Wednesday, June 2nd, 2021
Monday, January 4th, 2021
I really, really missed speaking at conferences in 2020. I managed to squeeze in just one meatspace presentation before everything shut down. That was in Nottingham, where myself and Remy reprised our double-bill talk, How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days.
That was pretty much all the travelling I did in 2020, apart from a joyous jaunt to Galway to celebrate my birthday shortly before the Nottingham trip. It’s kind of hilarious to look at a map of the entirety of my travel in 2020 compared to previous years.
Mind you, one of my goals for 2020 was to reduce my carbon footprint. Mission well and truly accomplished there.
But even when travel was out of the question, conference speaking wasn’t entirely off the table. I gave a brand new talk at An Event Apart Online Together: Front-End Focus in August. It was called Design Principles For The Web and I’ve just published a transcript of the presentation. I’m really pleased with how it turned out and I think it works okay as an article as well as a talk. Have a read and see what you think (or you can listen to the audio if you prefer).
Giving a talk online is …weird. It’s very different from public speaking. The public is theoretically there but you feel like you’re just talking at your computer screen. If anything, it’s more like recording a podcast than giving a talk.
Luckily for me, I like recording podcasts. So I’m going to be doing a new online talk this year. It will be at An Event Apart’s Spring Summit which runs from April 19th to 21st. Tickets are available now.
I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to talk about. Web stuff, obviously, but maybe a big picture overview this time: the past, present, and future of the web.
Time to prepare a conference talk.
Friday, January 1st, 2021
In 2020, I didn’t have the honour and privilege of speaking at An Event Apart in places like Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis. I didn’t experience that rush that comes from sharing ideas with a roomful of people, getting them excited, making them laugh, sparking thoughts. I didn’t enjoy the wonderful and stimulating conversations with my peers that happen in the corridors, or over lunch, or at an after-party. I didn’t have a blast catching up with old friends or making new ones.
But the States wasn’t the only country I didn’t travel to. Closer to home, I didn’t have the opportunity to take the Eurostar and connecting trains to cities like Cologne, Lisbon, and Stockholm. I didn’t sample the food and drink of different countries.
In the summer, I didn’t travel to the west coast of Ireland for the second in year in a row for the annual Willie Clancy festival of traditional Irish music. I didn’t spend each day completely surrounded by music. I didn’t play in some great sessions. I didn’t hear some fantastic and inspiring musicians.
Back here in Brighton, I didn’t go to the session in The Jolly Brewer every Wednesday evening and get lost in the tunes. I didn’t experience that wonderful feeling of making music together and having a pint or two. And every second Sunday afternoon, I didn’t pop along to The Bugle for more jigs and reels.
I didn’t walk into work most days, arrive at the Clearleft studio, and make a nice cup of coffee while chit-chatting with my co-workers. I didn’t get pulled into fascinating conversations about design and development that spontaneously bubble up when you’re in the same space as talented folks.
Every few months, I didn’t get a haircut.
Throughout the year, I didn’t make any weekend trips back to Ireland to visit my mother.
2020 gave me a lot of free time. I used that time to not write a book. And with all that extra time on my hands, I read fewer books than I had read in 2019. Oh, and on the side, I didn’t learn a new programming language. I didn’t discover an enthusiasm for exercise. I didn’t get out of the house and go for a brisk walk on most days. I didn’t start each day prepping my sourdough.
But I did stay at home, thereby slowing the spread of a deadly infectious disease. I’m proud of that.
I did play mandolin. I did talk to my co-workers through a screen. I did eat very well—and very local and seasonal. I did watch lots of television programmes and films. I got by. Sometimes I even took pleasure in this newly-enforced lifestyle.
I made it through 2020. And so did you. That’s an achievement worth celebrating—congratulations!
Let’s see what 2021 doesn’t bring.
Thursday, December 31st, 2020
2020 in numbers
I posted to adactio.com 1442 times in 2020.
March was the busiest month with 184 posts.
This month, December, was the quietest with 68 posts.
Overall I published:
Elsewhere in 2020:
- I huffduffed 187 pieces of audio,
- made 1,139 contributions on Github, and
- published 6 episodes of the Clearleft podcast.
Books I read in 2020
I only read twenty books this year. Considering the ample amount of free time I had, that’s not great. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Yes, I may have spent more time watching television than reading, but I’m cutting myself some slack. It was 2020, for crying out loud.
Anyway, here’s my annual round-up with reviews. Anything with three stars is good. Four stars is really good. Five stars is practically unheard of. As usual, I tried to get an equal balance of fiction and non-fiction.
Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
An enjoyable sequal to Ninefox Gambit. There are some convoluted politics but that all seems positively straightforward after the brain-bending calendrical warfare introduced in the first book.
The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society by Norbert Wiener
The ur-text on systems and feedback. Reading it now is like reading a historical artifact but many of the ideas are timeless. It’s a bit dense in parts and it tries to cover life, the universe and everything, but when you remember that it was written in 1950, it’s clearly visionary.
The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
Simultaneously a ripping yarn and a spiritual meditation. It’s Vietnam and the environmental movement rolled into one (like what Avatar attempted, but this actually works).
Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu
Here’s my full review.
A Short History Of Irish Traditional Music by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin
A perfectly fine and accurate history of the music, but it’s a bit like reading Wikipedia. Still, it was quite the ego boost to see The Session listed in the appendix.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
McEwan’s first foray into science fiction is a good tale but a little clumsily told. It’s like he really wants to show how much research he put into his alternative history. There are moments when characters practically turn to the camera to say, “Imagine how the world would’ve turned out if…” It’s far from McEwan’s best but even when he’s not on top form, his writing is damn good.
The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch
I’ve attempted to read this before. I may have even read it all before and had everything just leak out of my head. The problem is with me, not David Deutsch who does a fine job of making complex ideas approachable. This is like a unified theory of everything.
Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss
The third and final part of Aldiss’s epic is just as enjoyable as the previous two. The characters aren’t the main attraction here. It’s all about the planetary ballet.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.
A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
There’s a real pleasure in finally reading books that you should’ve read years ago. I can only imagine how wonderful it would’ve been to read these as a teenager. It’s an immersive world but there’s something melancholy about the writing that makes the experience of reading less escapist and more haunting.
Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
Absolutely superb! I liked Angela Saini’s previous book, Inferior, but I loved this. It’s a harrowing read at times, but written with incredible clarity and empathy. I can’t recommend this highly enough.
Purple People by Kate Bulpitt
Full disclosure: Kate is a friend of mine, so I probably can’t evaluate her book in a disinterested way. That said, I enjoyed the heck out of this and I think you will too. It’s very hard to classify and I think that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Technically, it’s sci-fi I suppose—an alternative history tale, probably—but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s all about the characters, and they’re all vividly realised. Honestly, I’m not sure how best to describe it—other then it being like the inside of Kate’s head—but the description of it being “a jolly dystopia” comes close. Take a chance and give it a go.
How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford
Good stuff from Adam Rutherford, though not his best. If I hadn’t already read Angela Saini’s Superior I might’ve rated this higher, but it pales somewhat by comparison. Still, it was interesting to see the same subject matter tackled in two different ways.
Agency by William Gibson
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Agency, but there’s nothing particularly great about it either. It’s just there. Maybe I’m being overly harsh because the first book, The Peripheral, was absolutely brilliant. This reminded me of reading Gibson’s Spook Country, which left me equally unimpressed. That book was sandwiched between the brilliant Pattern Recognition and the equally brilliant Zero History. That bodes well for the forthcoming third book in this series. This second book just feels like filler.
Last Night’s Fun: In And Out Of Time With Irish Music by Ciaran Carson
It’s hard to describe this book. Memoir? Meditation? Blog? I kind of like that about it, but I can see how it divides opinion. Some people love it. Some people hate it. I thought it was enjoyable enough. But it doesn’t matter what I think. This book is doing its own thing.
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
The third book in the Machineries of Empire series has much less befuddlement. It’s even downright humourous in places. If you liked Ninefox Gambit and Raven Strategem, you’ll enjoy this too.
The central thesis of this book is refuting the Hobbesian view of humanity as being one crisis away from breakdown. I feel like that argument was made more strongly in Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball. But where this book shines is in its vivid description of past catastrophes and their aftermaths: the San Francisco fire; the Halifax explosion; the Mexico City earthquake; and the culmination with Katrina hitting New Orleans. I was less keen on the more blog-like personal musings but overall, this is well worth reading.
Blindsight by Peter Watts
I like a good tale of first contact, and I had heard that this one had a good twist on the Fermi paradox. But it felt a bit like a short story stretched to the length of a novel. It would make for a good Twilight Zone episode but it didn’t sustain my interest.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
I’m still reading this Hugo-winning novella and enjoying it so far.
Alright, time to wrap up this look back at the books I read in 2020 and pick my favourites: one fiction and one non-fiction.
My favourite non-fiction book of the year was easily Superior by Angela Saini. Read it. It’s superb.
What about fiction? Hmm …this is tricky.
You know what? I’m going to go for Purple People by Kate Bulpitt. Yes, she’s a friend (“it’s a fix!”) but it genuinely made an impression on me: it was an enjoyable romp while I was reading it, and it stayed with me afterwards too.
Head on over to Bookshop and pick up a copy.
Words I wrote in 2020
Once again I wrote over a hundred blog posts this year. While lots of other activities dropped off significantly while my main focus was to just keep on keepin’ on, I still found solace and reward in writing and publishing. Like I said early on in The Situation, my website is an outlet for me:
While you’re stuck inside, your website is not just a place you can go to, it’s a place you can control, a place you can maintain, a place you can tidy up, a place you can expand. Most of all, it’s a place you can lose yourself in, even if it’s just for a little while.
Here are some blog posts that turned out alright:
- Architects, gardeners, and design systems. Citing Frank Chimero, Debbie Chachra, and Lisa O’Neill.
- Hydration. Progressive enhancement. I do not think it means what you think it means.
- Living Through The Future. William Gibson, Arthur C.Clarke, Daniel Dafoe, Stephen King, Emily St. John Mandel, John Wyndham, Martin Cruz-Smith, Marina Koren and H.G. Wells.
- Principles and priorities. Using design principles to embody your priorities.
- Hard to break. Brittleness is the opposite of resilience. But they both share something in common.
- Intent. Black lives matter.
- Accessibility. Making the moral argument.
- T E N Ǝ T. A spoiler-filled look at the new Christopher Nolan film.
- Portals and giant carousels. Trying to understand why people think they need to make single page apps.
- Clean advertising. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that behavioural advertising is more effective than contextual advertising.
I find it strangely comforting that even in a year as shitty as 2020, I can look back and see that there were some decent blog posts in there. Whatever 2021 may bring, I hope to keep writing and publishing through it all. I hope you will too.
Wednesday, December 30th, 2020
First you cope and then you adapt. The kicker: once you adapt, you may not want to go back.
Wednesday, December 16th, 2020
Seeing as my personal brand could be summed up “so late to the game that the stadium has been demolished”, I decided to start a podcast in 2020. It’s the podcast of my agency, Clearleft, and it has been given the soaringly imaginative title of The Clearleft Podcast. I’m really pleased with how the first season turned out. I’m also really pleased with the website I put together for it.
The website isn’t very big, though it will grow with time. I had a think about what the build process for the site should be and after literally seconds of debate, I settled on a build process of none. Zero. Nada.
This turned out to be enormously liberating. It felt very hands-on to write the actual HTML and CSS that will be delivered to end users, without any mediation. I felt like I was getting my hands into the soil of the site.
CSS has evolved so much in recent years—with features like
Don’t get me wrong—I totally understand why complicated pipelines are necessary for complicated websites. If you’re part of a large team, you probably need to have processes in place so that everyone can contribute to the codebase in a consistent way. The more complex that codebase is, the more technology you need to help you automate your work and catch errors before they go live.
But that set-up isn’t appropriate for every website. And all those tools and processes that are supposed to save time sometimes end up wasting time further down the road. Ever had to revisit a project after, say, six or twelve months? Maybe you just want to make one little change to the CSS. But you can’t because a dependency is broken. So you try to update it. But it relies on a different version of Node. Before you know it, you’re Bryan Cranston changing a light bulb. You should be tweaking one line of CSS but instead you’re battling entropy.
Whenever I’m tackling a problem in front-end development, I like to apply the principle of least power: choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose. A classic example would be using a simple HTML
button element instead of trying to recreate all the native functionality of a button using a
Instead of reaching for all-singing all-dancing toolchain by default, I’m going to start with a boring baseline. If and when that becomes too painful or unwieldy, then I’ll throw in a task manager. But every time I add a dependency, I’ll be limiting the lifespan of the project.
My new year’s resolution for 2021 will be to go on a diet. No more weighty
Monday, December 14th, 2020
I spent most of the weekend reading through this and I’ve still barely scratched the surface—a lot of work has gone to the analyses and write-ups!
The sections on accessibility and performance get grimmer each year but the raw numbers on framework adaption are refreshingly perspective-setting.
Wednesday, December 9th, 2020
Chris is gathering end-of-year thoughts from people in response to the question:
What is one thing you learned about building websites this year?
Monday, October 5th, 2020
These survey results show that creating and maintaining an impactful design system comes with challenges such as planning a clear strategy, managing changes to the system, and fostering design system adoption across the organization. Yet the long-lasting value of a mature design system—like collaboration and better communication—awaits after the hard work of overcoming these challenges is done.
Sunday, August 16th, 2020
What a brilliant homage! And what a spot-on pop-cultural reference for The Situation.
2020: an isolation odyssey is a reenactment of the iconic finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Restaged in the context of home quarantine, the journey through time adapts to the mundane dramas of self-isolation–poking fun at the navel-gazing saga of life alone and indoors.
Sunday, August 2nd, 2020
Friday, May 22nd, 2020
I’ll be speaking at this online version of An Event Apart on July 20th, giving a brand new talk called Design Principles For The Web—’twould be lovely to see you then!
Designing and developing on the web can feel like a never-ending crusade against the unknown. Design principles are one way of unifying your team to better fight this battle. But as well as the design principles specific to your product or service, there are core principles underpinning the very fabric of the World Wide Web itself. Together, we’ll dive into applying these design principles to build websites that are resilient, performant, accessible, and beautiful.
Friday, April 17th, 2020
Future Sync 2020
I was supposed to be in Plymouth yesterday, giving the opening talk at this year’s Future Sync conference. Obviously, that train journey never happened, but the conference did.
The organisers gave us speakers the option of pre-recording our talks, which I jumped on. It meant that I wouldn’t be reliant on a good internet connection at the crucial moment. It also meant that I was available to provide additional context—mostly in the form of a deluge of hyperlinks—in the chat window that accompanied the livestream.
The whole thing went very smoothly indeed. Here’s the video of my talk. It was The Layers Of The Web, which I’ve only given once before, at Beyond Tellerrand Berlin last November (in the Before Times).
As well as answering questions in the chat room, people were also asking questions in Sli.do. But rather than answering those questions there, I was supposed to respond in a social medium of my choosing. I chose my own website, with copies syndicated to Twitter.
Here are those questions and answers…
The first few questions were about last years’s CERN project, which opens the talk:
It was an unbelievable privilege! I was so excited the whole time—I still can hardly believe it really happened!
Later in the presentation, I talked about service workers and progressive web apps. I got a technical question about that:
Great question! Yes, there are limits, but we’re generally talking megabytes here. It varies from browser to browser and depends on the available space on the device.
But files stored using the Cache API are less likely to be deleted than files stored in the browser cache.
More worrying is the announcement from Apple to only store files for a week of browser use:
Finally, there was a question about the over-arching theme of the talk…
Yes! …And that’s why I never once used the phrase “progressive enhancement” in my talk. 🙂
There’s a lot of misunderstanding of the term. Rather than correct it, I now avoid it:
Instead of using the phrase “progressive enhancement”, I now talk about the benefits and effects of the technique: resilience, universality, etc.
Monday, December 16th, 2019
Liveblogging An Event Apart 2019
I managed to do a bit of liveblogging during the event. Combined with the liveblogging I did during the other two Events Apart that I attended this year—Seattle and Chicago—that makes a grand total of seventeen liveblogged presentations!
- Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman
- Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein
- Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
- Generation Style by Eric Meyer
- Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
- Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons
- How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier
- From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
- Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl
- Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
- Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean
- Making Research Count by Cyd Harrell
- Voice User Interface Design by Cheryl Platz
- Web Forms: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t! by Jason Grigsby
- The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland
- The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham
- The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost
For my part, I gave my talk on Going Offline. Time to retire that talk now.
Here’s what I wrote when I first gave the talk back in March at An Event Apart Seattle:
I was quite nervous about this talk. It’s very different from my usual fare. Usually I have some big sweeping arc of history, and lots of pretentious ideas joined together into some kind of narrative arc. But this talk needed to be more straightforward and practical. I wasn’t sure how well I would manage that brief.
The dates for next year’s Events Apart have been announced, and I’ll be speaking at three of them:
The question is, do I attempt to deliver another practical code-based talk or do I go back to giving a high-level talk about ideas and principles? Or, if I really want to challenge myself, can I combine the two into one talk without making a Frankenstein’s monster?
Come and see me at An Event Apart in 2020 to find out.
Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
I’m really enjoying this end-of-the-year round-up from people speaking their brains. It’s not over yet, but there’s already a lot of thoughtful stuff to read through.
Only a few years ago, I would need a whole team of developers to accomplish what can now be done with just a few amazing tools.
And I like this zinger from Geoff:
What you need to build a great website is restraint.
Wednesday, September 11th, 2019
I had a very rewarding evening at @CodebarBrighton yesterday working with Claire:
Making web pages is kinda awesome!
Thursday, June 20th, 2019
Friday, May 10th, 2019