Almost no-one has given informed constent to being tracked through spy pixels in emails, and yet the practice is endemic. This is wrong. It needs to change.
Friday, November 25th, 2022
Wednesday, November 16th, 2022
Two weeks ago I was on stage for two days hosting Leading Design in London.
Last week I was on stage for two days hosting Clarity in New Orleans.
It was an honour and a pleasure to MC at both events. Hard work, but very, very rewarding. And people seemed to like the cut of my jib, so that’s good.
With my obligations fulfilled, I’m now taking some time off before diving back into some exciting events-related work (he said, teasingly).
Jessica and I left New Orleans for Florida on the weekend. We’re spending a week at the beach house in Saint Augustine, doing all the usual Floridian activities: getting in the ocean, eating shrimp, sitting around doing nothing, that kind of thing.
But last night we got to experience something very unusual indeed.
We stayed up late, fighting off tiredness until strolling down to the beach sometime after 1am.
It was a mild night. I was in shorts and short sleeves, standing on the sand with the waves crashing, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness.
We were looking to the south. That’s where Cape Canaveral is, about a hundred miles away.
A hundred miles is quite a distance, and it was a cloudy night, so I wasn’t sure whether we’d be able to see anything. But when the time came, shortly before 2am, there was no mistaking it.
An orange glow appeared on the ocean, just over the horizon. Then an intense bright orange-red flame burst upwards. Even at this considerable distance, it was remarkably piercing.
It quickly travelled upwards, in an almost shaky trajectory, until entering the clouds.
Monday, November 7th, 2022
When Dan wrote this a week ago, I thought it sounded very far-fetched. Now it sounds almost inevitable.
When it came time to reckon with social media’s failings, nobody ran to the “web3” platforms. Nobody asked “can I get paid per message”? Nobody asked about the blockchain. The community of people who’ve been quietly doing this work for years (decades!) ended up being the ones who welcomed everyone over, as always.
Tuesday, October 11th, 2022
There’s a repeated catchphrase used throughout Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet: ignorance is our ammunition.
There are certainly situations where knowledge is regrettable. The somewhat-silly thought experiment of Roko’s basilisk is one example. Once you have knowledge of it, you can’t un-know it, and so you become complicit.
Or, to use another example, I think it was Jason who told me that if you want to make someone’s life miserable, just teach them about typography. Then they’ll see all the terrible kerning out there in the world and they won’t be able to un-see it.
I sometimes wish I could un-learn all I’ve learned about cryptobollocks (I realise that the term “cryptocurrency” is the more widely-used phrase, but it’s so inaccurate I’d rather use a clearer term).
I sometimes wish I could go back to having the same understanding of cryptobollocks as most people: some weird new-fangled technology thing that has something to do with “the blockchain.”
But I delved too deep. I wanted to figure out why seemingly-smart people were getting breathlessly excited about something that sounds fairly ludicrous. Yet the more I learned, the more ludicrous it became. Bitcoin and its ilk are even worse than the occassional headlines and horror stories would have you believe.
The reason I have such a visceral reaction to crypto projects isn’t just that they’re irresponsibly designed and usually don’t achieve what they promise. It’s also that the thing they promise sounds like a fucking nightmare.
Or, as Simon responded to someone wondering why there was so much crypto hate:
We hate it because we understand it.
I have yet to encounter a crypto project that isn’t a Ponzi scheme. I don’t mean like a Ponzi scheme. I mean they’re literally Ponzi schemes: zero-sum racing to the bottom built entirely on the greater fool theory. The only difference between traditional Ponzi schemes and those built on crypto is that crypto isn’t regulated. Yet.
I recently read The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel with the collapse of a Ponzi scheme at its heart. In the aftermath of the scheme’s collapse, there are inevitable questions like “How could you not know?” The narrator answers that question:
It’s possible to both know and not know something.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
Tuesday, September 20th, 2022
Have I reached the Douglas Adams Inflection point (or is modern tech just a bit rubbish)? – Terence Eden’s Blog
This chimes with something I’ve been pondering: we anticipate big breakthoughs in software—AI!, blockchain!, metaverse! chatbots!—but in reality the field is relatively stagnant. Meanwhile in areas like biology, there’s been unexpected advances. Or maybe, as Terence indicates, it’s all about the hype.
Monday, September 19th, 2022
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, September 13th, 2022
Tuesday, August 30th, 2022
Shockingly little. So you should try it, too.
Thursday, August 25th, 2022
There are some tasty designs in this archive from Sainbury’s.
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022
Nicky Case has made an implementation of Ted Nelson’s StretchText that works across different domains.
Wednesday, July 27th, 2022
The day we started to allow email clients to be full-blown web browsers (but without the protections of browsers) was the day we lost — time, security, privacy, and effectiveness. Now we spend all our time fighting with the materials of an email (i.e. color and layout) rather than refining its substance (i.e. story and language).
I want to posit that, in a time of great uncertainty—in an era of climate change and declining freedom, of attrition and layoffs and burnout, of a still-unfolding rearrangement of our relationship to work—we would do well to build more space for practicing the future. Not merely anticipating it or fearing it or feeding our anxiety over the possibilities—but for building the skill and strength and habits to nurture the future we need. We can’t control what comes next, of course. But we can nudge, we can push, we can guide and shape, we can have an impact. We can move closer to the future we want to live in, no matter how far away it seems to be.
The algorithm I’m going after is pretty simple: If the grid of items has an odd number of items, then make the first item full-width. But CSS can’t do logic… right? Well… hold my proverbial beer.
Wednesday, July 20th, 2022
Subscribing to newsletters
I like reading RSS feeds. I’ve written before about how my feed reader feels different to my email client:
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.
Giles put it far better when described what using RSS feeds feels like :
To me, using RSS feeds to keep track of stuff I’m interested in is a good use of my time. It doesn’t feel like a burden, it doesn’t feel like I’m being tracked or spied on, and it doesn’t feel like I’m just another number in the ads game.
To me, it feels good. It’s a way of reading the web that better respects my time, is more likely to appeal to my interests, and isn’t trying to constantly sell me things.
That’s why I feel somewhat conflicted about email newsletters. On the one hand, people are publishing some really interesting things in newsletters. On the hand, the delivery mechanism is email, which feels burdensome. Add tracking into the mix, and they can feel downright icky.
But never fear! My feed reader came to the rescue. Many newsletter providers also provide RSS feeds. NetNewsWire—my feed reader of choice—will try to find the RSS feed that corresponds to the newsletter. Hurrah!
I get to read newsletters without being tracked, which is nice for me. But I also think it would be nice to let the authors of those newsletters know that I’m reading. So here’s a list of some of the newsletters I’m currently subscribed to in my feed reader:
The Whippet by McKinley Valentine:
A newsletter for the terminally curious.
Sentiers by Patrick Tanguay:
A carefully curated selection of articles with thoughtful commentary on technology, society, culture, and potential futures.
Policy, ethics and applied rationality with an Irish slant.
How science shapes stories about the future and how stories about the future shape science.
Adjacent Possible by Steven Johnson:
Exploring where good ideas come from—and how to keep them from turning against us.
Faster, Please! by James Pethokoukis:
Discovering, creating, and inventing a better world through technological innovation, economic growth, and pro-progress culture.
undefended / undefeated by Sara Hendren:
Ideas at the heart of material culture—the everyday stuff in all our lives
Today in Tabs by Rusty Foster:
Your favorite newsletter’s favorite newsletter.
Monday, July 18th, 2022
A thoughtful response to the current CMA consultation:
The inability to compete with native apps using Progressive Web Apps fully—particularly on iOS—also has a big impact on my work and the businesses I have worked with. Progressive Web Apps are extremely accessible for development, allowing for the creation of a simple app in a fraction of the time and complexity of a native app. This is fantastic for allowing smaller agencies and businesses to innovate on the web and on mobile devices and to reach consumers. However the poor support for PWA features by Safari and by not allowing them in the App Store, Apple forces app development to be difficult, time consuming and extremely expensive. I have spoken with many companies who would have liked an app to compete with their larger competitors but are unable to afford the huge costs in developing a native app.
Get your response in by Friday by emailing email@example.com.
Thursday, July 14th, 2022
Steven Johnson profiles Lou Montulli, creator of the cookie, and ponders unintended consequences:
Years ago, the mathematician Edward Lorenz proposed a metaphor to describe how very small elements in a system’s initial conditions can lead to momentous changes over time. Imagining a tornado that ultimately emerges out of the tiny air perturbations caused by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, Lorenz called it the “butterfly effect.” For better and for worse, Montulli’s cookie may be the most pronounced example of a technological butterfly effect in our time. But instead of a butterfly flapping its wings, it’s a 23-year-old programmer writing a few lines of code to make a shopping cart feature work. Almost three decades later, we’re still riding out the storm that code helped create.
Monday, June 27th, 2022
Everything old is new again:
In our current “information age,” or so the story goes, we suffer in new and unique ways.
But the idea that modern life, and particularly modern technology, harms as well as helps, is deeply embedded in Western culture: In fact, the Victorians diagnosed very similar problems in their own society.
Wednesday, June 1st, 2022
A well-written evisceration of cryptobollocks signed by Bruce Scheier, Tim Bray, Molly White, Cory Doctorow, and more.
If you’re a concerned US computer scientist, technologist or developer, you’ve got till June 10th to add your signature before this is submitted to congress.
Monday, May 30th, 2022
There’s a lot of emphasis put on decision-making: making sure you’re making the right decision; evaluating all the right factors before making a decision. But we rarely talk about revisiting decisions.
I think perhaps there’s a human tendency to treat past decisions as fixed. That’s certainly true when it comes to evaluating technology.
I’ve been guilty of this. I remember once chatting with Mark about something written in PHP—probably something I had written—and I made some remark to the effect of “I know PHP isn’t a great language…” Mark rightly called me on that. The language wasn’t great in the past but it has come on in leaps and bounds. My perception of the language, however, had not updated accordingly.
I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I’m thinking about languages, tools and frameworks that I’ve investigated in the past but haven’t revisited in a while.
Andy talks about this as the tech tool carousel:
The carousel is like one of those on a game show that shows the prizes that can be won. The tool will sit on there until I think it’s gone through enough maturing to actually be a viable tool for me, the team I’m working with and the clients I’m working for.
Crucially a carousel is circular: tools and technologies come back around for re-evaluation. It’s all too easy to treat technologies as being on a one-way conveyer belt—once they’ve past in front of your eyes and you’ve weighed them up, that’s it; you never return to re-evaluate your decision.
This doesn’t need to be a never-ending process. At some point it becomes clear that some technologies really aren’t worth returning to:
It’s a really useful strategy because some tools stay on the carousel and then I take them off because they did in fact, turn out to be useless after all.
See, for example, anything related to cryptobollocks. It’s been well over a decade and blockchains remain a solution in search of problems. As Molly White put it, it’s not still the early days:
How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains?
Back to the web (the actual un-numbered World Wide Web)…
Nolan Lawson wrote an insightful article recently about how he senses that the balance has shifted away from single page apps. I’ve been sensing the same shift in the zeitgeist. That said, both Nolan and I keep an eye on how browsers are evolving and getting better all the time. If you weren’t aware of changes over the past few years, it would be easy to still think that single page apps offer some unique advantages that in fact no longer hold true. As Nolan wrote in a follow-up post:
My main point was: if the only reason you’re using an SPA is because “it makes navigations faster,” then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that.
For another example, see this recent XKCD cartoon:
Perhaps the best example of a technology that warrants regular re-evaluation is the World Wide Web itself. Over the course of its existence it has been seemingly bettered by other more proprietary technologies.
Flash was better than the web. It had vector graphics, smooth animations, and streaming video when the web had nothing like it. But over time, the web caught up. Flash was the hare. The World Wide Web was the tortoise.
In more recent memory, the role of the hare has been played by native apps.
I remember talking to someone on the Twitter design team who was designing and building for multiple platforms. They were frustrated by the web. It just didn’t feel as fully-featured as iOS or Android. Their frustration was entirely justified …at the time. I wonder if they’ve revisited their judgement since then though.
But developers remain suspicious, still prefering to trust third-party libraries over native browser features. They made a decision about those libraries in the past. They evaluated the state of browser support in the past. I wish they would re-evaluate those decisions.
Alas, inertia is a very powerful force. Sticking with a past decision—even if it’s no longer the best choice—is easier than putting in the effort to re-evaluate everything again.
What’s the phrase? “Strong opinions, weakly held.” We’re very good at the first part and pretty bad at the second.
Just the other day I was chatting with one of my colleagues about an online service that’s available on the web and also as a native app. He was showing me the native app on his phone and said it’s not a great app.
“Why don’t you add the website to your phone?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “The website’s going to be slow.”
He hadn’t tested this. But years of dealing with crappy websites on his phone in the past had trained him to think of the web as being inherently worse than native apps (even though there was nothing this particular service was doing that required any native functionality).
It has become a truism now. Native apps are better than the web.
And you know what? Once upon a time, that would’ve been true. But it hasn’t been true for quite some time …at least from a technical perspective.
But even if the technologies in browsers have reached parity with native apps, that won’t matter unless we can convince people to revisit their previously-formed beliefs.
The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.