Sunday, April 15th, 2018
Tuesday, February 27th, 2018
Although design gets conflated with creation, its the act of improving what already exists — organising a room, editing a text, refining an interface, refactoring a codebase — that I enjoy the most.
Friday, February 9th, 2018
I still find the landscape of build tools completely overwhelming, but I found this distinction to be a useful way of categorising the different kinds of build tools:
Build tools do two things:
- Install things
- Do things
So bower, npm and yarn install things, whereas grunt, gulp, and webpack do things.
I wonder if I have twenty years of experience making websites, or if it is really five years of experience, repeated four times.
I saw Frank give this talk at Mirror Conf last year and it resonated with me so so much. I’ve been looking forward to him publishing the transcript ever since. If you’re anything like me, this will read as though it’s coming from directly inside your head.
In one way, it is easier to be inexperienced: you don’t have to learn what is no longer relevant. Experience, on the other hand, creates two distinct struggles: the first is to identify and unlearn what is no longer necessary (that’s work, too). The second is to remain open-minded, patient, and willing to engage with what’s new, even if it resembles a new take on something you decided against a long time ago.
I could just keep quoting the whole thing, because it’s all brilliant, but I’ll stop with one more bit about the increasing complexity of build processes and the decreasing availability of a simple view source:
Illegibility comes from complexity without clarity. I believe that the legibility of the source is one of the most important properties of the web. It’s the main thing that keeps the door open to independent, unmediated contributions to the network. If you can write markup, you don’t need Medium or Twitter or Instagram (though they’re nice to have). And the best way to help someone write markup is to make sure they can read markup.
Wednesday, January 31st, 2018
Wednesday, December 20th, 2017
A fascinating bit of cartographic reverse engineering, looking at how Google has an incredible level of satellite-delivered building detail that then goes into solving the design problem of marking “commercial corridors” (or Areas Of Interest) on their maps.
Friday, May 12th, 2017
Ben points to a new product aiming to ease the pain of connected devices bumping up against the harsh realities of shearing layers:
By exposing the ‘hardwiring’ of our electrical systems, Conduct emphasises how much we rely on existing systems to power our ‘new’ technology – the rate of change and advancement in our traditional technologies moves at a much slower pace than our mobile app-based world and there are physical limitations as a result of this hardwired legacy.
I am—unsurprisingly—in favour of exposing the seams like this.
Thursday, April 27th, 2017
For a small to medium sized project, this sounds like a sensible way to approach build tasks. It feels nice and close to the metal.
Sunday, April 9th, 2017
Here’s a handy interface if you want to get your head around named areas in CSS Grid, also known as doing layout with ASCII art.
Monday, March 6th, 2017
The conference starts tomorrow so I’ve had a day or two to acclimatise and explore. Seeing as Google are footing the bill for travel and accommodation, I’m staying at a rather nice hotel close to the conference venue in Tribeca. There’s live jazz in the lounge most evenings, a cinema downstairs, and should I request it, I can even have a goldfish in my room.
Today I realised that my hotel sits in the apex of a triangle of interesting buildings: carrier hotels.
Looming above my hotel is 32 Avenue of the Americas. On the outside the building looks like your classic Gozer the Gozerian style of New York building. Inside, the lobby features a mosaic on the ceiling, and another on the wall extolling the connective power of radio and telephone.
The same architects also designed 60 Hudson Street, which has a similar Art Deco feel to it. Inside, there’s a cavernous hallway running through the ground floor but I can’t show you a picture of it. A security guard told me I couldn’t take any photos inside …which is a little strange seeing as it’s splashed across the website of the building.
I walked around the outside of 60 Hudson, taking more pictures. Another security guard asked me what I was doing. I told her I was interested in the history of the building, which is true; it was the headquarters of Western Union. For much of the twentieth century, it was a world hub of telegraphic communication, in much the same way that a beach hut in Porthcurno was the nexus of the nineteenth century.
For a 21st century hub, there’s the third and final corner of the triangle at 33 Thomas Street. It’s a breathtaking building. It looks like a spaceship from a Chris Foss painting. It was probably designed more like a spacecraft than a traditional building—it’s primary purpose was to withstand an atomic blast. Gone are niceties like windows. Instead there’s an impenetrable monolith that looks like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi film.
Brutalist on the outside, its interior is host to even more brutal acts of invasive surveillance. The Snowden papers revealed this AT&T building to be a centrepiece of the Titanpointe programme:
They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.
But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States…
Looking at the building, it requires very little imagination to picture it as the lair of villainous activity. Laura Poitras’s short film Project X basically consists of a voiceover of someone reading an NSA manual, some ominous background music, and shots of 33 Thomas Street looming in its oh-so-loomy way.
A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on classified NSA documents, Project X reveals the inner workings of a windowless skyscraper in downtown Manhattan.
Friday, March 3rd, 2017
World of Concrete: Inside the Industry That’s Building Trump’s America Brick by Brick - The Atlantic
Fear and concrete in Las Vegas: a great piece of infrastructure reportage by Georgina.
Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016
I think it’s worth revisiting this post by Laurie on a regular basis for a shot of perspective and inspiration.
The web saved my life and then built me a new one. A single living entity, it touches everything in the world and is always getting better — and I can help. I owe it so much; if I can help it out, make it better in any small way, how can I possibly refuse? And if I can make it easier for other people to help make it better, then my efforts are multiplied.
Friday, September 23rd, 2016
I can very much relate to Jonathan’s learning process (except for the bit about reading Hacker News—spit):
I think I read about 20-30 times more than I write, but the writing part is still crucial for helping me get stuff straight in my own head.
Friday, June 10th, 2016
I think I’ve gotten tired of Google telling me “This is how you have to build websites now.” Or Apple coming down from the mountain once a year saying “Here are the two new products you will buy this year.”
Monday, May 9th, 2016
Rachel and Drew have been beta-testing Mark’s Fractal project for organising a library of components for Perch’s interface. Sounds like it’s working out very, very well indeed!
Saturday, March 5th, 2016
Wednesday, March 25th, 2015
Still a few days left to back this great project for Brighton:
Build, tinker, make and play! For anyone with imagination, The Brighton Makerlab lets ages 8 to 80 create cool stuff with technology.
Friday, January 23rd, 2015
Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
A look at the architectural history of the network hubs of New York: 32 Avenue of the Americas and 60 Hudson Street. Directed by Davina Pardo and written by her husband Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet.
These buildings were always used as network hubs. It’s just that the old networks were used to house the infrastructure of telephone networks (these were the long line buildings).
In a way, the big server hotel of New York—111 Eight Avenue—was also always used to route packets …it’s just that the packets used to be physical.
Sunday, March 23rd, 2014
Notes from the edge
I went up to London for the Edge Conference on Friday. It’s not your typical conference. Instead of talks, there are panels, but not the crap kind, where nobody says anything of interest: these panels are ruthlessly curated and prepared. There’s lots of audience interaction too, but again, not the crap kind, where one or two people dominate the discussion with their own pet topics: questions are submitted ahead of time, and then you are called upon to ask it at the right moment. It’s like Question Time for the web.
The first panel was on that hottest of topics: Web Components. Peter Gasston kicked it off with a superb introduction to the subject. Have a read of his equally-excellent article in Smashing Magazine to get the gist.
Needless to say, this panel covered similar ground to the TAG meetup I attended a little while back, and left me with similar feelings: I’m equal parts excited and nervous; optimistic and worried. If Web Components work out, and we get a kind emergent semantics of UI widgets, it’ll be a huge leap forward for the web. But if we end up with a Tower of Babel, things could get very messy indeed. We’ll probably get both at once. And I think that’ll be (mostly) okay.
I butted into the discussion when the topic of accessibility came up. I was a little worried about what I was hearing, which was mainly, “Oh, ARIA takes care of the accesibility.” I felt like Web Components were passing the buck to ARIA, which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that ARIA can’t cover all the possible use-cases of Web Components.
Let me set the scene for Web Components…
Historically, HTML has had a limited vocubalary for expressing interface widgets—mostly a bunch of specialised form fields like, say, the
select element. The plus side is that there’s a consensus of understanding among the browsers, so you don’t have to explain what a
select element does; the browsers already know. The downside is that whenever we want to add a new interface element like
input type="range", it takes time to get into browsers and through the standards process. Web Components allow you to conjure up interface elements, and you don’t have to lobby browser makers or standards groups in order to make browsers understand your newly-minted element: you provide all the behavioural and styling instructions in one bundle.
select element because the browser knows what it is and can expose that knowledge to the assistive technology. If we’re going to start making up our own interface elements, we now have to take on the responsibility of providing that information to assistive technology.
That’s not a criticism of ARIA: that’s the way it was designed. It’s a reactionary technology, designed to plug the gaps where the native semantics of HTML just don’t cut it. The vocabulary of ARIA was created by looking at the kinds of interface elements people are making—tabs, sliders, and so on. That’s fine, but it can’t scale to keep pace with Web Components.
The problem that Web Components solve—the fact that it currently takes too long to get a new interface element into browsers—doesn’t have a corresponding solution when it comes to accessibility hooks. Just adding more and more predefined ARIA roles won’t cut it—we need some kind of extensible accessibility that matches the expressive power of Web Components. We don’t need a bigger vocabulary in ARIA, we need a way to define our own vocabulary—an extensible ARIA, if you will.
Hmmm… I’m still not sure I’m explaining myself very well.
Anyway, I just want to make sure that accessibility doesn’t get left behind (again!) in our rush to create a new solution to our current problems. With Web Components still in their infancy, this feels like the right time to raise these concerns.
That highlights another issue, one that Nicole picked up on. It’s really important that the extensible web community and the accessibility community talk to each other.
Frankly, the accessibility community can be its own worst enemy sometimes. So don’t get me wrong: I’m not bringing up my concerns about the accessibility of Web Components in order to cry “fail!”—I just want to make sure that it’s on the table (and I’m glad that Alex is one of the people driving Web Components—his history with Dojo reassures me that we can push the boundaries of interface widgets on the web without leaving accessibility behind).
Anyway …that’s enough about that. I haven’t mentioned all the other great discussions that took place at Edge Conference.
The Web Components panel was followed by a panel on developer tools. This was dominated by representatives from different browsers, each touting their own set of in-browser tools. But the person who I really wanted to rally behind was Kenneth Auchenberg. He quite rightly asks why our developer tools and our text editors are two different apps. And rather than try to put text editors into developer tools, what we really want is to pull developer tools into our text editors …all the developer tools from all the browsers, not just one set of developer tools from one specific browser.
I had my hand up to jump into the discussion towards the end, but time ran out so I didn’t get a chance. Paul came over afterwards and asked what I was going to say. Here’s what I told him…
I’m fascinated by the social dynamics around how browsers get made. This is an area where different companies are simultaneously collaborating and competing.
Broadly speaking, the feature set of a web browser can be divided into two buckets:
In the other bucket, you’ve got all the stuff that browsers compete against each other with: speed, security, the user interface, etc. A lot of this takes place behind closed doors, and that’s fine. There’s no real need for browser makers to collaborate on this stuff, and it could even hurt their competetive advantage if they did collaborate.
But here’s the problem; developer tools seem to be coming out of that second bucket instead of the first. There doesn’t seem to be much communication between the browser makers on developer tools. That’s fine if you see developer tools as an opportunity for competition, but it’s lousy if you see developer tools as an opportunity for interoperability.
This is why Kenneth’s work is so important. He’s crying out for more interoperability between browsers when it comes to developer tools. Why can’t they all use the same low-level APIs under the hood? Then they can still compete on how pretty their dev tools look, without making life miserable for developers who want to move quickly between browsers.
As painful as it might be, I think that browser makers should get together in some semi-formalised way to standardise this stuff. I don’t think that the W3C or the WHATWG are necessarily the right places for this kind of standardisation, but any kind of official cooperation would be good.
The panel on build processes for front-end development kicked off with Gareth saying a few words. Some of those words included the sentence:
Make is probably older than you.
Cue glares from me and Scott.
Gareth also said that making websites means making software. We’re all making software—live with it.
This made me nervous. I’ve always felt that one of the great strengths of the web has been its low barrier to entry. The idea of a web that can only be made by qualified software developers doesn’t sound like a good thing to me.
Fortunately, things got cleared up later on. Somebody else asked a question about whether the barrier to entry was being raised by the complexity of tools like preprocessors, compilers, and transpilers. The consensus of the panel was that these are power tools for power users. So if someone were learning to make a website from scratch, you wouldn’t start them off with, say, Sass, without first learning CSS.
It was a fun panel, made particulary enjoyable by the presence of Kyle Simpson. I like the cut of his jib. Alas, I didn’t get the chance to tell him that in person. I had to duck out of the afternoon’s panels to get back to Brighton due to unforeseen family circumstances. But I did manage to catch some of the later panels on the live stream.
A common thread I noticed amongst many of the panels was a strong bias for decantralisation, rather than collaboration. That was most evident with Web Components—the whole point is that you can make up your own particular solution rather than waiting for a standards body. But it was also evident in the Developer Tools line-up, where each browser maker is reinventing the same wheels. And when it came to Build Process, it struck me that everyone is scratching their own itch instead of getting together to work on an itch solution.
There’s nothing wrong with that kind of Darwinian approach to solving our problems, but it does seem a bit wasteful. Mairead Buchan was at Edge Conference too and she noticed the same trend. Sounds like she’s going to do something about it too.