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Thursday, November 24th, 2022

Checked in at Tigh Cóilí. Mary Shannon on banjo! 🎻🪕🎻 — with Jessica map

Checked in at Tigh Cóilí. Mary Shannon on banjo! 🎻🪕🎻 — with Jessica

Monday, November 21st, 2022

Portability

Exactly sixteen years ago on this day, I wrote about Twitter, a service I had been using for a few weeks. I documented how confusing yet compelling it was.

Twitter grew and grew after that. But at some point, it began to feel more like it was shrinking, shrivelling into a husk of its former self.

Just over ten years ago, there was a battle for the soul of Twitter from within. One camp wanted it to become an interoperable protocol, like email. The other camp wanted it to be a content farm, monetised by advertisers. That’s the vision that won. They declared war on the third-party developers who had helped grow Twitter in the first place, and cracked down on anything that didn’t foster e N g A g E m E n T.

The muskofication of Twitter is the nail in the coffin. In the tradition of all scandals since Watergate, I propose we refer to the shocking recent events at Twitter as Elongate.

Post-Elongate Twitter will limp on, I’m sure, but it can never be the fun place it once was. The incentives just aren’t there. As Bastian wrote:

Twitter was once an amplifier for brilliant ideas, for positivity, for change, for a better future. Many didn’t understand the power it had as a communication platform. But that power turned against the exact same people who needed this platform so urgently. It’s now a waste of time and energy at best and a threat to progress and society at worst.

I don’t foresee myself syndicating my notes to Twitter any more. I’ve removed the site from my browser’s bookmarks. I’ve removed it from my phone’s home screen too.

As someone who’s been verified on Twitter for years, with over 140,000 followers, it should probably feel like a bigger deal than it does. I echo Robin’s observation:

The speed with which Twitter recedes in your mind will shock you. Like a demon from a folktale, the kind that only gains power when you invite it into your home, the platform melts like mist when that invitation is rescinded.

Meanwhile, Mastodon is proving to be thoroughly enjoyable. Some parts are still rough around the edges, but compared to Twitter in 2006, it’s positively polished.

Interestingly, the biggest complaint that I and my friends had about Twitter all those years ago wasn’t about Twitter per se, but about lock-in:

Twitter is yet another social network where we have to go and manually add all the same friends from every other social network.

That’s the very thing that sets the fediverse apart: the ability to move from one service to another and bring your social network with you. Now Matt is promising to add ActivityPub to Tumblr. That future we wanted sixteen years ago might finally be arriving.

Harnessing groupthink: fine-tuning CSS specifications | Clearleft

In order to thoroughly attend to every pertinent aspect of the spec, fantasai asked us each to read one sentence aloud to the group. At which point we were all asked whether we thought the sentence made sense, and to speak up if we didn’t understand any of it or if it wasn’t clear.

Rich documents the excellent and fascinating process used in a recent W3C workshop (though what he describes is the very opposite of groupthink, so don’t let the title mislead you):

I’d never come across the person-by-person, sentence-by-sentence approach before. I found it particularly effective as a way of engaging a group of people, ensuring collective understanding, and gathering structured feedback on a shared document.

Saturday, November 19th, 2022

Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction Predicted the World We Live In - The New York Times

A profile of the life and work of the brilliant Octavia E. Butler.

Friday, November 18th, 2022

The lost thread

The speed with which Twitter recedes in your mind will shock you. Like a demon from a folktale, the kind that only gains power when you invite it into your home, the platform melts like mist when that invitation is rescinded.

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

Thursday, October 20th, 2022

Building the new Utopia homepage | Trys Mudford

Trys has written up how he made that nifty little resizing widget on the Utopia homepage.

Thursday, October 13th, 2022

Fontshare: Quality Fonts. Free.

A whole lotta nice fonts—most of them variable fonts—from Indian Type Foundry.

Tuesday, October 4th, 2022

The Thorny Problem of Keeping the Internet’s Time | The New Yorker

This story of the Network Time Protocol hammers home the importance of infrastructure and its maintenance:

Technology companies worth billions rely on open-source code, including N.T.P., and the maintenance of that code is often handled by a small group of individuals toiling away without pay.

Thursday, September 29th, 2022

Checked in at An Spailpín Fánach. Sliabh Luachra abú! — with Jessica map

Checked in at An Spailpín Fánach. Sliabh Luachra abú! — with Jessica

Monday, September 26th, 2022

Malleable Systems Collective

Modern computing is far too rigid. Applications can only function in preset ways determined by some far away team. Software is trapped in hermetically sealed silos and is rewritten many times over rather than recomposed.

This community catalogs and experiments with malleable software and systems that reset the balance of power via several essential principles…

I’ll be adding those principles to my collection.

Data Design Language

I like this approach to offering a design system. It seems less prescriptive than many:

Designed not as a rule set, but rather a toolbox, the Data Design Language includes a chart library, design guidelines, colour and typographic style specifications with usability guidance for internationalization (i18n) and accessibility (a11y), all reflecting our data design principles.

Monday, September 19th, 2022

CSS { In Real Life } | Web Sustainability and the Ethical Dilemma

But is it always the case that faster websites are greener websites? We reluctantly have to consider another facet: if making a website for a car manufacturer faster leads to an increase in the number of cars sold, can we really say that our website is greener?

This is very timely for me, given that Clearleft is currently engaged on a project that’s making me decidedly queasy for this exact reason—the success metrics of the project would be net negative for the world.

Tuesday, August 30th, 2022

Improving the information architecture of the Smart Pension member app | Design and tech | Smart – retirement, savings and financial wellbeing

Here’s a really excellent, clearly-written case study that unfortunately includes this accurate observation:

In recent years the practice of information architecture has fallen out of fashion, which is a shame as you can’t design something successfully without it. If a user can’t find a feature, it’s game over - the feature may as well not exist as far as they’re concerned.

I also like this insight:

Burger menus are effective… at hiding things.

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022

Work ethics

If you’re travelling around Ireland, you may come across some odd pieces of 19th century architecture—walls, bridges, buildings and roads that serve no purpose. They date back to The Great Hunger of the 1840s. These “famine follies” were the result of a public works scheme.

The thinking went something like this: people are starving so we should feed them but we can’t just give people food for nothing so let’s make people do pointless work in exchange for feeding them (kind of like an early iteration of proof of work for cryptobollocks on blockchains …except with a blockchain, you don’t even get a wall or a road, just ridiculous amounts of wasted energy).

This kind of thinking seems reprehensible from today’s perspective. But I still see its echo in the work ethic espoused by otherwise smart people.

Here’s the thing: there’s good work and there’s working hard. What matters is doing good work. Often, to do good work you need to work hard. And so people naturally conflate the two, thinking that what matters is working hard. But whether you work hard or not isn’t actually what’s important. What’s important is that you do good work.

If you can do good work without working hard, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s great—you’ve managed to do good work and do it efficiently! But often this very efficiency is treated as laziness.

Sensible managers are rightly appalled by so-called productivity tracking because it measures exactly the wrong thing. Those instruments of workplace surveillance measure inputs, not outputs (and even measuring outputs is misguided when what really matters are outcomes).

They can attempt to measure how hard someone is working, but they don’t even attempt to measure whether someone is producing good work. If anything, they actively discourage good work; there’s plenty of evidence to show that more hours equates to less quality.

I used to think that must be some validity to the belief that hard work has intrinsic value. It was a position that was espoused so often by those around me that it seemed a truism.

But after a few decades of experience, I see no evidence for hard work as an intrinsically valuable activity, much less a useful measurement. If anything, I’ve seen the real harm that can be caused by tying your self-worth to how much you’re working. That way lies burnout.

We no longer make people build famine walls or famine roads. But I wonder how many of us are constructing little monuments in our inboxes and calendars, filling those spaces with work to be done in an attempt to chase the rewards we’ve been told will result from hard graft.

I’d rather spend my time pursuing the opposite: the least work for the most people.

Nutshell: make expandable explanations

Nicky Case has made an implementation of Ted Nelson’s StretchText that works across different domains.

Wednesday, August 17th, 2022

Checked in at Jolly Brewer. Wednesday night session — with Jessica map

Checked in at Jolly Brewer. Wednesday night session — with Jessica

Wednesday, August 10th, 2022

Democratising dev

I met up with a supersmart programmer friend of mine a little while back. He was describing some work he was doing with React. He was joining up React components. There wasn’t really any problem-solving or debugging—the individual components had already been thoroughly tested. He said it felt more like construction than programming.

My immediate thought was “that should be automated.”

Or at the very least, there should be some way for just about anyone to join those pieces together rather than it requiring a supersmart programmer’s time. After all, isn’t that the promise of design systems and components—freeing us up to tackle the meaty problems instead of spending time on the plumbing?

I thought about that conversation when I was listening to Laurie’s excellent talk in Berlin last month.

Chatting to Laurie before the talk, he was very nervous about the conclusion that he had reached and was going to share: that the time is right for web development to be automated. He figured it would be an unpopular message. Heck, even he didn’t like it.

But I reminded him that it’s as old as the web itself. I’ve seen videos from very early World Wide Web conferences where Tim Berners-Lee was railing against the idea that anyone would write HTML by hand. The whole point of his WorldWideWeb app was that anyone could create and edit web pages as easily as word processing documents. It’s almost an accident of history that HTML happened to be just easy enough—but also just powerful enough—for many people to learn and use.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Laurie’s talk. (Except for a weird bit where he dunks on people moaning about “the fundamentals”. I think it’s supposed to be punching up, but I’m not sure that’s how it came across. As Chris points out, fundamentals matter …at least when it comes to concepts like accessibility and performance. I think Laurie was trying to dunk on people moaning about fundamental technologies like languages and frameworks. Perhaps the message got muddled in the delivery.)

I guess Laurie was kind of talking about this whole “no code” thing that’s quite hot right now. Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.

The problem is that unless they work 100%, and always produce good accessible performant code, then they’re going to be another example of the law of leaky abstractions. If a no-code tool can get someone 90% of the way to what they want, that seems pretty good. But if that person than has to spend an inordinate amount of time on the remaining 10% then all the good work of the no-code tool is somewhat wasted.

Funnily enough, the person who coined that law, Joel Spolsky, spoke right after Laurie in Berlin. The two talks made for a good double bill.

(I would link to Joel’s talk but for some reason the conference is marking the YouTube videos as unlisted. If you manage to track down a URL for the video of Joel’s talk, let me know and I’ll update this post.)

In a way, Joel was making the same point as Laurie: why is it still so hard to do something on the web that feels like it should be easily repeatable?

He used the example of putting an event online. Right now, the most convenient way to do it is to use a third-party centralised silo like Facebook. It works, but now the business model of Facebook comes along for the ride. Your event is now something to be tracked and monetised by advertisers.

You could try doing it yourself, but this is where you’ll run into the frustrations shared by Joel and Laurie. It’s still too damn hard and complicated (even though we’ve had years and years of putting events online). Despite what web developers tell themselves, making stuff for the web shouldn’t be that complicated. As Trys put it:

We kid ourselves into thinking we’re building groundbreakingly complex systems that require bleeding-edge tools, but in reality, much of what we build is a way to render two things: a list, and a single item. Here are some users, here is a user. Here are your contacts, here are your messages with that contact. There ain’t much more to it than that.

And yet here we are. You can either have the convenience of putting something on a silo like Facebook, or you can have the freedom of doing it yourself, indie web style. But you can’t have both it seems.

This is a criticism often levelled at the indie web. The barrier to entry to having your own website is too high. It’s a valid criticism. To have your own website, you need to have some working knowledge of web hosting and at least some web technologies (like HTML).

Don’t get me wrong. I love having my own website. Like, I really love it. But I’m also well aware that it doesn’t scale. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to learn new skills just to make a web page about, say, an event they want to publicise.

That’s kind of the backstory to the project that Joel wanted to talk about: the block protocol. (Note: it has absolutely nothing to do with blockchain—it’s just an unfortunate naming collision.)

The idea behind the project is to create a kind of crowdsourced pattern library—user interfaces for creating common structures like events, photos, tables, and lists. These patterns already exist in today’s silos and content management systems, but everyone is reinventing the wheel independently. The goal of this project is make these patterns interoperable, and therefore portable.

At first I thought that would be a classic /927 situation, but I’m pleased to see that the focus of the project is not on formats (we’ve been there and done that with microformats, RDF, schema.org, yada yada). The patterns might end up being web components or they might not. But the focus is on the interface. I think that’s a good approach.

That approach chimes nicely with one of the principles of the indie web:

UX and design is more important than protocols, formats, data models, schema etc. We focus on UX first, and then as we figure that out we build/develop/subset the absolutely simplest, easiest, and most minimal protocols and formats sufficient to support that UX, and nothing more. AKA UX before plumbing.

That said, I don’t think this project is a cure-all. Interoperable (portable) chunks of structured content would be great, but that’s just one part of the challenge of scaling the indie web. You also need to have somewhere to put those blocks.

Convenience isn’t the only thing you get from using a silo like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Medium. You also get “free” hosting …until you don’t (see GeoCities, MySpace, and many, many more).

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had a place on the web that they could truly call their own? Today you need to have an uneccesary degree of technical understanding to publish something at a URL you control.

I’d love to see that challenge getting tackled.

Friday, August 5th, 2022

Douglas Engelbart | Hidden Heroes

An account of the mother of all demos, written by Steven Johnson.

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

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Checked in at Dover Castle. Tuesday night session 🎻🎶 — with Jessica