Tags: arg

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Wednesday, June 9th, 2021

The spirit of the staircase

The French have a wonderful phrase, lesprit de l’escalier. It describes that feeling when you’ve stormed out of the room after an argument and you’re already halfway down the stairs when you think of the perfect quip that you wish you had said.

I had a similar feeling last week but instead of wishing I had said something, I was wishing I had kept my mouth shut.

I have an annoying tendency to want to get the last word in. I don’t have a problem coming up with a barbed quip. My problem is wishing I could take them back.

This happened while I was hosting the conference portion of UX Fest last week. On the hand, I don’t want the discussions to be dull so I try to come up with thought-provoking points to bring up. But take that too far and it gets ugly. There’s a fine line between asking probing questions and just being mean (I’m reminded of headline in The Onion, “Devil’s Advocate Turns Out To Be Just An Asshole”).

Towards the end of the conference, there was a really good robust discussion underway. But I couldn’t resist getting in the last word. In the attempt to make myself look clever I ended up saying something hurtful and clumsy.

Fucking idiot.

I apologised, and it all worked out well in the end, but damn if I haven’t spent the last week on the staircase wishing I could turn back time and say …nothing.

Thursday, January 21st, 2021

Letters of exclusion

I think my co-workers are getting annoyed with me. Any time they use an acronym or initialism—either in a video call or Slack—I ask them what it stands for. I’m sure they think I’m being contrarian.

The truth is that most of the time I genuinely don’t know what the letters stand for. And I’ve got to that age where I don’t feel any inhibition about asking “stupid” questions.

But it’s also true that I really, really dislike acronyms, initialisms, and other kinds of jargon. They’re manifestations of gatekeeping. They demarcate in-groups from outsiders.

Of course if you’re in a conversation with an in-group that has the same background and context as you, then sure, you can use acronyms and initialisms with the confidence that there’s a shared understanding. But how often can you be that sure? The more likely situation—and this scales exponentially with group size—is that people have differing levels of inside knowledge and experience.

I feel sorry for anyone trying to get into the field of web performance. Not only are there complex browser behaviours to understand, there’s also a veritable alphabet soup of initialisms to memorise. Here’s a really good post on web performance by Harry, but notice how the initialisms multiply like tribbles as the post progresses until we’re talking about using CWV metrics like LCP, FID, and CLS—alongside TTFB and SI—to look at PLPs, PDPs, and SRPs. And fair play to Harry; he expands each initialism the first time he introduces it.

But are we really saving any time by saying FID instead of first input delay? I suspect that the only reason why the word “cumulative” precedes “layout shift” is just to make it into the three-letter initialism CLS.

Still, I get why initialisms run rampant in technical discussions. You can be sure that most discussions of particle physics would be incomprehensible to outsiders, not necessarily because of the concepts, but because of the terminology.

Again, if you’re certain that you’re speaking to peers, that’s fine. But if you’re trying to communicate even a little more widely, then initialisms and abbreviations are obstacles to overcome. And once you’re in the habit of using the short forms, it gets harder and harder to apply context-shifting in your language. So the safest habit to form is to generally avoid using acronyms and initialisms.

Unnecessary initialisms are exclusionary.

Think about on-boarding someone new to your organisation. They’ve already got a lot to wrap their heads around without making them figure out what a TAM is. That’s a real example from Clearleft. We have a regular Thursday afternoon meeting. I call it the Thursday afternoon meeting. Other people …don’t.

I’m trying—as gently as possible—to ensure we’re not being exclusionary in our language. My co-workers indulge me, even it’s just to shut me up.

But here’s the thing. I remember many years back when a job ad went out on the Clearleft website that included the phrase “culture fit”. I winced and explained why I thought that was a really bad phrase to use—one that is used as code for “more people like us”. At the time my concerns were met with eye-rolls and chuckles. Now, as knowledge about diversity and inclusion has become more widespread, everyone understands that using a phrase like “culture fit” can be exclusionary.

But when I ask people to expand their acronyms and initialisms today, I get the same kind of chuckles. My aversion to abbreviations is an eccentric foible to be tolerated.

But this isn’t about me.

Saturday, January 2nd, 2021

Loading and replacing HTML parts with HTML

I like this proposal for a declarative Ajax pattern. It’s relatively straightforward to polyfill, although backward-compatibility is an issue because of existing browser behaviour with the target attribute.

Wednesday, October 7th, 2020

Burnt out? - The Midult

It me.

And yet now, in this moment of semi-stillness, the pause button may have slowed down our geographical dashing, but it has only accelerated our inner flounder. The dull thrum of imprecise apprehension. The gratitude for semi-safety made weird by the ever-blooming realisation that there is little to get excited about.

Sunday, August 9th, 2020

Connections

Fourteen years ago, I gave a talk at the Reboot conference in Copenhagen. It was called In Praise of the Hyperlink. For the most part, it was a gushing love letter to hypertext, but it also included this observation:

For a conspiracy theorist, there can be no better tool than a piece of technology that allows you to arbitrarily connect information. That tool now exists. It’s called the World Wide Web and it was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

You know those “crazy walls” that are such a common trope in TV shows and movies? The detectives enter the lair of the unhinged villain and discover an overwhelming wall that’s like looking at the inside of that person’s head. It’s not the stuff itself that’s unnerving; it’s the red thread that connects the stuff.

Red thread. Blue hyperlinks.

When I spoke about the World Wide Web, hypertext, apophenia, and conspiracy theorists back in 2006, conspiracy theories could still be considered mostly harmless. It was the domain of Dan Brown potboilers and UFO enthusiasts with posters on their walls declaring “I Want To Believe”. But even back then, 911 truthers were demonstrating a darker side to the fun and games.

There’s always been a gamification angle to conspiracy theories. Players are rewarded with the same dopamine hits for “doing the research” and connecting unrelated topics. Now that’s been weaponised into QAnon.

In his newsletter, Dan Hon wrote QAnon looks like an alternate reality game. You remember ARGs? The kind of designed experience where people had to cooperate in order to solve the puzzle.

Being a part of QAnon involves doing a lot of independent research. You can imagine the onboarding experience in terms of being exposed to some new phrases, Googling those phrases (which are specifically coded enough to lead to certain websites, and certain information). Finding something out, doing that independent research will give you a dopamine hit. You’ve discovered something, all by yourself. You’ve achieved something. You get to tell your friends about what you’ve discovered because now you know a secret that other people don’t. You’ve done something smart.

We saw this in the games we designed. Players love to be the first person to do something. They love even more to tell everyone else about it. It’s like Crossfit. 

Dan’s brother Adrian also wrote about this connection: What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon:

There is a vast amount of information online, and sometimes it is possible to solve “mysteries”, which makes it hard to criticise people for trying, especially when it comes to stopping perceived injustices. But it’s the sheer volume of information online that makes it so easy and so tempting and so fun to draw spurious connections.

This is something that Molly Sauter has been studying for years now, like in her essay The Apophenic Machine:

Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us, when we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet, the web circling back to itself again and again. The internet is an apophenic machine.

I remember interviewing Lauren Beukes back in 2012 about her forthcoming book about a time-travelling serial killer:

Me: And you’ve written a time-travel book that’s set entirely in the past.

Lauren: Yes. The book ends in 1993 and that’s because I did not want to have to deal with Kirby the heroine getting some access to CCTV cameras and uploading the footage to 4chan and having them solve the mystery in four minutes flat.

By the way, I noticed something interesting about the methodology behind conspiracy theories—particularly the open-ended never-ending miasma of something like QAnon. It’s no surprise that the methodology is basically an inversion of the scientific method. It’s the Texas sharpshooter fallacy writ large. Well, you know the way that I’m always going on about design principles and they way that good design principles should be reversible? Conspiracy theories take universal principles and invert them. Take Occam’s razor:

Do not multiply entities without necessity.

That’s what they want you to think! Wake up, sheeple! The success of something like QAnon—or a well-designed ARG—depends on a mindset that rigorously inverts Occam’s razor:

Multiply entities without necessity!

That’s always been the logic of conspiracy theories from faked moon landings to crop circles. I remember well when the circlemakers came clean and showed exactly how they had been making their beautiful art. Conspiracy theorists—just like cultists—don’t pack up and go home in the face of evidence. They double down. There was something almost pitiable about the way the crop circle UFO crowd were bending over backwards to reject proof and instead apply the inversion of Occam’s razor to come up with even more outlandish explanations to encompass the circlemakers’ confession.

Anyway, I recommend reading what Dan and Adrian have written about the shared psychology of QAnon and Alternate Reality Games, not least because they also suggest some potential course corrections.

I think the best way to fight QAnon, at its roots, is with a robust social safety net program. This not-a-game is being played out of fear, out of a lack of safety, and it’s meeting peoples’ needs in a collectively, societally destructive way.

I want to add one more red thread to this crazy wall. There’s a book about conspiracy theories that has become more and more relevant over time. It’s also wonderfully entertaining. Here’s my recommendation from that Reboot presentation in 2006:

For a real hot-tub of conspiracy theory pleasure, nothing beats Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

…luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…

Sunday, March 8th, 2020

The 3 Laws of Serverless - Burke Holland

“Serverless”, is a buzzword. We can’t seem to agree on what it actaully means, so it ends up meaning nothing at all. Much like “cloud” or “dynamic” or “synergy”. You just wait for the right time in a meeting to drop it, walk to the board and draw a Venn Diagram, and then just sit back and wait for your well-deserved promotion.

That’s very true, and I do not like the term “serverless” for the rather obvious reason that it’s all about servers (someone else’s servers, that is). But these three principles are handy for figuring out if you’re building with in a serverlessy kind of way:

  1. You have no knowledge of the underlying system where your code runs.
  2. Scaling is an intrinsic attribute of the technology; so much so that it just happens automatically.
  3. You only pay for what you use.

Abstraction; scale; consumption.

Friday, February 28th, 2020

Fixed Headers and Jump Links? The Solution is scroll-margin-top | CSS-Tricks

I didn’t know about scroll-margin-top! I wonder if you could apply a universal rule …like, say you’ve got a fixed header that’s 2em in height, couldn’t you declare:

:target { scroll-margin-top: 2em; }

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

Link Targets and 3.2.5 | Adrian Roselli

Here are the many, many reasons why you should not open links in a new window (or tab).

Regardless of what accessibility conformance level you target, do not arbitrarily open links in a new window or tab. If you are required to do so anyway, inform users in text.

Monday, August 26th, 2019

A Walk In Hong Kong (Idle Words)

Maciej goes marching.

The protests are intentionally decentralized, using a jury-rigged combination of a popular message board, the group chat app Telegram, and in-person huddles at the protests.

This sounds like it shouldn’t possibly work, but the protesters are too young to know that it can’t work, so it works.

Sunday, August 4th, 2019

The Flawed Reasoning Behind the Replication Crisis — Nautilus

Bayesian analysis vs. statistical significance, clearly explained.

Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Monday, April 8th, 2019

Break out of the echo chamber - Andy Bell

So much of my echo chamber is consumed by people, including myself, who have a very dim view of JavaScript frameworks being thrown at everything, arguing with the people who are in the process of throwing JavaScript frameworks at everything. We forget one very important thing, though: we represent the minority of the web community and our arguments probably look very pointless and silly to the majority.

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Getting help from your worst enemy

Onboarding. Reaching out. In terms of. Synergy. Bandwidth. Headcount. Forward planning. Multichannel. Going forward. We are constantly bombarded and polluted with nonsense speak. These words and phrases snag and attach themselves to our vocabulary like sticky weeds.

Words become walls.

I love this post from Ben on the value of plain language!

We’re not dumbing things down by using simple terms. We’re being smarter.

Read on for the story of the one exception that Ben makes—it’s a good one.

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

Forget privacy: you’re terrible at targeting anyway - apenwarr

A spot-on description of how targetted advertising works …or rather, how it doesn’t.

They are still trying to sell me car insurance for my subway ride.

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Use the words normal people use

When you’re struggling to write something that sounds clear and sounds human (two of the essential basics of a good blog post, I’d argue), just use the words normal people would use.

John Spencer: “There’s no bullshit like design bullshit” - Design Week

If we use jargon, we reveal our insecurity. If we use pretentious language, we expose our arrogance. But if we use language that anyone can understand, people are much more likely to value what we do.

Sunday, May 6th, 2018

Shipmap.org | Visualisation of Global Cargo Ships | By Kiln and UCL

A beautiful visualisation of shipping routes and cargo. Mesmerising!

You can see movements of the global merchant fleet over the course of 2012, overlaid on a bathymetric map. You can also see a few statistics such as a counter for emitted CO2 (in thousand tonnes) and maximum freight carried by represented vessels (varying units).

Friday, December 15th, 2017

Spectral: A New Screen-First Typeface - Library - Google Design

A rather handsome looking free serif typeface based on Gargantua. Spectral is available under an Open Font License.

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Building a CSS-only image gallery (with fallbacks)

A great step-by-step walkthrough of building a really nice image gallery without any JavaScript.

The end result is really impressive but there’s still the drawback that the browser history will be updated every time you click on an image thumbnail (because the functionality relies on ID attributes referenced via :target). Depending on your use-case, that may or may not be desirable.