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Monday, January 2nd, 2023

2022

This time last year when I was looking back on 2021, I wrote:

2020 was the year of the virus. 2021 was the year of the vaccine …and the virus, obviously, but still it felt like the year we fought back. With science!

Science continued to win the battle in 2022. But it was messy. The Situation isn’t over yet, and everyone has different ideas about the correct levels of risk-taking.

It’s like when you’re driving and you think that everyone going faster than you is a maniac, and everyone going slower than you is an idiot.

The world opened up more in 2022. I was able to speak at more in-person events. I really missed that. I think I’m done with doing online talks.

There was a moment when I was speaking at Web Dev Conf in Bristol this year (a really nice little gathering), and during my presentation I was getting that response from the audience that you just don’t get with online talks, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, I’ve really missed this!”

But like I said, The Situation isn’t over, and that makes things tricky for conferences. Most of the ones I spoke at or attended were doing their best to make things safe. CSS Day, Clarity, State Of The Browser: they all took measures to try to look out for everyone’s health.

For my part, I asked everyone attending dConstruct to take a COVID test the day before. Like I said at the time, I may have just been fooling myself with what might have been hygiene theatre, but like those other events, we all wanted to gather safely.

That can’t be said for the gigantic event in Berlin that I spoke at in Summer. There were tens of thousands of people in the venue. Inevitably, I—and others—caught COVID.

My bout of the ’rona wasn’t too bad, and I’m very glad that I didn’t pass it on to any family members (that’s been my biggest worry throughout The Situation). But it did mean that I wasn’t able to host UX London 2022.

That was a real downer. I spent much of 2022 focused on event curation: first UX London, and then dConstruct. I was really, really proud of the line-up I assembled for UX London so I was gutted not to be able to introduce those fabulous speakers in person.

Still, I got to host dConstruct, Leading Design, and Clarity, so 2022 was very much a bumper year for MCing—something I really, really enjoy.

Already I’ve got more of the same lined up for the first half of 2023: hosting Leading Design San Francisco in February and curating and hosting UX London in June.

I hope to do more speaking too. Alas, An Event Apart is no more, which is a real shame. But I hope there are other conferences out there that might be interested in what I have to say. If you’re organising one, get in touch.

Needless to say, 2022 was not a good year for world events. The callous and cruel invasion of Ukraine rightly dominated the news (sporting events and dead monarchs are not the defining events of the year). But even in the face of this evil, there’s cause for hope, seeing the galvanised response of the international community in standing up to Putin the bully.

In terms of more personal bad news, Jamie’s death is hard to bear.

I got to play lots of music in 2022. That’s something I definitely want to continue. In fact, 2023 kicked off with a great kitchen session yesterday evening—the perfect start to the year!

And I’ve got my health. That’s something I don’t take for granted.

One year ago, I wrote:

Maybe 2022 will turn out to be similar—shitty for a lot of people, and mostly unenventful for me. Or perhaps 2022 will be a year filled with joyful in-person activities, like conferences and musical gatherings. Either way, I’m ready.

For the most part, that played out. 2022 was thankfully fairly uneventful personally. And it was indeed a good year for in-person connections. I very much hope that continues in 2023.

Tuesday, December 27th, 2022

Why the super rich are inevitable

The interactive widgets embedded in this article are excellent teaching tools!

Friday, December 16th, 2022

99 Good News Stories From 2022

A look at back at what wasn’t in the headlines this year.

Monday, December 5th, 2022

Jamie

Jamie Freeman passed away yesterday.

I first met Jamie as a fellow web-nerd way back in the early 2000s when I was freelancing here in Brighton. I did a lot of work with him and his design studio, Message. Andy was working there too. It’s kind of where the seeds of Clearleft were planted.

I remember one day telling them about a development with Salter Cane. Our drummer, Catherine, was moving to Australia so we were going to have to start searching for someone new.

“I play drums”, said Jamie.

I remember thinking, “No, you don’t; you play guitar.” But I thought “What the heck”, and invited him along to a band practice.

Well, it turns that not only could he play drums, he was really good! Jamie was in the band.

It’s funny, I kept referring to Jamie as “our new drummer”, but he actually ended up being the drummer that was with Salter Cane the longest.

Band practices. Concerts. Studio recordings. We were a team for years. You can hear Jamie’s excellent drumming on our album Sorrow. You can also his drumming (and brilliant backing vocals) on an album of covers we recorded. He was such a solid drummer—he made the whole band sound tighter.

But as brilliant as Jamie was behind a drumkit, his heart was at the front of the stage. He left Salter Cane to front The Jamie Freeman Agreement full-time. I loved going to see that band and watching them get better and better. Jonathan has written lovingly about his time with the band.

After that, Jamie continued to follow his dreams as a solo performer, travelling to Nashville, and collaborating with loads of other talented people. Everyone loved Jamie.

This year started with the shocking news that he had inoperable cancer—a brain tumor. Everyone sent him all their love (we recorded a little video from the Salter Cane practice room—as his condition worsened, video worked better than writing). But somehow I didn’t quite believe that this day would come when Jamie was no longer with us. I mean, the thought was ridiculous: Jamie, the vegetarian tea-totaller …with cancer? Nah.

I think I’m still in denial.

The last time I had the joy of playing music with Jamie was also the last time that Salter Cane played a gig. Jamie came back for a one-off gig at the start of 2020 (before the world shut down). It was joyous. It felt so good to rock out with him.

Jamie was always so full of enthusiasm for other people, whether that was his fellow musicians or his family members. He had great stories from his time on tour with his brother Tim’s band, Frazier Chorus. And he was so, so proud of everything his brother Martin has done. It was so horrible when their sister died. I can’t imagine what they must be going through now, losing another sibling.

Like I said, I still can’t quite believe that Jamie has gone. I know that I’m really going to miss him.

I’m sending all my love and my deepest sympathies to Jamie’s family.

Fuck cancer.

Monday, October 31st, 2022

Do You Like Rock Music?

I spent Friday morning in band practice with Salter Cane. It was productive. We’ve got some new songs that are coming together nicely. We’re still short a drummer though, so if you know anyone in Brighton who might be interested, let me know.

As we were packing up, we could here the band next door. They were really good. Just the kind of alt-country rock that would go nicely with Salter Cane.

On the way out, Jessica asked at the front desk who that band was. They’re called The Roebucks.

When I got home I Ducked, Ducked and Went to find out more information. There’s a Bandcamp page with one song. Good stuff. I also found their Facebook page. That’s where I saw this little tidbit:

Hello, we are supporting @seapowerband at @chalk_venue on the 30th of October. Hope you can make it!

Wait, that’s this very weekend! And I love Sea Power (formerly British Sea Power—they changed their name, which was a move that only annoyed the very people who’s worldviews prompted the name change in the first place). How did I not know about this gig? And how are there tickets still available?

And that’s how I came to spend my Sunday evening rocking out to two great bands.

Tuesday, October 11th, 2022

Bunny Fonts | Explore Faster & GDPR friendly Fonts

A drop-in replacement for Google Fonts without the tracking …but really, you should be self-hosting your font files.

Tuesday, August 16th, 2022

Alternative stylesheets

My website has different themes you can choose from. I don’t just mean a dark mode. These themes all look very different from one another.

I assume that 99.99% of people just see the default theme, but I keep the others around anyway. Offering different themes was originally intended as a way of showcasing the power of CSS, and specifically the separation of concerns between structure and presentation. I started doing this before the CSS Zen Garden was created. Dave really took it to the next level by showing how the same HTML document could be styled in an infinite number of ways.

Each theme has its own stylesheet. I’ve got a very simple little style switcher on every page of my site. Selecting a different theme triggers a page refresh with the new styles applied and sets a cookie to remember your preference.

I also list out the available stylesheets in the head of every page using link elements that have rel values of alternate and stylesheet together. Each link element also has a title attribute with the name of the theme. That’s the standard way to specify alternative stylesheets.

In Firefox you can switch between the specified stylesheets from the View menu by selecting Page Style (notice that there’s also a No style option—very handy for checking your document structure).

Other browsers like Chrome and Safari don’t do anything with the alternative stylesheets. But they don’t ignore them.

Every browser makes a network request for each alternative stylesheet. The request is non-blocking and seems to be low priority, which is good, but I’m somewhat perplexed by the network request being made at all.

I get why Firefox is requesting those stylesheets. It’s similar to requesting a print stylesheet. Even if the network were to drop, you still want those styles available to the user.

But I can’t think of any reason why Chrome or Safari would download the alternative stylesheets.

Wednesday, July 27th, 2022

How Florence Nightingale Changed Data Visualization Forever - Scientific American

The design process in action in Victorian England:

Recognizing that few people actually read statistical tables, Nightingale and her team designed graphics to attract attention and engage readers in ways that other media could not. Their diagram designs evolved over two batches of publications, giving them opportunities to react to the efforts of other parties also jockeying for influence. These competitors buried stuffy graphic analysis inside thick books. In contrast, Nightingale packaged her charts in attractive slim folios, integrating diagrams with witty prose. Her charts were accessible and punchy. Instead of building complex arguments that required heavy work from the audience, she focused her narrative lens on specific claims. It was more than data visualization—it was data storytelling.

Thursday, June 30th, 2022

Negative

I no longer have Covid. I am released from isolation.

Alas, my negative diagnosis came too late for me to make it to UX London. But that’s okay—by the third and final day of the event, everything was running smooth like buttah! Had I shown up, I would’ve just got in the way. The Clearleft crew ran the event like a well-oiled machine.

I am in the coronaclear just in time to go away for a week. My original thinking was this would be my post-UX-London break to rest up for a while, but it turns out I’ve been getting plenty of rest during UX London.

I’m heading to the west coast of Ireland for The Willie Clancy Summer School, a trad music pilgrimage.

Jessica and I last went to Willie Week in 2019. We had a great time and I distinctly remember thinking “I’m definitely coming back next year!”

Well, a global pandemic put paid to that. The event ran online for the past two years. But now that it’s back for real, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

My mandolin and I are bound for Miltown Malbay!

Monday, June 20th, 2022

Positive

That event in Berlin last week was by far the largest gathering of humans I’ve been with in over two years. If I was going to finally succumb to the ’rona, this was likely to be the place and time.

Sure enough, on my last day in Berlin I had a bit of a scratchy throat. I remained masked for the rest of the day for the travel back to England. Once I was back home I immediately tested and …nothing.

I guess it was just a regular sore throat after all.

Over the weekend the sore throat was accompanied by some sniffles. Just your typical cold symptoms. But I decided to be prudent and test again yesterday.

This time a very clear result was revealed. It was Covid-19 after all.

Today I was supposed to be travelling to Lille on the Eurostar to speak at a private event. Instead I’m isolating at home. My symptoms are quite mild. I feel worse about letting down the event organisers.

Still, better to finally get the novel coronavirus now rather than later in the month. I would hate to miss UX London. But I’m confident I’ll be recovered and testing negative by then.

For now I’ll be taking it easy and letting those magnificent vaccines do their work.

Monday, May 30th, 2022

CSS { In Real Life } | Writing Useful Alt Text

Another post prompted by my recent musings on writing alt text. This time Michelle looks at the case of text-as-images.

Saturday, May 28th, 2022

Just How Long Should Alt Text Be? | CSS-Tricks - CSS-Tricks

Prompted by my recent post on alt text, Geoff shares some resources on the right length for alt attributes.

Wednesday, May 25th, 2022

Alt writing

I made the website for this year’s UX London by hand.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s exactly one build tool involved. I’m using Sergey to include global elements—the header and footer—something that’s still not possible in HTML.

So it’s minium viable static site generation rather than actual static files. It’s still very hands-on though and I enjoy that a lot; editing HTML and CSS directly without intermediary tools.

When I update the site, it’s usually to add a new speaker to the line-up (well, not any more now that the line up is complete). That involves marking up their bio and talk description. I also create a couple of different sized versions of their headshot to use with srcset. And of course I write an alt attribute to accompany that image.

By the way, Jake has an excellent article on writing alt text that uses the specific example of a conference site. It raises some very thought-provoking questions.

I enjoy writing alt text. I recently described how I updated my posting interface here on my own site to put a textarea for alt text front and centre for my notes with photos. Since then I’ve been enjoying the creative challenge of writing useful—but also evocative—alt text.

Some recent examples:

But when I was writing the alt text for the headshots on the UX London site, I started to feel a little disheartened. The more speakers were added to the line-up, the more I felt like I was repeating myself with the alt text. After a while they all seemed to be some variation on “This person looking at the camera, smiling” with maybe some detail on their hair or clothing.

  • Videha Sharma
    The beaming bearded face of Videha standing in front of the beautiful landscape of a riverbank.
  • Candi Williams
    Candi working on her laptop, looking at the camera with a smile.
  • Emma Parnell
    Emma smiling against a yellow background. She’s wearing glasses and has long straight hair.
  • John Bevan
    A monochrome portrait of John with a wry smile on his face, wearing a black turtleneck in the clichéd design tradition.
  • Laura Yarrow
    Laura smiling, wearing a chartreuse coloured top.
  • Adekunle Oduye
    A profile shot of Adekunle wearing a jacket and baseball cap standing outside.

The more speakers were added to the line-up, the harder I found it not to repeat myself. I wondered if this was all going to sound very same-y to anyone hearing them read aloud.

But then I realised, “Wait …these are kind of same-y images.”

By the very nature of the images—headshots of speakers—there wasn’t ever going to be that much visual variation. The experience of a sighted person looking at a page full of speakers is that after a while the images kind of blend together. So if the alt text also starts to sound a bit repetitive after a while, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A screen reader user would be getting an equivalent experience.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to have the same alt text for each image—they are all still different. But after I had that realisation I stopped being too hard on myself if I couldn’t come up with a completely new and original way to write the alt text.

And, I remind myself, writing alt text is like any other kind of writing. The more you do it, the better you get.

Sunday, May 22nd, 2022

Situational awereness

There was a week recently where I was out and about nearly every night.

One night, Jessica and I went to the cinema. There was a double bill of Alien and Aliens in the beautiful Duke of York’s picture house. We booked one of the comfy sofas on the balcony.

The next night we were out at the session in The Jolly Brewer, playing trad Irish tunes all evening. Bliss!

Then on the third night, we went to see Low playing in a church. Rich and Ben were there too.

It really felt like The Before Times. Of course in reality it wasn’t quite like old times. There’s always an awareness of relative risk. How crowded is the cinema likely to be? Will they have the doors open at The Jolly Brewer to improve the airflow? Will people at the Low gig comply with the band’s request to wear masks?

Still, in each case, I weighed the risk and decided the evening was worth it. If I caught Covid because of that cinematic double bill, or that tune-filled gathering, or that excellent gig, that price would be acceptable.

Mind you, I say that without having experienced the horribleness of having a nasty bout of coronavirus. And the prospect of long Covid is genuinely scary.

But there’s no doubt that the vaccines have changed the equation. There’s still plenty of risk but it’s on a different scale. The Situation isn’t over, but it has ratcheted down a notch to something more manageable.

Now with the weather starting to get nice, there’ll be more opportunities for safer outdoor gatherings. I’m here for it.

Actually, I’m not going to literally be here for all of it. I’m making travel plans to go and speak at European events—another positive signal of the changing situation. Soon I’ll be boarding the Eurostar to head to Amsterdam, and not long after I’ll be on the Eurostar again for a trip to Lille. And then of course there’s UX London at the end of June. With each gathering, there’s an inevitable sense of calculated risk, but there’s also a welcome sense of normality seeping back in.

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

Image previews with the FileReader API

I added a “notes” section to this website eight years ago. I set it up so that notes could be syndicated to Twitter. Ever since then, that’s the only way I post to Twitter.

A few months later I added photos to my notes. Again, this would get syndicated to Twitter.

Something’s bothered me for a long time though. I initially thought that if I posted a photo, then the accompanying text would serve as a decription of the image. It could effectively act as the alt text for the image, I thought. But in practice it didn’t work out that way. The text was often a commentary on the image, which isn’t the same as a description of the contents.

I needed a way to store alt text for images. To make it more complicated, it was possible for one note to have multiple images. So even though a note was one line in my database, I somehow needed a separate string of text with the description of each image in a single note.

I eventually settled on using the file system instead of the database. The images themselves are stored in separate folders, so I figured I could have an accompanying alt.txt file in each folder.

Take this note from yesterday as an example. Different sizes of the image are stored in the folder /images/uploaded/19077. Here’s a small version of the image and here’s the original. In that same folder is the alt text.

This means I’m reading a file every time I need the alt text instead of reading from a database, which probably isn’t the most performant way of doing it, but it seems to be working okay.

Here’s another example:

In order to add the alt text to the image, I needed to update my posting interface. By default it’s a little textarea, followed by a file upload input, followed by a toggle (a checkbox under the hood) to choose whether or not to syndicate the note to Twitter.

The interface now updates automatically as soon as I use that input type="file" to choose any images for the note. Using the FileReader API, I show a preview of the selected images right after the file input.

Here’s the code if you ever need to do something similar. I’ve abstracted it somewhat in that gist—you should be able to drop it into any page that includes input type="file" accept="image/*" and it will automatically generate the previews.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy this was. The FileReader API worked just as expected without any gotchas. I think I always assumed that this would be quite complex to do because once upon a time, it was quite complex (or impossible) to do. But now it’s wonderfully straightforward. Story of the web.

My own version of the script does a little bit more; it also generates another little textarea right after each image preview, which is where I write the accompanying alt text.

I’ve also updated my server-side script that handles the syndication to Twitter. I’m using the /media/metadata/create method to provide the alt text. But for some reason it’s not working. I can’t figure out why. I’ll keep working on it.

In the meantime, if you’re looking at an image I’ve posted on Twitter and you’re judging me for its lack of alt text, my apologies. But each tweet of mine includes a link back to the original note on this site and you will most definitely find the alt text for the image there.

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022

City of Women London

City of Women encourages Londoners to take a second glance at places we might once have taken for granted by reimagining the iconic Underground map.

I love everything about this …except that there’s no Rosalind Franklin station.

Sunday, March 6th, 2022

Both plagues on your one house

February is a tough month at the best of times. A February during The Situation is particularly grim.

At least in December you get Christmas, whose vibes can even carry you through most of January. But by the time February rolls around, it’s all grim winteriness with no respite in sight.

In the middle of February, Jessica caught the ’rona. On the bright side, this wasn’t the worst timing: if this had happened in December, our Christmas travel plans to visit family would’ve been ruined. On the not-so-bright side, catching a novel coronavirus is no fun.

Still, the vaccines did their job. Jessica felt pretty crap for a couple of days but was on the road to recovery before too long.

Amazingly, I did not catch the ’rona. We slept in separate rooms, but still, we were spending most of our days together in the same small flat. Given the virulence of The Omicron Variant, I’m counting my blessings.

But just in case I got any ideas about having some kind of superhuman immune system, right after Jessica had COVID-19, I proceeded to get gastroenteritis. I’ll spare you the details, but let me just say it was not pretty.

Amazingly, Jessica did not catch it. I guess two years of practicing intense hand-washing pays off when a stomach bug comes a-calling.

So all in all, not a great February, even by February’s already low standards.

The one bright spot that I get to enjoy every February is my birthday, just as the month is finishing up. Last year I spent my birthday—the big five oh—in lockdown. But two years ago, right before the world shut down, I had a lovely birthday weekend in Galway. This year, as The Situation began to unwind and de-escalate, I thought it would be good to reprieve that birthday trip.

We went to Galway. We ate wonderful food at Aniar. We listened to some great trad music. We drink some pints. It was good.

But it was hard to enjoy the trip knowing what was happening elsewhere in Europe. I’d blame February for being a bastard again, but in this case the bastard is clearly Vladimar Putin. Fucker.

Just as it’s hard to switch off for a birthday break, it’s equally challenging to go back to work and continue as usual. It feels very strange to be spending the days working on stuff that clearly, in the grand scheme of things, is utterly trivial.

I take some consolation in the fact that everyone else feels this way too, and everyone is united in solidarity with Ukraine. (There are some people in my social media timelines who also feel the need to point out that other countries have been invaded and bombed too. I know it’s not their intention but there’s a strong “all lives matter” vibe to that kind of whataboutism. Hush.)

Anyway. February’s gone. It’s March. Things still feel very grim indeed. But perhaps, just perhaps, there’s a hint of Spring in the air. Winter will not last forever.

Monday, January 3rd, 2022

The Year in Cheer

192 more stories of progress from 2021.

99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2021

Some welcome perspective on healthcare, conservation, human rights, and energy.

Kagi Search

A new search engine (and browser!) that will have a paid business model.

Between this and Duck Duck Go, there’s evidence of an increasing appetite for alternatives to Google’s increasingly-more-rubbish search engine.