Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021
The opening paragraphs of this article should be a mantra recited by every web developer before they begin their working day:
Fortunately, we as engineers can avoid, or at least mitigate the impact of breakages in the web apps we build. This however requires a conscious effort and mindset shift towards thinking about unhappy scenarios just as much as happy ones.
I love, love, love the emphasis on reducing assumptions:
Taking a more defensive approach when writing code helps reduce programmer errors arising from making assumptions. Pessimism over optimism favours resilience.
Accepting the fragility of the web is a necessary step towards building resilient systems. A more reliable user experience is synonymous with happy customers. Being equipped for the worst (proactive) is better than putting out fires (reactive) from a business, customer, and developer standpoint (less bugs!).
A Few Notes on A Few Notes on The Culture
When I post a link, I do it for two reasons.
First of all, it’s me pointing at something and saying “Check this out!”
Secondly, it’s a way for me to stash something away that I might want to return to. I tag all my links so when I need to find one again, I just need to think “Now what would past me have tagged it with?” Then I type the appropriate URL:
There are some links that I return to again and again.
Back in 2008, I linked to a document called A Few Notes on The Culture. It’s a copy of a post by Iain M Banks to a newsgroup back in 1994.
Alas, that link is dead. Linkrot, innit?
But in 2013 I linked to the same document on a different domain. That link still works even though I believe it was first published around twenty(!) years ago (view source for some pre-CSS markup nostalgia).
Anyway, A Few Notes On The Culture is a fascinating look at the world-building of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. He talks about the in-world engineering, education, biology, and belief system of his imagined utopia. The part that sticks in my mind is when he talks about economics:
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.
The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is — without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset — intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.
It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.
Like I said, it’s a fascinating document. In fact I realised that I should probably store a copy of it for myself.
I have a section of my site called “extras” where I dump miscellaneous stuff. Most of it is unlinked. It’s mostly for my own benefit. That’s where I’ve put my copy of A Few Notes On The Culture.
Here’s a funny thing …for all the times that I’ve revisited the link, I never knew anything about the site is was hosted on—
vavatch.co.uk—so this most recent time, I did a bit of clicking around. Clearly it’s the personal website of a sci-fi-loving college student from the early 2000s. But what came as a revelation to me was that the site belonged to …Adrian Hon!
I’m impressed that he kept his old website up even after moving over to the domain
mssv.net, founding Six To Start, and writing A History Of The Future In 100 Objects. That’s a great snackable book, by the way. Well worth a read.
If you employ a hack, don’t be so ashamed. Don’t be too proud, either. Above all, don’t be lazy—be certain and deliberate about why you’re using a hack.
I agree that hacks for prototyping are a-okay:
When it comes to prototypes, A/B tests, and confirming hypotheses about your product the best way to effectively deliver is actually by writing the fastest, shittiest code you can.
I’m not so sure about production code though.
Facebook Container for Firefox
Firefox has a nifty extension—made by Mozilla—called Facebook Container. It does two things.
First of all, it sandboxes any of your activity while you’re on the facebook.com domain. The tab you’re in is isolated from all others.
Secondly, when you visit a site that loads a tracker from Facebook, the extension alerts you to its presence. For example, if a page has a share widget that would post to Facebook, a little fence icon appears over the widget warning you that Facebook will be able to track that activity.
It’s a nifty extension that I’ve been using for quite a while. Except now it’s gone completely haywire. That little fence icon is appearing all over the web wherever there’s a form with an email input. See, for example, the newsletter sign-up form in the footer of the Clearleft site. It’s happening on forms over on The Session too despite the rigourous-bordering-on-paranoid security restrictions in place there.
Hovering over the fence icon displays this text:
If you use your real email address here, Facebook may be able to track you.
That is, of course, false. It’s also really damaging. One of the worst things that you can do in the security space is to cry wolf. If a concerned user is told that they can ignore that warning, you’re lessening the impact of all warnings, even serious legitimate ones.
Sometimes false positives are an acceptable price to pay for overall increased security, but in this case, the rate of false positives can only decrease trust.
I tried to find out how to submit a bug report about this but I couldn’t work it out (and I certainly don’t want to file a bug report in a review) so I’m writing this in the hopes that somebody at Mozilla sees it.
What’s really worrying is that this might not be considered a bug. The release notes for the version of the extension that came out last week say:
Email fields will now show a prompt, alerting users about how Facebook can track users by their email address.
Like …all email fields? That’s ridiculous!
I thought the issue might’ve been fixed in the latest release that came out yesterday. The release notes say:
This release addresses fixes a issue from our last release – the email field prompt now only displays on sites where Facebook resources have been blocked.
But the behaviour is unfortunately still there, even on sites like The Session or Clearleft that wouldn’t touch Facebook resources with a barge pole. The fence icon continues to pop up all over the web.
I hope this gets sorted soon. I like the Facebook Container extension and I’d like to be able to recommend it to other people. Right now I’d recommed the opposite—don’t install this extension while it’s behaving so overzealously. If the current behaviour continues, I’ll be uninstalling this extension myself.
Update: It looks like a fix is being rolled out. Fingers crossed!
Monday, August 2nd, 2021
Businesses focus on efficiencies—doing the things that net them the most money for the least effort. By contrast, taxpayer-funded public programs are designed and expected to cover everyone—including, and especially, the most marginalized. That’s why they’re taxpayer-funded; so they don’t face existential risk be eschewing profit-driven decision-making. Does this work perfectly? No. But I think about it a lot when people shit on the bigness and slowness of government. That bigness & slowness is supposed to create space and resources to account for the communities, that a “lean,” fast approach deliberately ignores.
Sunday, August 1st, 2021
Friday, July 30th, 2021
I’ve written before about how I don’t have notifications on my phone or computer. But that doesn’t stop computer programmes waving at me, trying to attract my attention.
If I have my email client open on my computer there’s a red circle with a number in it telling me how many unread emails I have. It’s the same with Slack. If Slack is running and somebody writes something to me, or @here, or @everyone, then a red circle blinks into existence.
There’s a category of programmes like this that want my attention—email, Slack, calendars. In each case, emptiness is the desired end goal. Seeing an inbox too full of emails or a calendar too full of appointments makes me feel queasy. In theory these programmes are acting on my behalf, working for me, making my life easier. And in many ways they do. They help me keep things organised. But they also need to me to take steps: read that email, go to that appointment, catch up with that Slack message. Sometimes it can feel like the tail is wagging the dog and I’m the one doing the bidding of these pieces of software.
My RSS reader should, in theory, fall into the same category. It shows me the number of unread items, just like email or Slack. But for some reason, it feels different. When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.
I’ve managed to wire my neurological pathways to put RSS in the books category instead of the productivity category. I’m very glad about that. I would hate if catching up on RSS feeds felt like catching up on email. Maybe that’s why I’m never entirely comfortable with newsletters—if there’s an option to subscribe by RSS instead of email, I’ll always take it.
I have two folders in my RSS reader: blogs and magazines. Reading blog posts feels like catching up with what my friends are up to (even if I don’t actually know the person). Reading magazine articles feels like spending a lazy Sunday catching up with some long-form journalism.
I should update this list of my subscriptions. It’s a bit out of date.
Oh, and if you want to have my words in your RSS reader, I have plenty of options for you.
Why do we long for a time when the average life span was 22 and everyone was wracked by tuberculosis?
This was the problem I had with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (and to a lesser extent with Rutger Bregman’s Humankind):
Paleolithic peoples, so the tale goes, spent most of Tuesday strolling under Baobab trees, running their hands through the long elephant grass, and breathing in the sweet dust of the open Savannah. On Wednesdays they carefully chipped away the edges of Levallois blades, swept dust out of the home cave, and snacked on freshly gathered almonds. On Thursdays they gathered into small bands – a hand-picked selection of the finest endurance runners this side of Nairobi – tracked down an elephant, and sprinted after it barefoot for nine hours until the creature – dehydrated, exhausted, and unable to sweat out the excess heat – crumpled into a violently sad face-plant in the hot, gritty sand. Our strapping, supple ancestors jogged to a halt beside it, barely out of breath, to carve up its flesh and bring home the elephant bacon. Later that evening they would break their 36 hour intermittent fast, retire to the lake, and engage in polyamorous affairs.
Apple dragged their feet in adding support for PWAs in Safari, and when they finally did, limited the capabilities of a PWA so that native-like app functionality wouldn’t be possible, like notifications or a home screen icon shortcut – to name just a few of the many restrictions imposed by Apple.
But it goes beyond that. On iOS, the only web rendering engine allowed is Apple’s own WebKit, which runs Safari. Third-party iOS browsers such as Chrome can only use WebKit, not their own engines (as would be permitted in Windows, Android, or macOS). And it’s WebKit that governs PWA capabilities.
Safari is very good web browser, delivering fast performance and solid privacy features.
But at the same time, the lack of support for key web technologies and APIs has been both perplexing and annoying at the same time.
The enormous popularity of iOS makes it all the more annoying that Apple continues to hold back developers from being able to create great experiences over the web that work across all platforms.
How do you keep knowledge alive over centuries? Stuff that seems big enough for a group of people to worry about at the time, but not so big it makes world news. Not the information that gets in all the textbooks, but just the stuff that makes the world gently tick over.
I do want to recognize that the Safari/WebKit team are working hard, and I do desperately want them to succeed! Chromium’s domination is bad for everybody, and building a popular browser that’s focused on privacy & security, as they appear to be trying to do, is a fantastic goal. That does not mean their current approach deserves our blind support.
I’m sure the Safari team are working on the issues below already, and I think it’s likely that the problems fundamentally derive from management decisions about company priorities rather than the team themselves.
Thursday, July 29th, 2021
Simon describes the pattern he uses for content sites to get all of the resilience of static site generators while keeping dynamic functionality.
Wednesday, July 28th, 2021
Rationality does not work for ethical decisions. It can help you determine means, “what’s the best way to do this” but it can’t determine ends.
It isn’t even that great for means.
If I could ask for anything, it’d be that Apple loosen the purse strings and let Webkit be that warehouse for web innovation that it was a decade ago.
Tuesday, July 27th, 2021