Simon describes the pattern he uses for content sites to get all of the resilience of static site generators while keeping dynamic functionality.
Thursday, July 29th, 2021
Friday, February 26th, 2021
One of the other arguments we hear in support of the SPA is the reduction in cost of cyber infrastructure. As if pushing that hosting burden onto the client (without their consent, for the most part, but that’s another topic) is somehow saving us on our cloud bills. But that’s ridiculous.
Tuesday, February 16th, 2021
These definitions work for me:
Sunday, November 29th, 2020
Sensible advice from Chris:
So what’s the best rendering method? Whatever works best for you, but perhaps a hierarchy like this makes some general sense:
- Static HTML as much as you can
- Edge functions over static HTML so you can do whatever dynamic things
- Server generated HTML what you have to after that
- Client-side render only what you absolutely have to
Thursday, October 8th, 2020
Chris shares his thoughts on the ever-widening skillset required of a so-called front-end developer.
Interestingly, the skillset he mentions half way through (which is what front-end devs used to need to know) really appeals to me: accessibility, performance, responsiveness, progressive enhancement. But the list that covers modern front-end dev sounds more like a different mindset entirely: APIs, Content Management Systems, business logic …the back of the front end.
And Chris doesn’t even touch on the build processes that front-end devs are expected to be familiar with: version control, build pipelines, package management, and all that crap.
I wish we could return to this:
The bigger picture is that as long as the job is building websites, front-enders are focused on the browser.
Thursday, October 1st, 2020
This is a superb twenty minute presentation by Trys! It’s got everything: a great narrative, technical know-how, and a slick presentation style.
Conference organisers: you should get Trys to speak at your event!
Friday, July 31st, 2020
I probably need to upgrade the Huffduffer server but Maciej nails why that’s an intimidating prospect:
Doing this on a live system is like performing kidney transplants on a playing mariachi band. The best case is that no one notices a change in the music; you chloroform the players one at a time and try to keep a steady hand while the band plays on. The worst case scenario is that the music stops and there is no way to unfix what you broke, just an angry mob. It is very scary.
Friday, May 8th, 2020
Trys describes the backend architecture of the excellent Sofa Conf website. In short, it’s a Jamstack dream: all of the convenience and familiarity of using a database-driven CMS (Craft), combined with all the speed and resilience of using a static site generator (Eleventy).
I love the fact that anyone on the Clearleft events team can push to production with a Slack message.
I also love that the site is Lighthousetastically fast.
Monday, April 6th, 2020
The cloud gives us collaboration, but old-fashioned apps give us ownership. Can’t we have the best of both worlds?
We would like both the convenient cross-device access and real-time collaboration provided by cloud apps, and also the personal ownership of your own data embodied by “old-fashioned” software.
This is a very in-depth look at the mindset and the challenges involved in building truly local-first software—something that Tantek has also been thinking about.
Monday, March 23rd, 2020
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.
Sunday, March 8th, 2020
“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:
- You have no knowledge of the underlying system where your code runs.
- Scaling is an intrinsic attribute of the technology; so much so that it just happens automatically.
- You only pay for what you use.
Abstraction; scale; consumption.
Monday, February 3rd, 2020
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.
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
I’ve found that the older I get, the less I care about looking stupid. This is remarkably freeing. I no longer have any hesitancy about raising my hand in a meeting to ask “What’s that acronym you just mentioned?” This sometimes has the added benefit of clarifying something for others in the room who might have been to shy to ask.
I remember a few years back being really confused about
npm. Fortunately, someone who was working at
npm at the time came to Brighton for FFConf, so I asked them to explain it to me.
As I understood it,
npm was intended to be used for managing packages of code for Node. Wasn’t it actually called “Node Package Manager” at one point, or did I imagine that?
Anyway, the mental model I had of
npm is to Node as PEAR is to PHP. A central repository of open source code projects that you could easily add to your codebase …for your server-side code.
But then I saw people talking about using
It turns out that my confusion was somewhat warranted. The
npm project had indeed started life as a repo for server-side code but had since expanded to encompass client-side code too.
I understand how it happened, but it confirmed a worrying trend I had noticed. Developers were writing front-end code as though it were back-end code.
On the other hand, it makes no sense at all! If your code’s run-time is on the server, then the size of the codebase doesn’t matter that much. Whether it’s hundreds or thousands of lines of code, the execution happens more or less independentally of the network. But that’s not how front-end development works. Every byte matters. The more code you write that needs to be executed on the user’s device, the worse the experience is for that user. You need to limit how much you’re using the network. That means leaning on what the browser gives you by default (that’s your run-time environment) and keeping your code as lean as possible.
Dave echoes my concerns in his end-of-the-year piece called The Kind of Development I Like:
I now think about npm and wonder if it’s somewhat responsible for some of the pain points of modern web development today. Fact is, npm is a server-side technology that we’ve co-opted on the client and I think we’re feeling those repercussions in the browser.
The Unix Philosophy encourages us to write small micro libraries that do one thing and do it well. The Node.js Ecosystem did this in spades. This works great on the server where importing a small file has a very small cost. On the client, however, this has enormous costs.
In a funny way, this situation reminds me of something I saw happening over twenty years ago. Print designers were starting to do web design. They had a wealth of experience and knowledge around colour theory, typography, hierarchy and contrast. That was all very valuable to bring to the world of the web. But the web also has fundamental differences to print design. In print, you can use as many typefaces as you want, whereas on the web, to this day, you need to be judicious in the range of fonts you use. But in print, you might have to limit your colour palette for cost reasons (depending on the printing process), whereas on the web, colours are basically free. And then there’s the biggest difference of all: working within known dimensions of a fixed page in print compared to working within the unknowable dimensions of flexible viewports on the web.
Fast forward to today and we’ve got a lot of Computer Science graduates moving into front-end development. They’re bringing with them a treasure trove of experience in writing robust scalable code. But web browsers aren’t like web servers. If your back-end code is getting so big that it’s starting to run noticably slowly, you can throw more computing power at it by scaling up your server. That’s not an option on the front-end where you don’t really have one run-time environment—your end users have their own run-time environment with its own constraints around computing power and network connectivity.
That’s a very, very challenging world to get your head around. The safer option is to stick to the mental model you’re familiar with, whether you’re a print designer or a Computer Science graduate. But that does a disservice to end users who are relying on you to deliver a good experience on the World Wide Web.
Monday, October 21st, 2019
It was Indie Web Camp Brighton on the weekend. After a day of thought-provoking discussions, I thoroughly enjoyed spending the second day tinkering on my website.
For a while now, I’ve wanted to add maps to my monthly archive pages (to accompany the calendar heatmaps I added at a previous Indie Web Camp). Whenever I post anything to my site—a blog post, a note, a link—it’s timestamped and geotagged. I thought it would be fun to expose that in a glanceable way. A map seems like the right medium for that, but I wanted to avoid the obvious route of dropping a load of pins on a map. Instead I was looking for something more like the maps in Indiana Jones films—a line drawn from place to place to show the movement over time.
After two hours, I admitted defeat.
I was able to find the kind of static maps I wanted from Mapbox—I’m already using them for my check-ins. I could even add a polyline, which is exactly what I wanted. But instead of passing latitude and longitude co-ordinates for the points on the polyline, the docs explain that I needed to provide …cur ominous thunder and lightning… The Encoded Polyline Algorithm Format.
Go to that link. I’ll wait.
Did you read through the eleven steps of instructions? Did you also think it was a piss take?
- Take the initial signed value.
- Multiply it by 1e5.
- Convert that decimal value to binary.
- Left-shift the binary value one bit.
- If the original decimal value is negative, invert this encoding.
- Break the binary value out into 5-bit chunks.
- Place the 5-bit chunks into reverse order.
- OR each value with 0x20 if another bit chunk follows.
- Convert each value to decimal.
- Add 63 to each value.
- Convert each value to its ASCII equivalent.
This was way beyond my brain’s pay grade. But surely someone else had written the code I needed? I did some Duck Duck Going and found a piece of PHP code to do the encoding. It didn’t work. I Ducked Ducked and Went some more. I found a different piece of PHP code. That didn’t work either.
At this point, my allotted time was up. If I wanted to have something to demo by the end of the day, I needed to switch gears. So I did.
It waits until the page has finished loading, then it searches for any instances of the
h-geo microformat (a way of encoding latitude and longitude coordinates in HTML). If there are three or more, it generates a
script element to pull in the Leaflet library, and a corresponding
style element. Then it draws the map with the polyline on it. I ended up using Stamen’s beautiful watercolour map tiles.
That’s what I demoed at the end of the day.
But I wasn’t happy with it.
Sure, it looked good, but displaying the map required requests for a script, a style sheet, and multiple map tiles. I made sure that it didn’t hold up the loading of the rest of the page, but it still felt wasteful.
So after Indie Web Camp, I went back to investigate static maps again. This time I did finally manage to find some PHP code for encoding lat/lon coordinates into a polyline that worked. Finally I was able to construct URLs for a static map image that displays a line connecting multiple points with a line.
I’ve put this maps on any of the archive pages that also have calendar heat maps. Some examples:
- Everything from August 2019
- Notes from July 2018
- Links from June 2017
- Photos from October 2014
- Journal entries from December 2012
If you go back much further than that, the maps start to trail off. That’s because I wasn’t geotagging everything from the start.
I’m pretty happy with the final results. It’s certainly far more responsible from a performance point of view. Oh, and I’ve also got the maps inside a
picture element so that I can swap out the tiles if you switch to dark mode.
It’s a shame that I can’t use the lovely Stamen watercolour tiles for these static maps though.
Thursday, August 1st, 2019
Chris broke both his arms just to avoid speaking at the JAMstack conference in London. Seems a bit extreme to me.
Anyway, to make up for not being there, he made a website of his talk. It’s good stuff, tackling the split.
It’s cool to see the tech around our job evolve to the point that we can reach our arms around the whole thing. It’s worthy of some concern when we feel like complication of web technology feels like it’s raising the barrier to entry
Saturday, April 13th, 2019
Trys has made YASSG—Yet Another Static Site Generator. It’s called Sergey (like SSG, see?) and it does just one thing: it allows you to include chunks of markup. It’s Apache Server Side Includes all over again!
Kick the tyres and see what you think.
Monday, March 25th, 2019
53% of mobile visits leave a page that takes longer than 3 seconds to load. That means that a large number of visitors probably abandoned these sites because they were staring at a blank screen for 3 seconds, said “fuck it,” and left approximately half way before the page showed up. The fact that the next page interaction would have been quicker—assuming all the JS files even downloaded correctly in the first attempt—doesn’t amount to much if they didn’t stick around for the first page to load. What was gained by putting the business logic in the front end in this scenario?
Wednesday, March 6th, 2019
Are many of the modern frontend tools and practices just technical debt in disguise?
Ooh, good question!
Tuesday, May 29th, 2018
Push notifications explained using astrology. But don’t worry, there’s also some code, just in case you prefer your explanations to also include models that actually work.
Friday, May 18th, 2018
I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.
I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.
My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.
That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.
I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)
I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.
But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.
choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.
On that note…