Tags: data

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Sunday, February 17th, 2019

Timelines of the web

Recreating the original WorldWideWeb browser was an exercise in digital archeology. With a working NeXT machine in the room, Kimberly was able to examine the source code for the first every browser and discover a treasure trove within. Like this gem in HTUtils.h:

#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */

Sure enough, by June of 1992 port 80 was documented as being officially assigned to the World Wide Web (Gopher got port 70). Jean-François Groff—who worked on the World Wide Web project with Tim Berners-Lee—told us that this was a moment they were very pleased about. It felt like this project of theirs was going places.

Jean-François also told us that the WorldWideWeb browser/editor was kind of like an advanced prototype. The idea was to get something up and running as quickly as possible. Well, the NeXT operating system had a very robust Text Object, so the path of least resistance for Tim Berners-Lee was to take the existing word-processing software and build a hypertext component on top of it. Likewise, instead of creating a brand new format, he used the existing SGML format and added one new piece: linking with A tags.

So the WorldWideWeb application was kind of like a word processor and document viewer mashed up with hypertext. Ted Nelson complains to this day that the original sin of the web was that it borrowed this page-based metaphor. But Nelson’s Project Xanadu, originally proposed in 1974 wouldn’t become a working reality until 2014—a gap of forty years. Whereas Tim Berners-Lee proposed his system in March 1989 and had working code within a year. There’s something to be said for being pragmatic and working with what you’ve got.

The web was also a mashup of ideas. Hypertext existed long before the web—Ted Nelson coined the term in 1963. There were conferences and academic discussions devoted to hypertext and hypermedia. But almost all the existing hypertext systems—including Tim Berners-Lee’s own ENQUIRE system from the early 80s—were confined to a local machine. Meanwhile networked computers were changing everything. First there was the ARPANET, then the internet. Tim Berners-Lee’s ambitious plan was to mash up hypertext with networks.

Going into our recreation of WorldWideWeb at CERN, I knew I wanted to convey this historical context somehow.

The World Wide Web officially celebrates its 30th birthday in March of this year. It’s kind of an arbitrary date: it’s the anniversary of the publication of Information Management: A Proposal. Perhaps a more accurate date would be the day the first website—and first web server—went online. But still. Let’s roll with this date of March 12, 1989. I thought it would be interesting not only to look at what’s happened between 1989 and 2019, but also to look at what happened between 1959 and 1989.

So now I’ve got two time cones that converge in the middle: 1959 – 1989 and 1989 – 2019. For the first time period, I made categories of influences: formats, hypertext, networks, and computing. For the second time period, I catalogued notable results: browsers, servers, and the evolution of HTML.

I did a little bit of sketching and quickly realised that these converging timelines could be represented somewhat like particle collisions. Once I had that idea in my head, I knew how I would be spending my time during the hack week.

Rather than jumping straight into the collider visualisation, I took some time to make a solid foundation to build on. I wanted to be sure that the timeline itself would be understable even if it were, say, viewed in the first ever web browser.

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of h-events:

<li class="h-event y1968">
  <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_%28computer_system%29" class="u-url">
    <time class="dt-start" datetime="1968-12-09">1968</time>
    <abbr class="p-name" title="oN-Line System">NLS</abbr>
  </a>
</li>

With the markup in place, I could concentrate on making it look halfway decent. For small screens, the layout is very basic—just a series of lists. When the screen gets wide enough, I lay those lists out horzontally one on top of the other. In this view, you can more easily see when events coincide. For example, ENQUIRE, Usenet, and Smalltalk all happen in 1980. But the real beauty comes when the screen is wide enough to display everthing at once. You can see how an explosion of activity in the early 90s. In 1994 alone, we get the release of Netscape Navigator, the creation of HTTPS, and the launch of Amazon.com.

The whole thing is powered by CSS transforms and positioning. Each year on a timeline has its own class that gets moved to the correct chronological point using calc(). I wanted to use translateX() but I couldn’t get the maths to work for that, so I had use plain ol’ left and right:

.y1968 {
  left: calc((1968 - 1959) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

For events before 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 1959. For events after 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 2019:

.y2014 {
  right: calc((2019 - 2014) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

(Each h-event has a width of 5em so that’s where the extra bit at the end comes from.)

I had to do some tweaking for legibility: bunches of events happening around the same time period needed to be separated out so that they didn’t overlap too much.

As a finishing touch, I added a few little transitions when the page loaded so that the timeline fans out from its centre point.

Et voilà!

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I fiddled with the content a bit after peppering Robert Cailliau with questions over lunch. And I got some very valuable feedback from Jean-François. Some examples he provided:

1971: Unix man pages, one of the first instances of writing documents with a markup language that is interpreted live by a parser before being presented to the user.

1980: Usenet News, because it was THE everyday discussion medium by the time we created the web technology, and the Web first embraced news as a built-in information resource, then various platforms built on the web rendered it obsolete.

1982: Literary Machines, Ted Nelson’s book which was on our desk at all times

I really, really enjoyed building this “collider” timeline. It was a chance for me to smash together my excitement for web history with my enjoyment of using the raw materials of the web; HTML and CSS in this case.

The timeline pales in comparison to the achievement of the rest of the team in recreating the WorldWideWeb application but I was just glad to be able to contribute a little something to the project.

Hello WorldWideWeb.

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

Tinnitus Tracker

Rob has turned his exhaustive spreadsheet of all the concerts he has attended into a beautiful website. Browse around—it’s really quite lovely!

Rob’s also writing about the making of the site over on his blog.

Sunday, February 10th, 2019

Table Design Patterns On The Web — Smashing Magazine

Hui Jing runs through a whole bunch of options for displaying responsive tables, some of them using just CSS, some of them using a smidgen of JavaScript. There are some really clever techniques in here.

Friday, February 1st, 2019

Ch-ch-ch-changes

It’s browser updatin’ time! Firefox 65 just dropped. So did Chrome 72. Safari 12.1 is shipping with iOS 12.2.

It’s interesting to compare the release notes for each browser and see the different priorities reflected in them (this is another reason why browser diversity is A Good Thing).

A lot of the Firefox changes are updates to dev tools; they just keep getting better and better. In fact, I’m not sure “dev tools” is the right word for them. With their focus on layout, typography, and accessibility, “design tools” might be a better term.

Oh, and Firefox is shipping support for some CSS properties that really help with print style sheets, so I’m disproportionately pleased about that.

In Safari’s changes, I’m pleased to see that the datalist element is finally getting implemented. I’ve been a fan of that element for many years now. (Am I a dork for having favourite HTML elements? Or am I a dork for even having to ask that question?)

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Safari release without a new made up meta tag. From the people who brought you such hits as viewport and apple-mobile-web-app-capable, comes …supported-color-schemes (Apple likes to make up meta tags almost as much as Google likes to make up rel values).

There’ll be a whole bunch of improvements in how progressive web apps will behave once they’ve been added to the home screen. We’ll finally get some state persistence if you navigate away from the window!

Updated the behavior of websites saved to the home screen on iOS to pause in the background instead of relaunching each time.

Maximiliano Firtman has a detailed list of the good, the bad, and the “not sure yet if good” for progressive web apps on iOS 12.2 beta. Thomas Steiner has also written up the progress of progressive web apps in iOS 12.2 beta. Both are published on Ev’s blog.

At first glance, the release notes for Chrome 72 are somewhat paltry. The big news doesn’t even seem to be listed there. Maximiliano Firtman again:

Chrome 72 for Android shipped the long-awaited Trusted Web Activity feature, which means we can now distribute PWAs in the Google Play Store!

Very interesting indeed! I’m not sure if I’m ready to face the Kafkaesque process of trying to add something to the Google Play Store just yet, but it’s great to know that I can. Combined with the improvements coming in iOS 12.2, these are exciting times for progressive web apps!

Friday, January 18th, 2019

Why Data Is Never Raw - The New Atlantis

Raw data is both an oxymoron and a bad idea; to the contrary, data should be cooked with care.

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

Why You Should Never, Ever Use Quora – Waxy.org

Never mind their recent data breach—the reason to avoid Quora is that it’s a data roach motel.

All of Quora’s efforts to lock up its community’s contributions make it incredibly difficult to preserve when that they go away, which they someday will. If you choose to contribute to Quora, they’re actively fighting to limit future access to your own work.

Sunday, December 2nd, 2018

Barely Maps

Minimalist cartography.

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

Stats: Creating (Phil Gyford’s website)

I quite like Phil’s idea of having charts like this. It might be a fun project for Homebrew Website Club to do something like this for my site.

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

The map we need if we want to think about how global living conditions are changing - Our World in Data

While a geographical map is helpful if you want to find your way around the world, a population cartogram is the representation that we need if we want to know where our fellow humans are at home.

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch | Infrequently Noted

JavaScript is the web’s CO2. We need some of it, but too much puts the entire ecosystem at risk. Those who emit the most are furthest from suffering the consequences — until the ecosystem collapses. The web will not succeed in the markets and form-factors where computing is headed unless we get JS emissions under control.

Damn, that’s a fine opening! And the rest of this post by Alex is pretty darn great too. He’s absolutely right in calling out the fetishisation of developer experience at the expense of user needs:

The swap is executed by implying that by making things better for developers, users will eventually benefit equivalently. The unstated agreement is that developers share all of the same goals with the same intensity as end users and even managers. This is not true.

I have a feeling that this will be a very bitter pill for many developers to swallow:

If one views the web as a way to address a fixed market of existing, wealthy web users, then it’s reasonable to bias towards richness and lower production costs. If, on the other hand, our primary challenge is in growing the web along with the growth of computing overall, the ability to reasonably access content bumps up in priority. If you believe the web’s future to be at risk due to the unusability of most web experiences for most users, then discussion of developer comfort that isn’t tied to demonstrable gains for marginalized users is at best misguided.

Oh,captain, my captain!

Tools that cost the poorest users to pay wealthy developers are bunk.

Sunday, September 9th, 2018

Why the Future of Data Storage is (Still) Magnetic Tape - IEEE Spectrum

It turns out that a whole lot of The So-Called Cloud is relying on magnetic tape for its backups.

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

Figures in the Stars

A lovely bit of data visualisation from Nadieh showing the differences and commonalities in constellations across cultures. As always, she’s written up the process too.

Monday, July 23rd, 2018

Astronomical Typography

Typography meets astronomy in 16th century books like the Astronomicum Caesareum.

It is arguably the most typographically impressive scientific manual of the sixteenth century. Owen Gingerich claimed it, “the most spectacular contribution of the book-maker’s art to sixteenth-century science.”

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

Disturbances #16: Digital Dust

From smart dust and spimes, through to online journaling and social media, to machine learning, big data and digital preservation…

Is the archive where information goes to live forever, or where data goes to die?

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

Ways to think about machine learning — Benedict Evans

This strikes me as a sensible way of thinking about machine learning: it’s like when we got relational databases—suddenly we could do more, quicker, and easier …but it doesn’t require us to treat the technology like it’s magic.

An important parallel here is that though relational databases had economy of scale effects, there were limited network or ‘winner takes all’ effects. The database being used by company A doesn’t get better if company B buys the same database software from the same vendor: Safeway’s database doesn’t get better if Caterpillar buys the same one. Much the same actually applies to machine learning: machine learning is all about data, but data is highly specific to particular applications. More handwriting data will make a handwriting recognizer better, and more gas turbine data will make a system that predicts failures in gas turbines better, but the one doesn’t help with the other. Data isn’t fungible.

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

Generative Artistry

Tutorials for recreating classics of generative art with JavaScript and canvas.

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

Artificial Intelligence for more human interfaces | Christian Heilmann

An even-handed assessment of the benefits and dangers of machine learning.

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

New Privacy Rules Could Make This Woman One of Tech’s Most Important Regulators - The New York Times

It’s kind of surreal to see a profile in the New York Times of my sister-in-law. Then again, she is Ireland’s data protection commissioner, and what with Facebook, Twitter, and Google all being based in Ireland, and with GDPR looming, her work is more important than ever.

By the way, this article has 26 tracking scripts. I don’t recall providing consent for any of them.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Sandra Rendgen

A blog dedicated to data visualisation, all part of ongoing research for a book on Charles-Joseph Minard.

Data visualisation, interactive media and computational design are one focus of my work, but I also do research in the history of maps and diagrams.

Colour Wheels, Charts, and Tables Through History – The Public Domain Review

These are beautiful!

Featured below is a chronology of various attempts through the last four centuries to visually organise and make sense of colour.