Draw an iceberg and see how it will float.
Saturday, February 20th, 2021
Saturday, March 30th, 2019
These diagrams of early networks feel like manuscripts that you’d half expect to be marked with “Here be dragons” at the edges.
Friday, March 22nd, 2019
Steven Pemberton’s presentation on the printing press, the internet, Moore’s Law, and exponential growth.
Thursday, November 22nd, 2018
I just binge-listened to the six episodes of the first season of this podcast from Stephen Fry—it’s excellent!
It covers the history of communication from the emergence of language to the modern day. At first I was worried that it was going to rehash some of the more questionable ideas in the risible Sapiens, but it turned out to be far more like James Gleick’s The Information or Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (two of my favourite books on the history of technology).
There’s no annoying sponsorship interruptions and the whole series feels more like an audiobook than a podcast—an audiobook researched, written and read by Stephen Fry!
Tuesday, May 30th, 2017
Checking in at Indie Web Camp Nuremberg
Just as with Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf the weekend before, it was a fun two days—one day of discussions, followed by one day of making.
I spent most of the second day playing around with a new service that Aaron created called OwnYourSwarm. It’s very similar to his other service, OwnYourGram. Whereas OwnYourGram is all about posting pictures from Instagram to your own site, OwnYourSwarm is all about posting Swarm check-ins to your own site.
Usually I prefer to publish on my own site and then push copies out to other services like Twitter, Flickr, etc. (POSSE—Publish on Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere). In the case of Instagram, that’s impossible because of their ludicrously restrictive API, so I have go the other way around (PESOS—Publish Elsewhere, Syndicate to Own Site). When it comes to check-ins, I could do it from my own site, but I’d have to create my own databases of places to check into. I don’t fancy that much (yet) so I’m using OwnYourSwarm to PESOS check-ins.
The great thing about OwnYourSwarm is that I didn’t have to do anything. I already had the building blocks in place.
First of all, I needed some way to authenticate as my website. IndieAuth takes care of all that. All I needed was
rel="me" attributes pointing from my website to my profiles on Twitter, Flickr, Github, or any other services that provide OAuth. Then I can piggyback on their authentication flow (this is also how you sign in to the Indie Web wiki).
The other step is more involved. My site needs to provide an API endpoint so that services like OwnYourGram and OwnYourSwarm can post to it. That’s where micropub comes in. You can see the code for my minimal micropub endpoint if you like. If you want to test your own micropub endpoint, check out micropub.rocks—the companion to webmention.rocks.
Anyway, I already had IndieAuth and micropub set up on my site, so all I had to do was log in to OwnYourSwarm and I immediately started to get check-ins posted to my own site. They show up the same as any other note, so I decided to spend my time at Indie Web Camp Nuremberg making them look a bit different. I used Mapbox’s static map API to show an image of the location of the check-in. What’s really nice is that if I post a photo on Swarm, that gets posted to my own site too. I had fun playing around with the display of photo+map on my home page stream. I’ve made a page for keeping track of check-ins too.
All in all, a fun way to spend Indie Web Camp Nuremberg. But when it came time to demo, the one that really impressed me was Amber’s. She worked flat out on her site, getting to the second level on IndieWebify.me …including sending a webmention to my site!
Wednesday, May 24th, 2017
A workshop on evaluating technology
After hacking away at Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf, I stuck around for Beyond Tellerrand. I ended up giving a talk, stepping in for Ellen. I was a poor substitute, but I hope I entertained the lovely audience for 45 minutes.
After Beyond Tellerrand, I got on a train to Nuremberg …along with a dozen of my peers who were also at the event.
I arrived right in the middle of Web Week Nürnberg. Among the many events going on was a workshop that Joschi arranged for me to run called Evaluating Technology. The workshop version of my Beyond Tellerrand talk, basically.
This was an evolution of a workshop I ran a while back. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous going into this. I had no tangible material prepared; no slides, no handouts, nothing. Instead the workshop is a collaborative affair. In order for it to work, the attendees needed to jump in and co-create it with me. Luckily for me, I had a fantastic and enthusiastic group of people at my workshop.
We began with a complete braindump. “Name some tools and technologies,” I said. “Just shout ‘em out.” Shout ‘em out, they did. I struggled to keep up just writing down everything they said. This was great!
The next step was supposed to be dot-voting on which technologies to cover, but there were so many of them, we introduced an intermediate step: grouping the technologies together.
Once the technologies were grouped into categories like build tools, browser APIs, methodologies etc., we voted on which categories to cover, only then diving deeper into specific technologies.
I proposed a number of questions to ask of each technology we covered. First of all, who benefits from the technology? Is it a tool for designers and developers, or is it a tool for the end user? Build tools, task runners, version control systems, text editors, transpilers, and pattern libraries all fall into the first category—they make life easier for the people making websites. Browser features generally fall into the second category—they improve the experience for the end user.
Looking at user-facing technologies, we asked: how well do they fail? In other words, can you add this technology as an extra layer of enhancement on top of what you’re building or do you have to make it a foundational layer that’s potentially a single point of failure?
For both classes of technologies, we asked the question: what are the assumptions? What fundamental philosophy has been baked into the technology?
Now, the point of this workshop is not for me to answer those questions. I have a limited range of experience with the huge amount of web technologies out there. But collectively all of us attending the workshop will have a good range of experience and knowledge.
Interesting then that the technologies people voted for were:
- service workers,
- progressive web apps,
- web components,
- pattern libraries and design systems.
Those are topics I actually do have some experience with. Lots of the attendees had heard of these things, they were really interested in finding out more about them, but they hadn’t necessarily used them yet.
And so I ended up doing a lot of the talking …which wasn’t the plan at all! That was just the way things worked out. I was more than happy to share my opinions on those topics, but it was of a shame that I ended up monopolising the discussion. I felt for everyone having to listen to me ramble on.
Still, by the end of the day we had covered quite a few topics. Better yet, we had a good framework for categorising and evaluating web technologies. The specific technologies we covered were interesting enough, but the general approach provided the lasting value.
All in all, a great day with a great group of people.
I’m already looking forward to running this workshop again. If you think it would be valuable for your company, get in touch.
Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017
Amber’s report from Indie Web Camp Nuremberg last week. I was blown away by how much she got done in one day.
Monday, May 22nd, 2017
Calum’s write-up of the workshop I ran in Nuremberg last week.
Sunday, May 7th, 2017
A minority report on artificial intelligence
Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.
It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.
At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.
Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.
The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.
But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:
It helps not to think of them as human.
To which the response is:
No, they’re so much more than that.
Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.
Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.
Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.
Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.
Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.
When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.
Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…
Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.
At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.
Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.
There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.
The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:
SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.
Monday, January 9th, 2017
A wonderfully thoughtful piece from Robin, ranging from the printing technologies of the 15th century right up to the latest web technologies. It’s got all my favourite things in there: typography, digital preservation, and service workers. Marvellous!
Thursday, January 5th, 2017
As soon as tickets were available for the Brighton premiere of Rogue One, I grabbed some—two front-row seats for one minute past midnight on December 15th. No problem. That was the night after the Clearleft end-of-year party on December 14th.
Then I realised how dates work. One minute past midnight on December 15th is the same night as December 14th. I had double-booked myself.
It’s a nice dilemma to have; party or Star Wars? I decided to absolve myself of the decision by buying additional tickets for an evening showing on December 15th. That way, I wouldn’t feel like I had to run out of the Clearleft party before midnight, like some geek Cinderella.
In the end though, I did end up running out of the Clearleft party. I had danced and quaffed my fill, things were starting to get messy, and frankly, I was itching to immerse myself in the newest Star Wars film ever since Graham strapped a VR headset on me earlier in the day and let me fly a virtual X-wing.
So, somewhat tired and slightly inebriated, I strapped in for the midnight screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
I thought it was okay. Some of the fan service scenes really stuck out, and not in a good way. On the whole, I just wasn’t that gripped by the story. Ah, well.
Still, the next evening, I had those extra tickets I had bought as psychological insurance. “Why not?” I thought, and popped along to see it again.
This time, I loved it. It wasn’t just me either. Jessica was equally indifferent the first time ‘round, and she also enjoyed it way more the second time.
I can’t recall having such a dramatic swing in my appraisal of a film from one viewing to the next. I’m not quite sure why it didn’t resonate the first time. Maybe I was just too tired. Maybe I was overthinking it too much, unable to let myself get caught up in the story because I was over-analysing it as a new Star Wars film. Anyway, I’m glad that I like it now.
Much has been made of its similarity to classic World War Two films, which I thought worked really well. But the aspect of the film that I found most thought-provoking was the story of Galen Erso. It’s the classic tale of an apparently good person reluctantly working in service to evil ends.
This reminded me of Mother Night, perhaps my favourite Kurt Vonnegut book (although, let’s face it, many of his books are interchangeable—you could put one down halfway through, and pick another one up, and just keep reading). Mother Night gives the backstory of Howard W. Campbell, who appears as a character in Slaughterhouse Five. In the introduction, Vonnegut states that it’s the one story of his with a moral:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
If Galen Erso is pretending to work for the Empire, is there any difference to actually working for the Empire? In this case, there’s a get-out clause for this moral dilemma: by sabotaging the work (albeit very, very subtly) Galen’s soul appears to be absolved of sin. That’s the conclusion of the excellent post on the Sci-fi Policy blog, Rogue One: an ‘Engineering Ethics’ Story:
What Galen Erso does is not simply watch a system be built and then whistleblow; he actively shaped the design from its earliest stages considering its ultimate societal impacts. These early design decisions are proactive rather than reactive, which is part of the broader engineering ethics lesson of Rogue One.
I know I’m Godwinning myself with the WWII comparisons, but there are some obvious historical precedents for Erso’s dilemma. The New York Review of Books has an in-depth look at Werner Heisenberg and his “did he/didn’t he?” legacy with Germany’s stalled atom bomb project. One generous reading of his actions is that he kept the project going in order to keep scientists from being sent to the front, but made sure that the project was never ambitious enough to actually achieve destructive ends:
What the letters reveal are glimpses of Heisenberg’s inner life, like the depth of his relief after the meeting with Speer, reassured that things could safely tick along as they were; his deep unhappiness over his failure to explain to Bohr how the German scientists were trying to keep young physicists out of the army while still limiting uranium research work to a reactor, while not pursuing a fission bomb; his care in deciding who among friends and acquaintances could be trusted.
Speaking of Albert Speer, are his hands are clean or dirty? And in the case of either answer, is it because of moral judgement or sheer ignorance? The New Atlantis dives deep into this question in Roger Forsgren’s article The Architecture of Evil:
Speer indeed asserted that his real crime was ambition — that he did what almost any other architect would have done in his place. He also admitted some responsibility, noting, for example, that he had opposed the use of forced labor only when it seemed tactically unsound, and that “it added to my culpability that I had raised no humane and ethical considerations in these cases.” His contrition helped to distance himself from the crude and unrepentant Nazis standing trial with him, and this along with his contrasting personal charm permitted him to be known as the “good Nazi” in the Western press. While many other Nazi officials were hanged for their crimes, the court favorably viewed Speer’s initiative to prevent Hitler’s scorched-earth policy and sentenced him to twenty years’ imprisonment.
I wish that these kinds of questions only applied to the past, but they are all-too relevant today.
Software engineers in the United States are signing a pledge not to participate in the building of a Muslim registry:
We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.
That’s all well and good, but it might be that a dedicated registry won’t be necessary if those same engineers are happily contributing their talents to organisations whose business models are based on the ability to track and target people.
But now we’re into slippery slopes and glass houses. One person might draw the line at creating a Muslim registry. Someone else might draw the line at including any kind of invasive tracking script on a website. Someone else again might decide that the line is crossed by including Google Analytics. It’s moral relativism all the way down. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw lines. Of course it’s hard to live in an ideal state of ethical purity—from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to the electricity we use—but a muddy battleground is still capable of having a line drawn through it.
The question facing the fictional characters Galen Erso and Howard W. Campbell (and the historical figures of Werner Heisenberg and Albert Speer) is this: can I accomplish less evil by working within a morally repugnant system than being outside of it? I’m sure it’s the same question that talented designers ask themselves before taking a job at Facebook.
At one point in Rogue One, Galen Erso explicitly invokes the justification that they’d find someone else to do this work anyway. It sounds a lot like Tim Cook’s memo to Apple staff justifying his presence at a roundtable gathering that legitimised the election of a misogynist bigot to the highest office in the land. I’m sure that Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sheryl Sandberg all think they are playing the part of Galen Erso but I wonder if they’ll soon find themselves indistinguishable from Orson Krennic.
Sunday, April 17th, 2016
Great photos from a great gathering.
Monday, June 22nd, 2015
What a day out! What a lovely responsive day out!
The third and final Responsive Day Out is done and dusted. In short, it was fantastic. Every single talk was superb. Statistically that seems highly unlikely, but it’s true.
I was quite overcome by the outpouring of warmth and all the positive feedback I got from the attendees. That made me feel really good, if a little guilty. Guilty because the truth is that I don’t really consider the attendees when I’m putting the line-up together. Instead I take much greedier approach: I ask “who do I want to hear speak?” Still, it’s nice to know that there’s so much overlap in our collective opinion.
Keep thinking what a weekend, and it’s not even the weekend.Fantastic day at #responsiveconf, too much to tweet, hopefully in longform soon— Katja Durrani (@kdurrani) June 19, 2015
Had a brilliant day at Responsive Day Out 3 - The Final Breakpoint! Thank you to @clearleft for such an interesting & inspiring day— codebar Brighton (@CodebarBrighton) June 19, 2015
Responsive day out was a really inspiring conference with some great talks. Big focus on accessibility and people. The essence of the web.— Rob Mills (@robjmills) June 20, 2015
Despite the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the day, I had a couple of complaints myself, and they’re both related to the venue. My issues were with:
- the seats and
- the temperature.
The tiered seating in the Corn Exchange is great for giving everyone in the audience a good view, but the seats are awfully close together. That leaves taller people with some sore knees.
And the problem with having a conference in the middle of June is that, if the weather is good—which I’m glad it was—the Corn Exchange can get awfully hot and sweaty in the latter half of the day.
Both those issues would be solved by using a more salubrious venue, like the main Brighton Dome itself, but then that would also mean a doubling of the cost per ticket (hence why dConstruct and Responsive Day Out are in different price ranges). And one of the big attractions of Responsive Day Out is its ludicrously cheap ticket price. That meant sacrificing a lot of comforts—I just wish that comfortable seats and air temperature weren’t amongst them.
Still. Listen to me moaning about the things I didn’t like when in fact the day was really, really wonderful.
Guess what? The audio from all the talks is already online. As always, Drew did an amazing job. You can subscribe to the RSS feed in your podcatching software of choice. Videos will be available after a while, but for now you’ll have to make do with the audio.
Oh, and speaking of audio, if you liked the music that was playing in the breaks, here’s the playlist. My thanks to all the artists for licensing their work under a Creative Commons license so that I could dodge one more expense that would otherwise have to be passed on to the ticket price.
Now. The number one question that people were asking me at the pub afterwards was “why is this the last one?” I really should’ve addressed that during my closing remarks.
But here’s the thing: the first Responsive Day Out was intended as a one-off. So really the question should be: why were there three? To which I have no good answer other than to say it felt about right. With three of them, it gave just about everyone a chance to get to at least one. If you didn’t make it to any of the responsive days out, well …you’ve only got yourself to blame.
In the end, I’m glad that I ended up doing three events. Now I can see the arc of all the events as one. Listening back to all the talks from all three years you can hear the trajectory from “ARGH! This responsive design stuff is really scary! How will we cope‽” to “Hey, this responsive design stuff is the way we do things now.” There are still many, many challenges of course, but the question is no longer if responsive design is the way to go. Instead we can talk about how we can help one other do it well.
At the end of the third and final Responsive Day Out, I thanked all the speakers from all three events. It’s quite a roll-call. And it was immensely gratifying to see so many of the names from previous years in the audience at the final event.
I am sincerely grateful to:
- Sarah Parmenter,
- David Bushell,
- Tom Maslen,
- Richard Rutter,
- Josh Emerson,
- Laura Kalbag,
- Elliot Jay Stocks,
- Anna Debenham,
- Andy Hume,
- Bruce Lawson,
- Owen Gregory,
- Paul Lloyd,
- Mark Boulton,
- Stephen Hay,
- Sally Jenkinson,
- Ida Aalen,
- Rachel Andrew,
- Dan Donald,
- Inayaili de León Persson,
- Oliver Reichenstein,
- Kirsty Burgoine,
- Stephanie Rieger,
- Ethan Marcotte,
- Alice Bartlett,
- Rachel Shillcock,
- Alla Kholmatova,
- Peter Gasston,
- Jason Grigsby,
- Heydon Pickering,
- Jake Archibald,
- Ruth John,
- Zoe Mickley Gillenwater,
- Rosie Campbell,
- Lyza Gardner, and
- Aaron Gustafson.
Many thanks also to everyone who came along to the events, especially the hat-trickers who made it to all three.
I’ve organised a total of six conferences now and I’m extremely proud of all of them:
- dConstruct 2012: Playing With The Future,
- the first Responsive Day Out,
- dConstruct 2013: Communicating With Machines,
- Responsive Day Out 2: The Squishening,
- dConstruct 2014: Living With The Network, and
- Responsive Day Out 3: The Final Breakpoint.
…but they’ve also been a lot of work. dConstruct in particular took a lot out of me last year. That’s why I’m not involved with this year’s event—Andy has taken the reins instead. By comparison, Responsive Day Out is a much more low-key affair; not nearly as stressful to put together. Still, three in a row is plenty. It’s time to end it on a hell of a high note.
That’s not to say I won’t be organising some other event sometime in the future. Maybe I’ll even revive the format of Responsive Day Out—three back-to-back 20 minute talks makes for an unbeatable firehose of knowledge. But for now, I’m going to take a little break from event-organising.
Besides, it’s not as though Responsive Day Out is really gone. Its spirit lives on in its US equivalent, Responsive Field Day in Portland in September.
Wednesday, June 17th, 2015
It seems grossly unfair to refer to this as an article. It’s a short book. It’s a very good short book; lucid and entertaining in equal measure. A very enjoyable read.
It is, unfortunately, surrounded by some distracting “enhancements” but perhaps you can use your cleaner-upper software of choice to route around their damage: Instapaper, Pocket, Readability, whatever works for you.
Tuesday, September 9th, 2014
Wednesday, July 30th, 2014
A nice profile of BERG’s Little Printer. That Matt Webb is a smart cookie. He is also a very thoughtful cookie.
Monday, April 21st, 2014
I like Matt’s observation here that the simple combination of a barebones data format like HTML delivered over HTTP is a good-enough low-level API for joining up all kinds of internet-connected things.
In the last 60 years, the biggest software platform for interop and integration – for new products, services, businesses, and value creation – has not been Android, or iOS, or Windows, or the PDP-11. The biggest and best platform has been the web.
One implication is that successful products are not necessarily those with seamless, beautiful, tightly-controlled “experiences”, but rather the ones that are capable of talking to each other.
Small things, loosely joined.
Saturday, October 26th, 2013
I just got back from Nürnberg where I gave the closing talk at the cheap’n’cheerful border:none event. It was my first time in Nürnberg and I wish I could’ve stayed longer in such a beautiful place. I would’ve liked to stick around for today’s Open Device Lab admin meetup, but alas I had to get up at the crack of dawn to start making my way back to Brighton.
I was in Germany last month too. That time I was in Freiburg, where I was giving the closing talk at Smashing Conference. That was a lot of fun:
So I threw away my slidedeck and went Keynote commando.
The video from that slideless talk is up on Vimeo now for your viewing and/or downloading pleasure.
If you watch it through to the end, then you’ll know why I could be found immediately afterwards showing people some centuries-old carvings on Freiburg’s cathedral.
Update: I’ve published a transcript of the talk.
Monday, March 11th, 2013
Just like in the Borges short story, you can now see everything at once …from Project Gutenberg, or from Twitter, or from both.
This may be the only legitimate use case for (truly) infinite scrolling.
Wednesday, December 19th, 2012
Beautiful thoughtful work from the BERGians.