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Built to Last

Don’t blame it on the COBOL:

It’s a common fiction that computing technologies tend to become obsolete in a matter of years or even months, because this sells more units of consumer electronics. But this has never been true when it comes to large-scale computing infrastructure. This misapprehension, and the language’s history of being disdained by an increasingly toxic programming culture, made COBOL an easy scapegoat. But the narrative that COBOL was to blame for recent failures undoes itself: scapegoating COBOL can’t get far when the code is in fact meant to be easy to read and maintain.

It strikes me that the resilience of programmes written in COBOL is like the opposite of today’s modern web stack, where the tangled weeds of nested dependencies ensures that projects get harder and harder to maintain over time.

In a field that has elevated boy geniuses and rockstar coders, obscure hacks and complex black-boxed algorithms, it’s perhaps no wonder that a committee-designed language meant to be easier to learn and use—and which was created by a team that included multiple women in positions of authority—would be held in low esteem. But modern computing has started to become undone, and to undo other parts of our societies, through the field’s high opinion of itself, and through the way that it concentrates power into the hands of programmers who mistake social, political, and economic problems for technical ones, often with disastrous results.

Why Do We Interface?

A short web book on the past, present and future of interfaces, written in a snappy, chatty style.

From oral communication and storytelling 500,000 years ago to virtual reality today, the purpose of information interfaces has always been to communicate more quickly, more deeply, to foster relationships, to explore, to measure, to learn, to build knowledge, to entertain, and to create.

We interface precisely because we are human. Because we are intelligent, because we are social, because we are inquisitive and creative.

We design our interfaces and they in turn redefine what it means to be human.

Mapping a World of Cities

A timeline of city maps, from 1524 to 1930.

The land before modern APIs – Increment: APIs

This is a wonderful tale of spelunking into standards from Darius Kazemi—I had no idea that HTTP status codes have their origin in a hastily made decision in the days of ARPANET.

20 people got together at MIT in 1972 for a weekend workshop. On the second day, a handful of people in a breakout session decided it would be a good idea to standardize error messages between two services for transferring data, even though those two services had not necessarily planned to speak to one another. One thing led to another, and now 404 is synonymous with “I can’t find the thing.”

This story is exactly the kind of layering of technologies that I was getting at in the first chapter of Resilient Web Design.

HTTP status codes are largely an accident of history. The people who came up with them didn’t plan on defining a numerical namespace that would last half a century or work its way into popular culture. You see this pattern over and over in the history of technology.

The radium craze | Eric Bailey

The radioactive properties of React.

The Thing With Leading in CSS · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

An excellent explanation of the new leading-trim and text-edge properties in CSS, complete with an in-depth history of leading in typography.

(I’m very happy to finally have a permanent link to point to about this, rather than a post on Ev’s blog.)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture | Typeset In The Future

The latest edition in this wonderful series of science-fictional typography has some truly twisty turbolift tangents.

Chapter 1: Birth | CSS-Tricks

This is wonderful! A whole series on the history of the web from Jay Hoffman, the creator of the similarly-themed newsletter and timeline.

This first chapter is right up my alley, looking at the origins of hypertext, the internet, and the World Wide Web.

In a Land Before Dev Tools | Amber’s Website

A great little history lesson from Amber—ah, Firebug!

The things of everyday design || Matthew Ström: designer & developer

The evolution of affordances on the web:

The URL for a page goes at the top. Text appears in a vertically scrolling column. A dropdown menu has a downward-pointing triangle next to it. Your mouse cursor is a slanted triangle with a tail, and when you hover over a link it looks like Mickey Mouse’s glove.

Most of these affordances don’t have any relationship to the physical characteristics of the interaction they mediate. But remove them from a website, application, or interface, and users get disoriented, frustrated, and unproductive.

On the origin of cascades

This is a great talk by Hidde, looking at the history and evolution of cascading style sheets. Right up my alley!

the Web at a crossroads - Web Directions

John weighs in on the clashing priorities of browser vendors.

Imagine if the web never got CSS. Never got a way to style content in sophisticated ways. It’s hard to imagine its rise to prominence in the early 2000s. I’d not be alone in arguing a similar lack of access to the sort of features inherent to the mobile experience that WebKit and the folks at Mozilla have expressed concern about would (not might) largely consign the Web to an increasingly marginal role.

Dark Ages of the Web

Notes on the old internet, its design and frontend.

We Are As Gods

A forthcoming documentary about Stewart Brand (with music by Brian Eno).

Quotebacks and hypertexts (Interconnected)

What I love about the web is that it’s a hypertext. (Though in recent years it has mostly been used as a janky app delivery platform.)

I am very much enjoying Matt’s thoughts on linking, quoting, transclusion, and associative trails.

My blog is my laboratory workbench where I go through the ideas and paragraphs I’ve picked up along my way, and I twist them and turn them and I see if they fit together. I do that by narrating my way between them. And if they do fit, I try to add another piece, and then another. Writing a post is a process of experimental construction.

And then I follow the trail, and see where it takes me.

NASA Collection

Back in 1985, Ian wrote to NASA to get some info for a shool project (that’s how it worked before the World Wide Web). NASA sent him a treaure trove in response. Here they are, scanned as PDFs. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and more.

A Rare Smile Captured in a 19th Century Photograph | Open Culture

I wrote a while back about one of my favourite photographs but this might just give it a run for its money.

It was only near the end of the 19th century that shutter speeds improved, as did emulsions, meaning that spontaneous moments could be captured. Still, smiling was not part of many cultures. It could be seen as unseemly or undignified, and many people rarely sat for photos anyway.

O-o-dee of the Kiowa tribe in traditional dress with a heartwarming smile on her face in a photograph over 100 years old.

“Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” by Haruki Murakami | The New Yorker

It’s just about an old monkey who speaks human language, who scrubs guests’ backs in the hot springs in a tiny town in Gunma Prefecture, who enjoys cold beer, falls in love with human women, and steals their names.

A sequel to 2006’s A Shinagawa Monkey, translated by Philip Gabriel.

Responsive web design turns ten. — Ethan Marcotte

2010 was quite a year:

And exactly three weeks after Jeremy Keith’s HTML5 For Web Designers was first published, “Responsive Web Design” went live in A List Apart.

Nothing’s been quite the same since.

I remember being at that An Event Apart in Seattle where Ethan first unveiled the phrase and marvelling at how well everything just clicked into place, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist. I was in. 100%.

The History of the Future

It me:

Although some communities have listed journalists as “essential workers,” no one claims that status for the keynote speaker. The “work” of being a keynote speaker feels even more ridiculous than usual these days.