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Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

Why we are living in JG Ballard’s world

I’m not the only one thinking about J.G. Ballard.

A luxury cruiseliner quarantined in San Francisco bay, its well-heeled passengers confined to their cabins for weeks on end. Holidaymakers on lockdown at a quarantined hotel in Tenerife after an Italian doctor comes down with coronavirus. A world of isolated individuals rarely leaving their homes, keeping a wary distance from one another in public, communicating with their friends and loved ones via exclusively technological means. These situations are so Ballardian as to be in the realm of copyright infringement.

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

Home (BBC film of J. G. Ballard’s The Enormous Space) - YouTube

Here’s a BBC adaption of that J.G. Ballard short story I recorded. It certainly feels like a story for our time.

Home (BBC film of J. G. Ballard's The Enormous Space)

A reading of The Enormous Space by J.G. Ballard

Staying at home triggered a memory for me. I remembered reading a short story many years ago. It was by J.G. Ballard, and it described a man who makes the decision not to leave the house.

Being a J.G. Ballard story, it doesn’t end there. Over the course of the story, the house grows and grows in size, forcing the protaganist into ever-smaller refuges within his own home. It really stuck with me.

I tried tracking it down with some Duck Duck Going. Searching for “j.g. ballard weird short story” doesn’t exactly narrow things down, but eventually I spotted the book that I had read the story in. It was called War Fever. I think I read it back when I was living in Germany, so that would’ve been in the ’90s. I certainly don’t have a copy of the book any more.

But I was able to look up a table of contents and find a title for the story that was stuck in my head. It’s called The Enormous Space.

Alas, I couldn’t find any downloadable versions—War Fever doesn’t seem to be available for the Kindle.

Then I remembered the recent announcement from the Internet Archive that it was opening up the National Emergency Library. The usual limits on “checking out” books online are being waived while physical libraries remain closed.

I found The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard and borrowed it just long enough to re-read The Enormous Space.

If anything, it’s creepier and weirder than I remembered. But it’s laced with more black comedy than I remembered.

I thought you might like to hear this story, so I made a recording of myself reading The Enormous Space.

Friday, March 27th, 2020

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

Apple’s attack on service workers

Apple aren’t the best at developer relations. But, bad as their communications can be, I’m willing to cut them some slack. After all, they’re not used to talking with the developer community.

John Wilander wrote a blog post that starts with some excellent news: Full Third-Party Cookie Blocking and More. Safari is catching up to Firefox and disabling third-party cookies by default. Wonderful! I’ve had third-party cookies disabled for a few years now, and while something occassionally breaks, it’s honestly a pretty great experience all around. Denying companies the ability to track users across sites is A Good Thing.

In the same blog post, John said that client-side cookies will be capped to a seven-day lifespan, as previously announced. Just to be clear, this only applies to client-side cookies. If you’re setting a cookie on the server, using PHP or some other server-side language, it won’t be affected. So persistent logins are still doable.

Then, in an audacious example of burying the lede, towards the end of the blog post, John announces that a whole bunch of other client-side storage technologies will also be capped to seven days. Most of the technologies are APIs that, like cookies, can be used to store data: Indexed DB, Local Storage, and Session Storage (though there’s no mention of the Cache API). At the bottom of the list is this:

Service Worker registrations

Okay, let’s clear up a few things here (because they have been so poorly communicated in the blog post)…

The seven day timer refers to seven days of Safari usage, not seven calendar days (although, given how often most people use their phones, the two are probably interchangable). So if someone returns to your site within a seven day period of using Safari, the timer resets to zero, and your service worker gets a stay of execution. Lucky you.

This only applies to Safari. So if your site has been added to the home screen and your web app manifest has a value for the “display” property like “standalone” or “full screen”, the seven day timer doesn’t apply.

That piece of information was missing from the initial blog post. Since the blog post was updated to include this clarification, some people have taken this to mean that progressive web apps aren’t affected by the upcoming change. Not true. Only progressive web apps that have been added to the home screen (and that have an appropriate “display” value) will be spared. That’s a vanishingly small percentage of progressive web apps, especially on iOS. To add a site to the home screen on iOS, you need to dig and scroll through the share menu to find the right option. And you need to do this unprompted. There is no ambient badging in Safari to indicate that a site is installable. Chrome’s install banner isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

Just a reminder: a progressive web app is a website that

  • runs on HTTPS,
  • has a service worker,
  • and a web manifest.

Adding to the home screen is something you can do with a progressive web app (or any other website). It is not what defines progressive web apps.

In any case, this move to delete service workers after seven days of using Safari is very odd, and I’m struggling to find the connection to the rest of the blog post, which is about technologies that can store data.

As I understand it, with the crackdown on setting third-party cookies, trackers are moving to first-party technologies. So whereas in the past, a tracking company could tell its customers “Add this script element to your pages”, now they have to say “Add this script element and this script file to your pages.” That JavaScript file can then store a unique idenitifer on the client. This could be done with a cookie, with Local Storage, or with Indexed DB, for example. But I’m struggling to understand how a service worker script could be used in this way. I’d really like to see some examples of this actually happening.

The best explanation I can come up with for this move by Apple is that it feels like the neatest solution. That’s neat as in tidy, not as in nifty. It is definitely not a nifty solution.

If some technologies set by a specific domain are being purged after seven days, then the tidy thing to do is purge all technologies from that domain. Service workers are getting included in that dragnet.

Now, to be fair, browsers and operating systems are free to clean up storage space as they see fit. Caches, Local Storage, Indexed DB—all of those are subject to eventually getting cleaned up.

So I was curious. Wanting to give Apple the benefit of the doubt, I set about trying to find out how long service worker registrations currently last before getting deleted. Maybe this announcement of a seven day time limit would turn out to be not such a big change from current behaviour. Maybe currently service workers last for 90 days, or 60, or just 30.

Nope:

There was no time limit previously.

This is not a minor change. This is a crippling attack on service workers, a technology specifically designed to improve the user experience for return visits, whether it’s through improved performance or offline access.

I wouldn’t be so stunned had this announcement come with an accompanying feature that would allow Safari users to know when a website is a progressive web app that can be added to the home screen. But Safari continues to ignore the existence of progressive web apps. And now it will actively discourage people from using service workers.

If you’d like to give feedback on this ludicrous development, you can file a bug (down in the cellar in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”).

No doubt there will still be plenty of Apple apologists telling us why it’s good that Safari has wished service workers into the cornfield. But make no mistake. This is a terrible move by Apple.

I will say this though: given The Situation we’re all living in right now, some good ol’ fashioned Hot Drama by a browser vendor behaving badly feels almost comforting.

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Workshop Countdown Clock

Here’s a nifty little progressive web app that Trys whipped up so that Clearlefties running workshops remotely still get to have their beloved countdown clock.

Free Movie of the Week

While we’re all confined to quarters during The Situation, Gary Hustwit is offering one of his films for free every week. The fantastic Helvetica is just about to finish its run, but every one of Gary’s films is worth watching (and rewatching): Helvetica, Objectified, Urbanized, and Rams.

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit is streaming his documentaries free worldwide during the global COVID crisis. Each week we’ll be posting another film here. We hope you enjoy them, and please stay strong.

Get Static – Eric’s Archived Thoughts

Performance matters …especially when the chips are down:

If you are in charge of a web site that provides even slightly important information, or important services, it’s time to get static. I’m thinking here of sites for places like health departments (and pretty much all government services), hospitals and clinics, utility services, food delivery and ordering, and I’m sure there are more that haven’t occurred to me. As much as you possibly can, get it down to static HTML and CSS and maybe a tiny bit of enhancing JS, and pare away every byte you can.

Friday, March 20th, 2020

What Does `playsinline` Mean in Web Video? | CSS-Tricks

I have to admit, I don’t think I even knew of the existence of the playsinline attribute on the video element. Here, Chris runs through all the attributes you can put in there.

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.

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

Telling the story of performance

At Clearleft, we’ve worked with quite a few clients on site redesigns. It’s always a fascinating process, particularly in the discovery phase. There’s that excitement of figuring out what’s currently working, what’s not working, and what’s missing completely.

The bulk of this early research phase is spent diving into the current offering. But it’s also the perfect time to do some competitor analysis—especially if we want some answers to the “what’s missing?” question.

It’s not all about missing features though. Execution is equally important. Our clients want to know how their users’ experience shapes up compared to the competition. And when it comes to user experience, performance is a huge factor. As Andy says, performance is a UX problem.

There’s no shortage of great tools out there for measuring (and monitoring) performance metrics, but they’re mostly aimed at developers. Quite rightly. Developers are the ones who can solve most performance issues. But that does make the tools somewhat impenetrable if you don’t speak the language of “time to first byte” and “first contentful paint”.

When we’re trying to show our clients the performance of their site—or their competitors—we need to tell a story.

Web Page Test is a terrific tool for measuring performance. It can also be used as a story-telling tool.

You can go to webpagetest.org/easy if you don’t need to tweak settings much beyond the typical site visit (slow 3G on mobile). Pop in your client’s URL and, when the test is done, you get a valuable but impenetrable waterfall chart. It’s not exactly the kind of thing I’d want to present to a client.

Fortunately there’s an attention-grabbing output from each test: video. Download the video of your client’s site loading. Then repeat the test with the URL of a competitor. Download that video too. Repeat for as many competitor URLs as you think appropriate.

Now take those videos and play them side by side. Presentation software like Keynote is perfect for showing multiple videos like this.

This is so much more effective than showing a table of numbers! Clients get to really feel the performance difference between their site and their competitors.

Running all those tests can take time though. But there are some other tools out there that can give a quick dose of performance information.

SpeedCurve recently unveiled Page Speed Benchmarks. You can compare the performance of sites within a particualar sector like travel, retail, or finance. By default, you’ll get a filmstrip view of all the sites loading side by side. Click through on each one and you can get the video too. It might take a little while to gather all those videos, but it’s quicker than using Web Page Test directly. And it might be that the filmstrip view is impactful enough for telling your performance story.

If, during your discovery phase, you find that performance is being badly affected by third-party scripts, you’ll need some way to communicate that. Request Map Generator is fantastic for telling that story in a striking visual way. Pop the URL in there and then take a screenshot of the resulting visualisation.

The beginning of a redesign project is also the time to take stock of current performance metrics so that you can compare the numbers after your redesign launches. Crux.run is really great for tracking performance over time. You won’t get any videos but you will get some very appealing charts and graphs.

Web Page Test, Page Speed Benchmarks, and Request Map Generator are great for telling the story of what’s happening with performance right nowCrux.run balances that with the story of performance over time.

Measuring performance is important. Communicating the story of performance is equally important.

Visitors, Developers, or Machines

Garrett’s observation is spot-on here:

I’ve been trying to understand the appeal of these frameworks by giving them an objective chance. I’ve expanded my knowledge of JavaScript and tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. They do have their places, but the only explanation I can come up with is that developers are taking a similar approach as Ruby and focusing on developer convenience and productivity. Only, instead of Ruby’s performance being tied to the CPU level, JavaScript frameworks push the performance burden to the client.

In both cases, the tradeoff happens in the name of developer happiness and productivity, but the strategies have entirely different consequences. With Ruby, the CPU is still (mostly) the responsibility of the development team, and it can be upgraded. With JavaScript, the page weight becomes an externality pushed onto visitors.

Monday, February 24th, 2020

Web bloat

Pages are often designed so that they’re hard or impossible to read if some dependency fails to load. On a slow connection, it’s quite common for at least one depedency to fail.

Fire up Reader Mode and read this excellent article informed by data from using a typically slow connection in rural USA today. Two findings are:

  1. A large fraction of the web is unusable on a bad connection. Even on a good (0% packetloss, no ping spike) dialup connection, some sites won’t load.
  2. Some sites will use a lot of data!

Le Corbusier: How A Utopic Vision Became Pathological In Practice | Orange Ticker

Through planning and architectural design, Le Corbusier hoped to create a scientifically rational and comprehensive solution to urban problems in a way that would both promote democracy and quality of life. For him, the factory production process applied to high-rise buildings with prefabricated and standardized components is the most modern and egalitarian of urban forms.

Something something top-down design systems.

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

Breaking looms by Matthew Ström

Another follow-on to my post about design systems and automation. Here, Matthew invokes the spirit of the much-misunderstood Luddite martyrs. It’s good stuff.

Design systems are used by greedy software companies to fatten their bottom line. UI kits replace skilled designers with cheap commoditized labor.

Agile practices pressure teams to deliver more and faster. Scrum underscores soulless feature factories that suck the joy from the craft of software development.

But progress requires more than breaking looms.

Monday, February 3rd, 2020

N26 and lack of JavaScript | Hugo Giraudel

JavaScript is fickle. It can fail to load. It can be disabled. It can be blocked. It can fail to run. It probably is fine most of the time, but when it fails, everything tends to go bad. And having such a hard point of failure is not ideal.

This is a very important point:

It’s important not to try making the no-JS experience work like the full one. The interface has to be revisited. Some features might even have to be removed, or dramatically reduced in scope. That’s also okay. As long as the main features are there and things work nicely, it should be fine that the experience is not as polished.

s08e05: There’s only one rule that I know of, babies - Things That Have Caught My Attention

A global communications network now exists that’s cheap enough or in some cases even free to access, offering a pseudonymous way for people to feel safe enough to share a private experience with complete strangers? I give Facebook and Twitter a bunch of shit for their rhetoric about a global community (no, Facebook’s billions of users are no more a community than the television-watching global community) and creating authentic connection, but I will very happily admit that this, this particular example with people sharing what it is like to be me and learning what is it like to be you is the good.

This is the thing that makes free, open, networked communication brilliant. This is the thing that brings down silos and creates common understanding and humanizes us all, that creates empathy and the first steps towards compassion.

That someone can read about this insight and have a way to react to it and share their perspective and not even know who else might read it, but feel safe in doing so and maybe even with the expectation that this sharing is a net good? That is good. That is what we should strive for.

Google Maps Hacks, Performance and Installation, 2020 By Simon Weckert

I can’t decide if this is industrial sabotage or political protest. Either way, I like it.

99 second hand smartphones are transported in a handcart to generate virtual traffic jam in Google Maps.Through this activity, it is possible to turn a green street red which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic

Saturday, January 25th, 2020

Draw all roads in a city at once

A lovely little bit of urban cartography.

Friday, January 17th, 2020

The last tracker was just removed from Basecamp.com - Signal v. Noise

Can you believe we used to willingly tell Google about every single visitor to basecamp.com by way of Google Analytics? Letting them collect every last byte of information possible through the spying eye of their tracking pixel. Ugh.

👏

In this new world, it feels like an obligation to make sure we’re not aiding and abetting those who seek to exploit our data. Those who hoard every little clue in order to piece of together a puzzle that’ll ultimately reveal all our weakest points and moments, then sell that picture to the highest bidder.