got a big announcement.

You should come to Brighton on Friday, June 30th. Why? Well, apart from the fact that you can have a lovely Summer weekend by the sea, that’s when a brand new one-day event will be happening:

Patterns Day!

That’s right—a one-day event dedicated to all things patterny: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and all that good stuff. I’m putting together a world-class line-up of speakers. So far I’ve already got:

It’s going to be a brain-bendingly good day of ideas, case studies, processes, and techniques with something for everyone, whether you’re a designer, developer, product owner, content strategist, or project manager.

Best of all, it’s taking place in the splendid Duke Of York’s Picture House. If you’ve been to Remy’s FFconf then you’ll know what a great venue it is—such comfy, comfy seats! Well, Patterns Day will be like a cross between FFconf and Responsive Day Out.

Tickets are £150+VAT. Grab yours now. Heck, bring the whole team. Let’s face it, this is a topic that everyone is struggling with so we’re all going to benefit from getting together for a day with your peers to hammer out the challenges of pattern libraries and design systems.

I’m really excited about this! I would love to see you in Brighton on the 30th of June for Patterns Day. It’s going to be fun!

Getting griddy with it

I had the great pleasure of attending An Event Apart Seattle last week. It was, as always, excellent.

It’s always interesting to see themes emerge during an event, especially when those thematic overlaps haven’t been planned in advance. Jen noticed this one:

I remember that being a theme at An Event Apart San Francisco too, when it seemed like every speaker had words to say about ill-judged use of Bootstrap. That theme was certainly in my presentation when I talked about “the fallacy of assumed competency”:

  1. large company X uses technology Y,
  2. company X must know what they are doing because they are large,
  3. therefore technology Y must be good.

Perhaps “the fallacy of assumed suitability” would be a better term. Heydon calls it “the ‘made at Facebook’ fallacy.” But I also made sure to contrast it with the opposite extreme: “Not Invented Here syndrome”.

As well as over-arching themes, it was also interesting to see which technologies were hot topics at An Event Apart. There was one clear winner here—CSS Grid Layout.

Microsoft—a sponsor of the event—used An Event Apart as the place to announce that Grid is officially moving into development for Edge. Jen talked about Grid (of course). Rachel talked about Grid (of course). And while Eric and Una didn’t talk about it on stage, they’ve both been writing about the fun they’ve been having having with Grid. Una wrote about 3 CSS Grid Features That Make My Heart Flutter. Eric is documenting the overall of his site with Grid. So when we were all gathered together, that’s what we were nerding out about.

The CSS Squad.

There are some great resources out there for levelling up in Grid-fu:

With Jen’s help, I’ve been playing with CSS Grid on a little site that I’m planning to launch tomorrow (he said, foreshadowingly). I took me a while to get my head around it, but once it clicked I started to have a lot of fun. “Fun” seems to be the overall feeling around this technology. There’s something infectious about the excitement and enthusiasm that’s returning to the world of layout on the web. And now that the browser support is great pretty much across the board, we can start putting that fun into production.

Code (p)reviews

I’m not a big fan of job titles. I’ve always had trouble defining what I do as a noun—I much prefer verbs (“I make websites” sounds fine, but “website maker” sounds kind of weird).

Mind you, the real issue is not finding the right words to describe what I do, but rather figuring out just what the heck it is that I actually do in the first place.

According to the Clearleft website, I’m a technical director. That doesn’t really say anything about what I do. To be honest, I tend to describe my work these days in terms of what I don’t do: I don’t tend to write a lot of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript on client projects (although I keep my hand in with internal projects, and of course, personal projects).

Instead, I try to make sure that the people doing the actual coding—Mark, Graham, and Danielle—are happy and have everything they need to get on with their work. From outside, it might look like my role is managerial, but I see it as the complete opposite. They’re not in service to me; I’m in service to them. If they’re not happy, I’m not doing my job.

There’s another aspect to this role of technical director, and it’s similar to the role of a creative director. Just as a creative director is responsible for the overall direction and quality of designs being produced, I have an oversight over the quality of front-end output. I don’t want to be a bottleneck in the process though, and to be honest, most of the time I don’t do much checking on the details of what’s being produced because I completely trust Mark, Graham, and Danielle to produce top quality code.

But I feel I should be doing more. Again, it’s not that I want to be a bottleneck where everything needs my approval before it gets delivered, but I hope that I could help improve everyone’s output.

Now the obvious way to do this is with code reviews. I do it a bit, but not nearly as much as I should. And even when I do, I always feel it’s a bit late to be spotting any issues. After all, the code has already been written. Also, who am I to try to review the code produced by people who are demonstrably better at coding than I am?

Instead I think it will be more useful for me to stick my oar in before a line of code has been written; to sit down with someone and talk through how they’re going to approach solving a particular problem, creating a particular pattern, or implementing a particular user story.

I suppose it’s really not that different to rubber ducking. Having someone to talk out loud with about potential solutions can be really valuable in my experience.

So I’m going to start doing more code previews. I think it will also incentivise me to do more code reviews—being involved in the initial discussion of a solution means I’m going to want to see the final result.

But I don’t think this should just apply to front-end code. I’d also like to exercise this role as technical director with the designers on a project.

All too often, decisions are made in the design phase that prove problematic in development. It usually works out okay, but it often means revisiting the designs in light of some technical considerations. I’d like to catch those issues sooner. That means sticking my nose in much earlier in the process, talking through what the designers are planning to do, and keeping an eye out for any potential issues.

So, as technical director, I won’t be giving feedback like “the colour’s not working for me” or “not sure about those type choices” (I’ll leave that to the creative director), but instead I can ask questions like “how will this work without hover?” or “what happens when the user does this?” as well as pointing out solutions that might be tricky or time-consuming to implement from a technical perspective.

What I want to avoid is the swoop’n’poop, when someone seagulls in after something has been designed or built and points out all the problems. The earlier in the process any potential issues can be spotted, the better.

And I think that’s my job.

Progressive Web App questions

I got a nice email recently from Colin van Eenige. He wrote:

For my graduation project I’m researching the development of Progressive Web Apps and found your offline book called resilient web design. I was very impressed by the implementation of the website and it really was a nice experience.

I’m very interested in your vision on progressive web apps and what capabilities are waiting for us regarding offline content. Would it be fine if I’d send you some questions?

I said that would be fine, although I couldn’t promise a swift response. He sent me four questions. I finally got ‘round to sending my answers…

1. https://resilientwebdesign.com/ is an offline web book (progressive web app). What was the primary reason make it available like this (besides the other formats)?

Well, given the subject matter, it felt right that the canonical version of the book should be not just online, but made with the building blocks of the web. The other formats are all nice to have, but the HTML version feels (to me) like the “real” book.

Interestingly, it wasn’t too much trouble for people to generate other formats from the HTML (ePub, MOBI, PDF), whereas I think trying to go in the other direction would be trickier.

As for the offline part, that felt like a natural fit. I had already done that with a previous book of mine, HTML5 For Web Designers, which I put online a year or two after its print publication. In that case, I used AppCache for the offline functionality. AppCache is horrible, but this use case might be one of the few where it works well: a static book that’s never going to change. Cache invalidation is one of the worst parts of using AppCache so by not having any kinds of updates at all, I dodged that bullet.

But when it came time for Resilient Web Design, a service worker was definitely the right technology. Still, I’ve got AppCache in there as well for the browsers that don’t yet support service workers.

2. What effect you you think Progressive Web Apps will have on content consuming and do you think these will take over the purpose of some Native Apps?

The biggest effect that service workers could have is to change the expectations that people have about using the web, especially on mobile devices. Right now, people associate the web on mobile with long waits and horrible spammy overlays. Service workers can help solve that first part.

If people then start adding sites to their home screen, that will be a great sign that the web is really holding its own. But I don’t think we should get too optimistic about that: for a user, there’s no difference between a prompt on their screen saying “add to home screen” and a prompt on their screen saying “download our app”—they’re equally likely to be dismissed because we’ve trained people to dismiss anything that covers up the content they actually came for.

It’s entirely possible that websites could start taking over much of the functionality that previously was only possible in a native app. But I think that inertia and habit will keep people using native apps for quite some time.

The big exception is in markets where storage space on devices is in short supply. That’s where the decision to install a native app isn’t taken likely (given the choice between your family photos and an app, most people will reject the app). The web can truly shine here if we build lightweight, performant services.

Even in that situation, I’m still not sure how many people will end up adding those sites to their home screen (it might feel so similar to installing a native app that there may be some residual worry about storage space) but I don’t think that’s too much of a problem: if people get to a site via search or typing, that’s fine.

I worry that the messaging around “progressive web apps” is perhaps over-fetishising the home screen. I don’t think that’s the real battleground. The real battleground is in people’s heads; how they perceive the web and how they perceive native.

After all, if the average number of native apps installed in a month is zero, then that’s not exactly a hard target to match. :-)

3. What is your vision regarding Progressive Web Apps?

For me, progressive web apps don’t feel like a separate thing from making websites. I worry that the marketing of them might inflate expectations or confuse people. I like the idea that they’re simply websites that have taken their vitamins.

So my vision for progressive web apps is the same as my vision for the web: something that people use every day for all sorts of tasks.

I find it really discouraging that progressive web apps are becoming conflated with single page apps and the app shell model. Those architectural decisions have nothing to do with service workers, HTTPS, and manifest files. Yet I keep seeing the concepts used interchangeably. It would be a real shame if people chose not to use these great technologies just because they don’t classify what they’re building as an “app.”

If anything, it’s good ol’ fashioned content sites (newspapers, wikipedia, blogs, and yes, books) that can really benefit from the turbo boost of service worker+HTTPS+manifest.

I was at a conference recently where someone was given a talk encouraging people to build progressive web apps but discouraging people from doing it for their own personal sites. That’s a horrible, elitist attitude. I worry that this attitude is being codified in the term “progressive web app”.

4. What is the biggest learning you’ve had since working on Progressive Web Apps?

Well, like I said, I think that some people are focusing a bit too much on the home screen and not enough on the benefits that service workers can provide to just about any website.

My biggest learning is that these technologies aren’t for a specific subset of services, but can benefit just about anything that’s on the web. I mean, just using a service worker to explicitly cache static assets like CSS, JS, and some images is a no-brainer for almost any project.

So there you go—I’m very excited about the capabilities of these technologies, but very worried about how they’re being “sold”. I’m particularly nervous that in the rush to emulate native apps, we end up losing the very thing that makes the web so powerful: URLs.

Empire State

I’m in New York. Again. This time it’s for Google’s AMP Conf, where I’ll be giving ‘em a piece of my mind on a panel.

The conference starts tomorrow so I’ve had a day or two to acclimatise and explore. Seeing as Google are footing the bill for travel and accommodation, I’m staying at a rather nice hotel close to the conference venue in Tribeca. There’s live jazz in the lounge most evenings, a cinema downstairs, and should I request it, I can even have a goldfish in my room.

Today I realised that my hotel sits in the apex of a triangle of interesting buildings: carrier hotels.

32 Avenue Of The Americas.Telephone wires and radio unite to make neighbors of nations

Looming above my hotel is 32 Avenue of the Americas. On the outside the building looks like your classic Gozer the Gozerian style of New York building. Inside, the lobby features a mosaic on the ceiling, and another on the wall extolling the connective power of radio and telephone.

The same architects also designed 60 Hudson Street, which has a similar Art Deco feel to it. Inside, there’s a cavernous hallway running through the ground floor but I can’t show you a picture of it. A security guard told me I couldn’t take any photos inside …which is a little strange seeing as it’s splashed across the website of the building.

60 Hudson.HEADQUARTERS The Western Union Telegraph Co. and telegraph capitol of the world 1930-1973

I walked around the outside of 60 Hudson, taking more pictures. Another security guard asked me what I was doing. I told her I was interested in the history of the building, which is true; it was the headquarters of Western Union. For much of the twentieth century, it was a world hub of telegraphic communication, in much the same way that a beach hut in Porthcurno was the nexus of the nineteenth century.

For a 21st century hub, there’s the third and final corner of the triangle at 33 Thomas Street. It’s a breathtaking building. It looks like a spaceship from a Chris Foss painting. It was probably designed more like a spacecraft than a traditional building—it’s primary purpose was to withstand an atomic blast. Gone are niceties like windows. Instead there’s an impenetrable monolith that looks like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi film.

33 Thomas Street.33 Thomas Street, New York

Brutalist on the outside, its interior is host to even more brutal acts of invasive surveillance. The Snowden papers revealed this AT&T building to be a centrepiece of the Titanpointe programme:

They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.

But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States…

Looking at the building, it requires very little imagination to picture it as the lair of villainous activity. Laura Poitras’s short film Project X basically consists of a voiceover of someone reading an NSA manual, some ominous background music, and shots of 33 Thomas Street looming in its oh-so-loomy way.

A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on classified NSA documents, Project X reveals the inner workings of a windowless skyscraper in downtown Manhattan.

Small steps

The new Clearleft website is live! Huzzah!

Many people have been working very hard on it and it’s all looking rather nice. But, as I said before, the site launch isn’t the end—it’s just the beginning.

There are some obvious next steps: fixing bugs, adding content, tweaking copy, and, oh yeah, that whole “testing with real users” thing. But there’s also an opportunity to have some fun on the front end. Now that the site is out there in the wild, there’s a real incentive to improve its performance.

Off the top of my head, these are some areas where I think we can play around:

  • Font loading. Right now the site is just using @font-face. A smart font-loading strategy—at least for the body copy—could really help improve the perceived performance.
  • Responsive images. A long-term solution will require some wrangling on the back end, but I reckon we can come up with some way of generating different sized images to reference in srcset.
  • Service worker. It’s a no-brainer. Now that the Clearleft site is (finally!) running on HTTPS, having a simple service worker to cache static assets like CSS, JavaScript and some images seems like the obvious next step. The question is: what other offline shenanigans could we get up to?

I’m looking forward to tinkering with some of those technologies. Each one should make an incremental improvement to the site’s performance. There are already some steps on the back-end that are making a big difference: upgrading to PHP7 and using HTTP2.

Now the real fun begins.

Long betting

It has been exactly six years to the day since I instantiated this prediction:

The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.

It is exactly five years to the day until the prediction condition resolves to a Boolean true or false.

If it resolves to true, The Bletchly Park Trust will receive $1000.

If it resolves to false, The Internet Archive will receive $1000.

Much as I would like Bletchley Park to get the cash, I’m hoping to lose this bet. I don’t want my pessimism about URL longevity to be rewarded.

So, to recap, the bet was placed on

02011-02-22

It is currently

02017-02-22

And the bet times out on

02022-02-22.

Amber

I really enjoyed teaching in Porto last week. It was like having a week-long series of CodeBar sessions.

Whenever I’m teaching at CodeBar, I like to be paired up with people who are just starting out. There’s something about explaining the web and HTML from first principles that I really like. And people often have lots and lots of questions that I enjoy answering (if I can). At CodeBar—and at The New Digital School—I found myself saying “Great question!” multiple times. The really great questions are the ones that I respond to with “I don’t know …let’s find out!”

CodeBar is always a very rewarding experience for me. It has given me the opportunity to try teaching. And having tried it, I can now safely say that I like it. It’s also a great chance to meet people from all walks of life. It gets me out of my bubble.

I can’t remember when I was first paired up with Amber at CodeBar. It must have been sometime last year. I do remember that she had lots of great questions—at some point I found myself explaining how hexadecimal colours work.

I was impressed with Amber’s eagerness to learn. I also liked that she was making her own website. I told her about Homebrew Website Club and she started coming along to that (along with other CodeBar people like Cassie and Alice).

I’ve mentioned to multiple CodeBar students that there’s pretty much an open-door policy at Clearleft when it comes to shadowing: feel free to come along and sit with a front-end developer while they’re working on client projects. A few people have taken up the offer and enjoyed observing myself or Charlotte at work. Amber was one of those people. Again, I was very impressed with her drive. She’s got a full-time job (with sometimes-crazy hours) but she’s so determined to get into the world of web design and development that she’s willing to spend her free time visiting Clearleft to soak up the atmosphere of a design studio.

We’ve decided to turn this into something more structured. Amber and I will get together for a couple of hours once a week. She’s given me a list of some of the areas she wants to explore, and I think it’s a fine-looking list:

  • I want to gather base, structural knowledge about the web and all related aspects. Things seem to float around in a big cloud at the moment.
  • I want to adhere to best practices.
  • I want to learn more about what direction I want to go in, find a niche.
  • I’d love to opportunity to chat with the brilliant people who work at Clearleft and gain a broad range of knowledge from them.

My plan right now is to take a two-track approach: one track about the theory, and another track about the practicalities. The practicalities will be HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and related technologies. The theory will be about understanding the history of the web and its strengths and weaknesses as a medium. And I want to make sure there’s plenty of UX, research, information architecture and content strategy covered too.

Seeing as we’ll only have a couple of hours every week, this won’t be quite like the masterclass I just finished up in Porto. Instead I imagine I’ll be laying some groundwork and then pointing to topics to research. I guess it’s a kind of homework. For example, after we talked today, I set Amber this little bit of research for the next time we meet: “What is the difference between the internet and the World Wide Web?”

I’m excited to see where this will lead. I find Amber’s drive and enthusiasm very inspiring. I also feel a certain weight of responsibility—I don’t want to enter into this lightly.

I’m not really sure what to call this though. Is it mentorship? Or is it coaching? Or training? All of the above?

Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to documenting the journey. Amber will be writing about it too. She is already demonstrating a way with words.

Teaching in Porto, day four

Day one covered HTML (amongst other things), day two covered CSS, and day three covered JavaScript. Each one of those days involved a certain amount of hands-on coding, with the students getting their hands dirty with angle brackets, curly braces, and semi-colons.

Day four was a deliberate step away from all that. No more laptops, just paper. Whereas the previous days had focused on collaboratively working on a single document, today I wanted everyone to work on a separate site.

The sites were generated randomly. I made five cards with types of sites on them: news, social network, shopping, travel, and learning. Another five cards had subjects: books, music, food, pets, and cars. And another five cards had audiences: students, parents, the elderly, commuters, and teachers. Everyone was dealt a random card from each deck, resulting in briefs like “a travel site about food for the elderly” or “a social network about music for commuters.”

For a bit of fun, the first brainstorming exercise (run as a 6-up) was to come with potential names for this service—4 minutes for 6 ideas. Then we went around the table, shared the ideas, got feedback, and settled on the names.

Now I asked everyone to come up with a one-sentence mission statement for their newly-named service. This was a good way of teasing out the most important verbs and nouns, which led nicely into the next task: answering the question “what is the core functionality?”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the first part of the three-step process I outlined in Resilient Web Design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

We did some URL design, figuring out what structures would make sense for straightforward GET requests, like:

  • /things
  • /things/ID

Then, once it was clear what the primary “thing” was (a car, a book, etc.), I asked them to write down all the pieces that might appear on such a page; one post-it note per item e.g. “title”, “description”, “img”, “rating”, etc.

The next step involved prioritisation. They took those post-it notes and put them on the wall, but they had to put them in a vertical line from top to bottom in decreasing order of importance. This can be a challenge, but it’s better to solve these problems now rather than later.

Okay. I know asked them to “mark up” those vertical lists of post-it notes: writing HTML tag names by each one. By doing this before doing any visual design, it meant they were thinking about the meaning of the content first.

After that, we did a good ol’ fashioned classic 6-up sketching exercise, followed by critique (including a “designated dissenter” for each round). At this point, I was encouraging them to go crazy with ideas—they already had the core functionality figured out (with plain ol’ client/server requests and responses) so they could all the bells and whistles they wanted on top of that.

We finished up with a discussion of some of those bells and whistles, and how they could be used to improve the user experience: Ajax, geolocation, service workers, notifications, background sync …the sky’s the limit.

It was a whirlwind tour for just one day but I think it helped emphasise the importance of thinking about the fundamentals before adding enhancements.

This marked the end of the structured masterclass lessons. Tomorrow I’m around to answer any miscellaneous questions (if I can) and chat to the students individually while they work on their term projects.

Teaching in Porto, day three

Day two ended with a bit of a cliffhanger as I had the students mark up a document, but not yet style it. In the morning of day three, the styling began.

Rather than just treat “styling” as one big monolithic task, I broke it down into typography, colour, negative space, and so on. We time-boxed each one of those parts of the visual design. So everyone got, say, fifteen minutes to write styles relating to font families and sizes, then another fifteen minutes to write styles for colours and background colours. Bit by bit, the styles were layered on.

When it came to layout, we closed the laptops and returned to paper. Everyone did a quick round of 6-up sketching so that there was plenty of fast iteration on layout ideas. That was followed by some critique and dot-voting of the sketches.

Rather than diving into the CSS for layout—which can get quite complex—I instead walked through the approach for layout; namely putting all your layout styles inside media queries. To explain media queries, I first explained media types and then introduced the query part.

I felt pretty confident that I could skip over the nitty-gritty of media queries and cross-device layout because the next masterclass that will be taught at the New Digital School will be a week of responsive design, taught by Vitaly. I just gave them a taster—Vitaly can dive deeper.

By lunch time, I felt that we had covered CSS pretty well. After lunch it was time for the really challenging part: JavaScript.

The reason why I think JavaScript is challenging is that it’s inherently more complex than HTML or CSS. Those are declarative languages with fairly basic concepts at heart (elements, attributes, selectors, etc.), whereas an imperative language like JavaScript means entering the territory of logic, loops, variables, arrays, objects, and so on. I really didn’t want to get stuck in the weeds with that stuff.

I focused on the combination of JavaScript and the Document Object Model as a way of manipulating the HTML and CSS that’s already inside a browser. A lot of that boils down to this pattern:

When (some event happens), then (take this action).

We brainstormed some examples of this e.g. “When the user submits a form, then show a modal dialogue with an acknowledgement.” I then encouraged them to write a script …but I don’t mean a script in the JavaScript sense; I mean a script in the screenwriting or theatre sense. Line by line, write out each step that you want to accomplish. Once you’ve done that, translate each line of your English (or Portuguese) script into JavaScript.

I did quick demo as a proof of concept (which, much to my surprise, actually worked first time), but I was at pains to point out that they didn’t need to remember the syntax or vocabulary of the script; it was much more important to have a clear understanding of the thinking behind it.

With the remaining time left in the day, we ran through the many browser APIs available to JavaScript, from the relatively simple—like querySelector and Ajax—right up to the latest device APIs. I think I got the message across that, using JavaScript, there’s practically no limit to what you can do on the web these days …but the trick is to use that power responsibly.

At this point, we’ve had three days and we’ve covered three layers of web technologies: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Tomorrow we’ll take a step back from the nitty-gritty of the code. It’s going to be all about how to plan and think about building for the web before a single line of code gets written.

From New York to Porto

February is shaping up to be a busy travel month. I’ve just come back from spending a week in New York as part of a ten-strong Clearleft expedition to this year’s Interaction conference.

There were some really good talks at the event, but alas, the muti-track format made it difficult to see all of them. Continuous partial FOMO was the order of the day. Still, getting to see Christina Xu and Brenda Laurel made it all worthwhile.

To be honest, the conference was only part of the motivation for the trip. Spending a week in New York with a gaggle of Clearlefties was its own reward. We timed it pretty well, being there for the Superb Owl, and for a seasonal snowstorm. A winter trip to New York just wouldn’t be complete without a snowball fight in Central Park.

Funnily enough, I’m going to back in New York in just three weeks’ time for AMP conf at the start of March. I’ve been invited along to be the voice of dissent on a panel—a brave move by the AMP team. I wonder if they know what they’re letting themselves in for.

Before that though, I’m off to Porto for a week. I’ll be teaching at the New Digital School, running a masterclass in progressive enhancement:

In this masterclass we’ll dive into progressive enhancement, a layered approach to building for the web that ensures access for all. Content, structure, presentation, and behaviour are each added in a careful, well-thought out way that makes the end result more resilient to the inherent variability of the web.

I must admit I’ve got a serious case of imposter syndrome about this. A full week of teaching—I mean, who am I to teach anything? I’m hoping that my worries and nervousness will fall by the wayside once I start geeking out with the students about all things web. I’ve sorta kinda got an outline of what I want to cover during the week, but for the most part, I’m winging it.

I’ll try to document the week as it progresses. And you can certainly expect plenty of pictures of seafood and port wine.

Making Resilient Web Design work offline

I’ve written before about taking an online book offline, documenting the process behind the web version of HTML5 For Web Designers. A book is quite a static thing so it’s safe to take a fairly aggressive offline-first approach. In fact, a static unchanging book is one of the few situations that AppCache works for. Of course a service worker is better, but until AppCache is removed from browsers (and until service worker is supported across the board), I’m using both. I wouldn’t recommend that for most sites though—for most sites, use a service worker to enhance it, and avoid AppCache like the plague.

For Resilient Web Design, I took a similar approach to HTML5 For Web Designers but I knew that there was a good chance that some of the content would be getting tweaked at least for a while. So while the approach is still cache-first, I decided to keep the cache fairly fresh.

Here’s my service worker. It starts with the usual stuff: when the service worker is installed, there’s a list of static assets to cache. In this case, that list is literally everything; all the HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and images for the whole site. Again, this is a pattern that works well for a book, but wouldn’t be right for other kinds of websites.

The real heavy lifting happens with the fetch event. This is where the logic sits for what the service worker should do everytime there’s a request for a resource. I’ve documented the logic with comments:

// Look in the cache first, fall back to the network
  // CACHE
  // Did we find the file in the cache?
      // If so, fetch a fresh copy from the network in the background
      // NETWORK
          // Stash the fresh copy in the cache
  // NETWORK
  // If the file wasn't in the cache, make a network request
      // Stash a fresh copy in the cache in the background
  // OFFLINE
  // If the request is for an image, show an offline placeholder
  // If the request is for a page, show an offline message

So my order of preference is:

  1. Try the cache first,
  2. Try the network second,
  3. Fallback to a placeholder as a last resort.

Leaving aside that third part, regardless of whether the response is served straight from the cache or from the network, the cache gets a top-up. If the response is being served from the cache, there’s an additional network request made to get a fresh copy of the resource that was just served. This means that the user might be seeing a slightly stale version of a file, but they’ll get the fresher version next time round.

Again, I think this acceptable for a book where the tweaks and changes should be fairly minor, but I definitely wouldn’t want to do it on a more dynamic site where the freshness matters more.

Here’s what it usually likes like when a file is served up from the cache:

caches.match(request)
  .then( responseFromCache => {
  // Did we find the file in the cache?
  if (responseFromCache) {
      return responseFromCache;
  }

I’ve introduced an extra step where the fresher version is fetched from the network. This is where the code can look a bit confusing: the network request is happening in the background after the cached file has already been returned, but the code appears before the return statement:

caches.match(request)
  .then( responseFromCache => {
  // Did we find the file in the cache?
  if (responseFromCache) {
      // If so, fetch a fresh copy from the network in the background
      event.waitUntil(
          // NETWORK
          fetch(request)
          .then( responseFromFetch => {
              // Stash the fresh copy in the cache
              caches.open(staticCacheName)
              .then( cache => {
                  cache.put(request, responseFromFetch);
              });
          })
      );
      return responseFromCache;
  }

It’s asynchronous, see? So even though all that network code appears before the return statement, it’s pretty much guaranteed to complete after the cache response has been returned. You can verify this by putting in some console.log statements:

caches.match(request)
.then( responseFromCache => {
  if (responseFromCache) {
      event.waitUntil(
          fetch(request)
          .then( responseFromFetch => {
              console.log('Got a response from the network.');
              caches.open(staticCacheName)
              .then( cache => {
                  cache.put(request, responseFromFetch);
              });
          })
      );
      console.log('Got a response from the cache.');
      return responseFromCache;
  }

Those log statements will appear in this order:

Got a response from the cache.
Got a response from the network.

That’s the opposite order in which they appear in the code. Everything inside the event.waitUntil part is asynchronous.

Here’s the catch: this kind of asynchronous waitUntil hasn’t landed in all the browsers yet. The code I’ve written will fail.

But never fear! Jake has written a polyfill. All I need to do is include that at the start of my serviceworker.js file and I’m good to go:

// Import Jake's polyfill for async waitUntil
importScripts('/js/async-waituntil.js');

I’m also using it when a file isn’t found in the cache, and is returned from the network instead. Here’s what the usual network code looks like:

fetch(request)
  .then( responseFromFetch => {
    return responseFromFetch;
  })

I want to also store that response in the cache, but I want to do it asynchronously—I don’t care how long it takes to put the file in the cache as long as the user gets the response straight away.

Technically, I’m not putting the response in the cache; I’m putting a copy of the response in the cache (it’s a stream, so I need to clone it if I want to do more than one thing with it).

fetch(request)
  .then( responseFromFetch => {
    // Stash a fresh copy in the cache in the background
    let responseCopy = responseFromFetch.clone();
    event.waitUntil(
      caches.open(staticCacheName)
      .then( cache => {
          cache.put(request, responseCopy);
      })
    );
    return responseFromFetch;
  })

That all seems to be working well in browsers that support service workers. For legacy browsers, like Mobile Safari, there’s the much blunter caveman logic of an AppCache manifest.

Here’s the JavaScript that decides whether a browser gets the service worker or the AppCache:

if ('serviceWorker' in navigator) {
  // If service workers are supported
  navigator.serviceWorker.register('/serviceworker.js');
} else if ('applicationCache' in window) {
  // Otherwise inject an iframe to use appcache
  var iframe = document.createElement('iframe');
  iframe.setAttribute('src', '/appcache.html');
  iframe.setAttribute('style', 'width: 0; height: 0; border: 0');
  document.querySelector('footer').appendChild(iframe);
}

Either way, people are making full use of the offline nature of the book and that makes me very happy indeed.

Going rogue

As soon as tickets were available for the Brighton premiere of Rogue One, I grabbed some—two front-row seats for one minute past midnight on December 15th. No problem. That was the night after the Clearleft end-of-year party on December 14th.

Then I realised how dates work. One minute past midnight on December 15th is the same night as December 14th. I had double-booked myself.

It’s a nice dilemma to have; party or Star Wars? I decided to absolve myself of the decision by buying additional tickets for an evening showing on December 15th. That way, I wouldn’t feel like I had to run out of the Clearleft party before midnight, like some geek Cinderella.

In the end though, I did end up running out of the Clearleft party. I had danced and quaffed my fill, things were starting to get messy, and frankly, I was itching to immerse myself in the newest Star Wars film ever since Graham strapped a VR headset on me earlier in the day and let me fly a virtual X-wing.

Getting in the mood for Rogue One with the Star Wars Battlefront X-Wing VR mission—invigorating! (and only slightly queasy-making)

So, somewhat tired and slightly inebriated, I strapped in for the midnight screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I thought it was okay. Some of the fan service scenes really stuck out, and not in a good way. On the whole, I just wasn’t that gripped by the story. Ah, well.

Still, the next evening, I had those extra tickets I had bought as psychological insurance. “Why not?” I thought, and popped along to see it again.

This time, I loved it. It wasn’t just me either. Jessica was equally indifferent the first time ‘round, and she also enjoyed it way more the second time.

I can’t recall having such a dramatic swing in my appraisal of a film from one viewing to the next. I’m not quite sure why it didn’t resonate the first time. Maybe I was just too tired. Maybe I was overthinking it too much, unable to let myself get caught up in the story because I was over-analysing it as a new Star Wars film. Anyway, I’m glad that I like it now.

Much has been made of its similarity to classic World War Two films, which I thought worked really well. But the aspect of the film that I found most thought-provoking was the story of Galen Erso. It’s the classic tale of an apparently good person reluctantly working in service to evil ends.

This reminded me of Mother Night, perhaps my favourite Kurt Vonnegut book (although, let’s face it, many of his books are interchangeable—you could put one down halfway through, and pick another one up, and just keep reading). Mother Night gives the backstory of Howard W. Campbell, who appears as a character in Slaughterhouse Five. In the introduction, Vonnegut states that it’s the one story of his with a moral:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

If Galen Erso is pretending to work for the Empire, is there any difference to actually working for the Empire? In this case, there’s a get-out clause for this moral dilemma: by sabotaging the work (albeit very, very subtly) Galen’s soul appears to be absolved of sin. That’s the conclusion of the excellent post on the Sci-fi Policy blog, Rogue One: an ‘Engineering Ethics’ Story:

What Galen Erso does is not simply watch a system be built and then whistleblow; he actively shaped the design from its earliest stages considering its ultimate societal impacts. These early design decisions are proactive rather than reactive, which is part of the broader engineering ethics lesson of Rogue One.

I know I’m Godwinning myself with the WWII comparisons, but there are some obvious historical precedents for Erso’s dilemma. The New York Review of Books has an in-depth look at Werner Heisenberg and his “did he/didn’t he?” legacy with Germany’s stalled atom bomb project. One generous reading of his actions is that he kept the project going in order to keep scientists from being sent to the front, but made sure that the project was never ambitious enough to actually achieve destructive ends:

What the letters reveal are glimpses of Heisenberg’s inner life, like the depth of his relief after the meeting with Speer, reassured that things could safely tick along as they were; his deep unhappiness over his failure to explain to Bohr how the German scientists were trying to keep young physicists out of the army while still limiting uranium research work to a reactor, while not pursuing a fission bomb; his care in deciding who among friends and acquaintances could be trusted.

Speaking of Albert Speer, are his hands are clean or dirty? And in the case of either answer, is it because of moral judgement or sheer ignorance? The New Atlantis dives deep into this question in Roger Forsgren’s article The Architecture of Evil:

Speer indeed asserted that his real crime was ambition — that he did what almost any other architect would have done in his place. He also admitted some responsibility, noting, for example, that he had opposed the use of forced labor only when it seemed tactically unsound, and that “it added to my culpability that I had raised no humane and ethical considerations in these cases.” His contrition helped to distance himself from the crude and unrepentant Nazis standing trial with him, and this along with his contrasting personal charm permitted him to be known as the “good Nazi” in the Western press. While many other Nazi officials were hanged for their crimes, the court favorably viewed Speer’s initiative to prevent Hitler’s scorched-earth policy and sentenced him to twenty years’ imprisonment.

I wish that these kinds of questions only applied to the past, but they are all-too relevant today.

Software engineers in the United States are signing a pledge not to participate in the building of a Muslim registry:

We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.

That’s all well and good, but it might be that a dedicated registry won’t be necessary if those same engineers are happily contributing their talents to organisations whose business models are based on the ability to track and target people.

But now we’re into slippery slopes and glass houses. One person might draw the line at creating a Muslim registry. Someone else might draw the line at including any kind of invasive tracking script on a website. Someone else again might decide that the line is crossed by including Google Analytics. It’s moral relativism all the way down. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw lines. Of course it’s hard to live in an ideal state of ethical purity—from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to the electricity we use—but a muddy battleground is still capable of having a line drawn through it.

The question facing the fictional characters Galen Erso and Howard W. Campbell (and the historical figures of Werner Heisenberg and Albert Speer) is this: can I accomplish less evil by working within a morally repugnant system than being outside of it? I’m sure it’s the same question that talented designers ask themselves before taking a job at Facebook.

At one point in Rogue One, Galen Erso explicitly invokes the justification that they’d find someone else to do this work anyway. It sounds a lot like Tim Cook’s memo to Apple staff justifying his presence at a roundtable gathering that legitimised the election of a misogynist bigot to the highest office in the land. I’m sure that Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sheryl Sandberg all think they are playing the part of Galen Erso but I wonder if they’ll soon find themselves indistinguishable from Orson Krennic.

Contact

I left the office one evening a few weeks back, and while I was walking up the street, James Box cycled past, waving a hearty good evening to me. I didn’t see him at first. I was in a state of maximum distraction. For one thing, there was someone walking down the street with a magnificent Irish wolfhound. If that weren’t enough to dominate my brain, I also had headphones in my ears through which I was listening to an audio version of a TED talk by Donald Hoffman called Do we really see reality as it is?

It’s fascinating—if mind-bending—stuff. It sounds like the kind of thing that’s used to justify Deepak Chopra style adventures in la-la land, but Hoffman is deliberately taking a rigorous approach. He knows his claims are outrageous, but he welcomes all attempts to falsify his hypotheses.

I’m not noticing this just from a short TED talk. It’s been one of those strange examples of synchronicity where his work has been popping up on my radar multiple times. There’s an article in Quanta magazine that was also republished in The Atlantic. And there’s a really good interview on the You Are Not So Smart podcast that I huffduffed a while back.

But the most unexpected place that Hoffman popped up was when I was diving down a SETI (or METI) rabbit hole. There I was reading about the Cosmic Call project and Lincos when I came across this article: Why ‘Arrival’ Is Wrong About the Possibility of Talking with Space Aliens, with its subtitle “Human efforts to communicate with extraterrestrials are doomed to failure, expert says.” The expert in question pulling apart the numbers in the Drake equation turned out to be none other than Donald Hoffmann.

A few years ago, at a SETI Institute conference on interstellar communication, Hoffman appeared on the bill after a presentation by radio astronomer Frank Drake, who pioneered the search for alien civilizations in 1960. Drake showed the audience dozens of images that had been launched into space aboard NASA’s Voyager probes in the 1970s. Each picture was carefully chosen to be clearly and easily understood by other intelligent beings, he told the crowd.

After Drake spoke, Hoffman took the stage and “politely explained how every one of the images would be infinitely ambiguous to extraterrestrials,” he recalls.

I’m sure he’s quite right. But let’s face it, the Voyager golden record was never really about communicating with an alien intelligence …it was about how we present ourself.