Perhaps when Bush prophesied lightning-quick knowledge retrieval, he didn’t intend for that knowledge to be footnoted with Outbrain adverts. Licklider’s man-computer symbiosis would have been frustrated had it been crop-dusted with notifications. Ted Nelson imagined many wonderfully weird futures for the personal computer, but I don’t think gamifying meditation apps was one of them.
Friday, February 16th, 2018
Sunday, February 11th, 2018
In trying to decide on his indie web approach, Dries gives an excellent breakdown of the concepts of PESOS (Publish Elsewhere, Syndicate to Own Site) and POSSE (Publish to Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere).
There’s something quite Bridlesque about these lovely books that Brendan is generating from git commits.
Sunday, January 21st, 2018
Coming to a bookshelf near you in March 2018: the untold story of the women who made the internet.
Sunday, January 14th, 2018
If only our digital social networks were to exhibit this kind of faded grandeur when they no longer exist.
Sunday, January 7th, 2018
Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018
And the whole thing is available here for free under a Creative Commons licence!
Friday, December 29th, 2017
Plague; zombie; nuclear …Anna’s got them all covered in her roundup of apocalyptic literature and games.
Thursday, December 28th, 2017
Books I read in 2017
Here are the books I read in 2017. It’s not as many as I hoped.
I set myself a constraint this year so that I’d have to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction: no reading two fiction books back-to-back, and no reading two non-fiction books back-to-back. I quite like the balanced book diet that resulted. I think I might keep it going.
Anyway, in order of consumption, here are those books…
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
I had already seen—and quite enjoyed—the first series of the television adaption of The Expanse so I figured I’d dive into the books that everyone kept telling me about. The book was fun …but no more than that. I don’t think I’m invested enough to read any of the further books. In some ways, I think this makes for better TV than reading (despite the TV’s shows annoying “slow motion in zero G” trope that somewhat lessens the hard sci-fi credentials).
Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed
This was recommended by James Box, and on the whole, I really liked it. There’s a lot of anecdata though. Still, the fundamental premise is a good one, comparing the attitudes towards risk in two different industries; aviation and healthcare. A little bit more trimming down would’ve helped the book—it dragged on just a bit too long.
The Separation by Christopher Priest
I need to read at least one Christopher Priest book a year. They’re in a league of their own, somehow outside the normal rules of criticism. This one is a true stand-out. As ever, it messes with your head and gets weirder as it goes on. If you haven’t read any Christopher Priest, I reckon this would be a great one to start with.
Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George
Recommended by both Jessica and Danielle, this is a well-crafted look into life on board a cargo ship, as well as an examination of ocean-going logistics. If you liked the Containers podcast, you’ll like this. I found it a little bit episodic—more like a collection of magazine articles sometimes—but still enjoyable.
Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler
A false start. This is a short story, not a novel—I didn’t know that when I downloaded it to my Kindle. It’s an excellent short story though. Still, I felt it didn’t count in my zigzagging between fiction and non-fiction so I followed it with…
Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
Science fiction from the 1930s. The breadth of imagination is quite staggering, even if the writing is sometimes a bit of a slog. Still, it seems remarkably ahead of its time in many ways.
The Sense Of Style by Steven Pinker
I spent a portion of 2017 writing a book so I was eager to read Steven Pinker’s take on a style guide, having thoroughly enjoyed The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate. This book starts with a bang—a critique of some examples of great writing. Then there’s some good practical advice, and then there’s a bit of a laundry list of non-rules. Typical of Pinker, the points about unclear writing are illustrated with humorous real-world examples. Overall, a good guide but perhaps a little longer than it needs to be.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Writing On The Wall by Tom Standage
I’ve read of all of Tom Standage’s books but none of them have ever matched the brilliance of The Victorian Internet. This one was frustratingly shallow. Every now and then there were glimpses of a better book. There’s a chapter on radio that gets genuinely exciting and intriguing. If Tom Standage wrote a whole book on that, I’d read it in a heartbeat. But in this collection of social media through the ages, it just reminded me of how much better he can be.
Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
Recommended by Jessica and Denise, this was my first Sheri S. Tepper book. It took me a while to get into it, but I enjoyed it. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s a solid planetary romance.
Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
This has been recommended to me by more people than I can recall. I was very glad to finally get to read it (myself and Amber did a book swap: I gave her A Sense Of Style and she gave me this). As a guide to writing, it’s got some solid advice, humorously delivered, but there were also moments where I found the style grating. Still worth reading though.
The Gradual by Christopher Priest
I just can’t get enough of Christopher Priest. I saw that his latest book was in the local library and I snapped it up. This one is set entirely in the Dream Archipelago. Yet again, the weirdness increases as the book progresses. It’s not up there with The Islanders or The Adjacent, but it’s as unsettling as any of his best books.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford
I think this was the best non-fiction book I read this year. It’s divided into two halves. The first half, which I preferred, dealt with the sweep of human history as told through our genes. The second half deals with modern-day stories in the press that begin “Scientists say…” It was mostly Adam Rutherford gritting his teeth in frustration as he points out that “it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Thoroughly enjoyable, well written, and educational.
A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
I had read the first book in this series, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and thought it was so-so. It read strangely like fan fiction, and didn’t have much of a though-line. But multiple people said that this second outing was a big improvement. They weren’t wrong. This is definitely a better book. The story is relatively straightforward, and as with all good sci-fi, it’s not really telling us about a future society—it’s telling us about the world we live in. The book isn’t remarkable but it’s solid.
The Dream Machine: J.C.R Licklider And The Revolution That Made Computing Possible by M. Mitchell Waldrop
This is the kind of book that could have been written just for me. The ARPANET, Turing, Norbert Wiener and Cybernetics, Xerox PARC, the internet, the web …it’s all in here. I enjoyed it, but it was a long slog. I’m not sure if using J.C.R. Licklider as the unifying factor in all these threads really worked. And maybe it was just the length of the book getting to me, but by the time I was two-thirds of the way through, I was getting weary of the dudes. Yes, there were a lot of remarkable men involved in these stories, but my heart sank with every chapter that went by without a single woman being mentioned. I found it ironic that so many intelligent people had the vision to imagine a world of human-computer symbiosis, but lacked the vision to challenge the status quo of the societal structures they were in.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
Lauren defies genre-pigeonholing once again. This is sort of a horror, sort of a detective story, and sort of a social commentary. It works well, although I was nervous about the Detroit setting sometimes veering into ruin porn. I don’t think it’s up there with Zoo City or The Shining Girls, but it’s certainly a page-turner.
Accessibility For Everyone by Laura Kalbag
Because the previous non-fiction book I read was so long, I really fancied something short and to-the-point. A Book Apart to the rescue. You can be guaranteed that any book from that publisher will be worth reading, and this is no exception.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
There was a lot of buzz around this book, and it came highly recommended by Danielle. It’s thoroughly dizzying in its world-building; you’re plunged right into the thick of things with no word of explanation or exposition. I like that. There were times when I thought that maybe I had missed some important information, because I was having such a hard time following what was going on, but then I’d realise that the sense of disorientation was entirely deliberate. Good stuff …although for some reason I ended up liking it more than loving it.
High Performance Browser Networking by Ilya Grigorik
A recommendation from Harry. The whole book is available online for free. That’s how I’ve been reading it—in a browser tab. In fact, I have to confess that I haven’t finished it. I’m dipping in and out. There’s a lot of very detailed information on how networks and browsers work. I’m not sure how much of it is going into my brain, but I very much appreciate having this resource to hand.
A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge
I picked up a trade paperback copy of this sci-fi book at The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver when I was there for An Event Apart earlier this month. I had heard it mentioned often and it sounds like my kind of yarn. I’m about halfway through it now and so far, so good.
There you have it.
It’s tough to pick a clear best. In non-fiction, I reckon Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived just about pips Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style. In fiction, Christopher Priest’s The Separation comes close, but Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora remains my favourite.
Like I said, not as many books as I would like. And of those twenty works, only seven were written by women—I need to do better in 2018.
Wednesday, December 20th, 2017
You can’t log into the same Facebook twice.
The world as we experience it seems to be growing more opaque. More of life now takes place on digital platforms that are different for everyone, closed to inspection, and massively technically complex. What we don’t know now about our current experience will resound through time in historians of the future knowing less, too. Maybe this era will be a new dark age, as resistant to analysis then as it has become now.
Thursday, December 14th, 2017
In the name of holy engagement, the native experience of products like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are moving away from giving people the ability to curate. They do this by taking control away from you, the user. By showing what other people liked, or by showing recommendations, without any way to turn it off, they prevent people from creating a better experience for themselves.
This looks interesting—a new book by Dean Hume all about progressive web apps. A few chapters are available to download.
Sunday, December 10th, 2017
Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures – Center for Science and the Imagination
A collection of short stories and essays speculating on humanity’s future in the solar system. The digital versions are free to download.
Friday, December 1st, 2017
Medium, Twitter, Facebook and others are edge services for your content … Your platform is the origin.
Tuesday, November 28th, 2017
A design system unites product teams around a common visual language. It reduces design debt, accelerates the design process, and builds bridges between teams working in concert to bring products to life. Learn how you can create your design system and help your team improve product quality while reducing design debt.
Saturday, November 18th, 2017
Hooked and booked
I think there might be a connection.
A/B testing is a great way of finding out what happens when you introduce a change. But it can’t tell you why.
I used the site earlier in the year, and actually felt my heart rate increase. Never again.— Paul Robert Lloyd (@paulrobertlloyd) October 24, 2017
The problem is that, in a data-driven environment, decisions ultimately come down to whether something works or not. But just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.
If I were trying to convince you to buy a product, or use a service, one way I could accomplish that would be to literally put a gun to your head. It would work. Except it’s not exactly a good solution, is it? But if we were to judge by the numbers (100% of people threatened with a gun did what we wanted), it would appear to be the right solution.
When speaking about A/B testing at Booking.com, Stuart Frisby emphasised why it’s so central to their way of working:
One of the core principles of our organisation is that we want to be very customer-focused. And A/B testing is really a way for us to institutionalise that customer focus.
I’m not so sure. I think A/B testing is a way to institutionalise a focus on business goals—increasing sales, growth, conversion, and all of that. Now, ideally, those goals would align completely with the customer’s goals; happy customers should mean more sales …but more sales doesn’t necessarily mean happy customers. Using business metrics (sales, growth, conversion) as a proxy for customer satisfaction might not always work …and is clearly not the case with many of these kinds of sites. Whatever the company values might say, a company’s true focus is on whatever they’re measuring as success criteria. If that’s customer satisfaction, then the company is indeed customer-focused. But if the measurements are entirely about what works for sales and conversions, then that’s the real focus of the company.
I’m not saying A/B testing is bad—far from it! (although it can sometimes be taken to the extreme). I feel it’s best wielded in combination with usability testing with real users—seeing their faces, feeling their frustration, sharing their joy.
In short, I think that A/B testing needs to be counterbalanced. There should be some kind of mechanism for getting the answer to “why?” whenever A/B testing provides to the answer to “what?” In-person testing could be one way of providing that balance. Or it could be somebody’s job to always ask “why?” and determine if a solution is qualitatively—and not just quantitatively—good. (And if you look around at your company and don’t see anyone doing that, maybe that’s a role for you.)
Curious: How many large companies have an ethics board? Or some kind of moral advisory role employed?— Erin Weigel (@endesignonline) November 2, 2017
If there really is a connection between having a data-driven culture of A/B testing, and a product that’s filled with dark patterns, then the disturbing conclusion is that dark patterns work …at least in the short term.
Saturday, November 11th, 2017
Tracy’s new book is excellent (and I had the great honour of writing a foreword for it).
Programmers, developers, marketers, and non-designers — want to become a better designer? This short book has everything you need.
Sunday, November 5th, 2017
With echoes of Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost, this essay is a timely reminder—with practical advice—for we designers and developers who are making the web …and betraying its users.
You see, the web wasn’t meant to be a gated community. It’s actually pretty simple.
A web server, a public address and an HTML file are all that you need to share your thoughts (or indeed, art, sound or software) with anyone in the world. No authority from which to seek approval, no editorial board, no publisher. No content policy, no dependence on a third party startup that might fold in three years to begin a new adventure.
That’s what the web makes possible. It’s friendship over hyperlink, knowledge over the network, romance over HTTP.
Tuesday, October 31st, 2017
The book draws together the many and varied uses of Futura that make it a universal language while simultaneously confirming its unique typographic voice. The book is a playful yet passionate rebuttal to the perceived dominance of Helvetica as the typeface of modern design.
This is the clickbaitiest of titles, but the post has some good sobering analysis of how much traffic driven by a small handful players. It probably won’t make you feel very cheery about the future.
(For some reason, this article uses all-caps abbreviations for company names, as though a stock ticker started generating hot takes: GOOG, FB, AMZN, etc. It’s a very odd writing style for a human.)