This is a really nice write-up by Sydney of the chat we had on her podcast.
Thursday, September 9th, 2021
Wednesday, September 8th, 2021
I really enjoyed talking to Sydney Lai about progressive web apps, resilient web design, and all my other hobby horses.
Alas, there’s no transcript and I can’t find a direct link to the RSS feed or the individual audio file on the podcast website so it’s not huffduffable.
Monday, September 6th, 2021
At its core, and despite its appropriation, Solarpunk imagines a radically different societal and economic structure.
Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021
A Few Notes on A Few Notes on The Culture
When I post a link, I do it for two reasons.
First of all, it’s me pointing at something and saying “Check this out!”
Secondly, it’s a way for me to stash something away that I might want to return to. I tag all my links so when I need to find one again, I just need to think “Now what would past me have tagged it with?” Then I type the appropriate URL:
There are some links that I return to again and again.
Back in 2008, I linked to a document called A Few Notes on The Culture. It’s a copy of a post by Iain M Banks to a newsgroup back in 1994.
Alas, that link is dead. Linkrot, innit?
But in 2013 I linked to the same document on a different domain. That link still works even though I believe it was first published around twenty(!) years ago (view source for some pre-CSS markup nostalgia).
Anyway, A Few Notes On The Culture is a fascinating look at the world-building of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. He talks about the in-world engineering, education, biology, and belief system of his imagined utopia. The part that sticks in my mind is when he talks about economics:
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.
The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is — without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset — intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.
It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.
Like I said, it’s a fascinating document. In fact I realised that I should probably store a copy of it for myself.
I have a section of my site called “extras” where I dump miscellaneous stuff. Most of it is unlinked. It’s mostly for my own benefit. That’s where I’ve put my copy of A Few Notes On The Culture.
Here’s a funny thing …for all the times that I’ve revisited the link, I never knew anything about the site is was hosted on—
vavatch.co.uk—so this most recent time, I did a bit of clicking around. Clearly it’s the personal website of a sci-fi-loving college student from the early 2000s. But what came as a revelation to me was that the site belonged to …Adrian Hon!
I’m impressed that he kept his old website up even after moving over to the domain
mssv.net, founding Six To Start, and writing A History Of The Future In 100 Objects. That’s a great snackable book, by the way. Well worth a read.
Friday, July 9th, 2021
An audio mix for every year of recorded sound, 1859 to the present.
Currently up to 1936.
Tuesday, June 29th, 2021
If you download Safari Technology Preview you can test drive features that are on their way in Safari 15. One of those features, announced at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference, is coloured browser chrome via support for the
meta value of “theme-color.” Chrome on Android has supported this for a while but I believe Safari is the first desktop browser to add support. They’ve also added support for the
media attribute on that
meta element to handle “prefers-color-scheme.”
This is all very welcome, although it does remind me a bit of when Internet Explorer came out with the ability to make coloured scrollbars. I mean, they’re nice features’n’all, but maybe not the most pressing? Safari is still refusing to acknowledge progressive web apps.
That’s not quite true. In her WWDC video Jen demonstrates how you can add a progressive web app like Resilient Web Design to your home screen. I’m chuffed that my little web book made an appearance, but when you see how you add a site to your home screen in iOS, it’s somewhat depressing.
The steps to add a website to your home screen are:
- Tap the “share” icon. It’s not labelled “share.” It’s a square with an arrow coming out of the top of it.
- A drawer pops up. The option to “add to home screen” is nowhere to be seen. You have to pull the drawer up further to see the hidden options.
- Now you must find “add to home screen” in the list
- Add to Reading List
- Add Bookmark
- Add to Favourites
- Find on Page
- Add to Home Screen
It reminds of this exchange in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:
“You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anyone or anything.”
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a torch.”
“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of The Leopard.’”
Safari’s current “support” for adding progressive web apps to the home screen feels like the minimum possible …just enough to use it as a legal argument if you happen to be litigated against for having a monopoly on app distribution. “Hey, you can always make a web app!” It’s true in theory. In practice it’s …suboptimal, to put it mildly.
It’s a little bit weird that this stylistic information is handled by HTML rather than CSS. It’s similar to the
viewport value in that sense. I always that the plan was to migrate that to CSS at some point, but here we are a decade later and it’s still very much part of our boilerplate markup.
Some people have remarked that the coloured browser chrome can make the URL bar look like part of the site so people might expect it to operate like a site-specific search.
I also wonder if it might blur “the line of death”; that point in the UI where the browser chrome ends and the website begins. Does the unified colour make it easier to spoof browser UI?
Probably not. You can already kind of spoof browser UI by using the right shade of grey. Although the removal any kind of actual line in Safari does give me pause for thought.
I tend not to think of security implications like this by default. My first thought tends to be more about how I can use the feature. It’s only after a while that I think about how bad actors might abuse the same feature. I should probably try to narrow the gap between those thoughts.
Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021
There’s a nice shout-out from Jen for Resilient Web Design right at the 19:20 mark.
It would be nice if the add-to-homescreen option weren’t buried so deep though.
Saturday, May 15th, 2021
I subscribe to Peter Gasston’s newsletter, The Tech Landscape. It’s good. Peter’s a smart guy with his finger on the pulse of many technologies that are beyond my ken. I recommend subscribing.
But I was very taken aback by what he wrote in issue 202. It was to do with algorithmic recommendation engines.
This week I want to take a little dump on a tweet I read. I’m not going to link to it (I’m not that person), but it basically said something like: “I’m afraid to Google something because I don’t want the algorithm to think I like it, and I’m afraid to click a link because I don’t want the algorithm to show me more like it… what a cage.”
- GET requests shouldn’t have side effects. Adding to a dossier on someone’s browsing habits definitely counts as a side effect.
- It is literally a fundamental principle of the web platform that it should be safe to visit a web page.
But Peter describes ubiquitous surveillance as a feature, not a bug:
It’s observing what someone likes or does, then trying to make recommendations for more things like it—whether that’s books, TV shows, clothes, advertising, or whatever. It works on probability, so it’s going to make better guesses the more it knows you; if you like ten things of type A, then liking one thing of type B shouldn’t be enough to completely change its recommendations. The problem is, we don’t like “the algorithm” if it doesn’t work, and we don’t like it if works too well (“creepy!”). But it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage.
He would be correct if the balance of power were tipped towards the person actively looking for recommendations. As I said in my earlier post:
Don’t get me wrong: building a profile of someone based on their actions isn’t inherently wrong. If a user taps on “like” or “favourite” or “bookmark”, they are actively telling the server to perform an update (and so those actions should be POST requests). But do you see the difference in where the power lies?
When Peter says “it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage” that may be true for him, but that is not a shared feeling, as the original tweet demonstrates. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss someone else’s psychological pain because you don’t think they “get it”. I’m pretty sure everyone “gets” how recommendation engines are supposed to work. That’s not the issue. Trying to provide relevant content isn’t the problem. It’s the unbelievably heavy-handed methods that make it feel like a cage.
Peter uses the metaphor of a record shop:
“The algorithm” is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice; imagine you went to a record shop (remember them?) which had every recording ever released; how would you find new music? You’d either buy music by bands you know you already liked, or you’d take a pure gamble on something—which most of the time would be a miss. So you’d ask a store worker, and they’d recommend the music they liked—but that’s no guarantee you’d like it. A good worker would ask what type of music you like, and recommend music based on that—you might not like all the recommendations, but there’s more of a chance you’d like some. That’s just what “the algorithm” does.
But that’s not true. You don’t ask “the algorithm” for a recommendation—it foists them on you whether you want them or not. A more apt metaphor would be that you walked by a record shop once and the store worker came out and followed you down the street, into your home, and watched your every move for the rest of your life.
What Peter describes sounds great—a helpful knowledgable software agent that you ask for recommendations. But that’s not what “the algorithm” is. And that’s why it feels like a cage. That’s why it is a cage.
The original tweet was an open, honest, and vulnerable insight into what online recommendation engines feel like. That’s a valuable insight that should be taken on board, not dismissed.
And what a lack of imagination to look at an existing broken system—that doesn’t even provide good recommendations while making people afraid to click on links—and shrug and say that this is the best we can do. If this really is “is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice” then it’s no wonder that people feel like they need to go on a digital detox and get away from their devices in order to feel normal. It’s like saying that decapitation is the best way of solving headaches.
Imagine living in a surveillance state like East Germany, and saying “Well, how else is the government supposed to make informed decisions without constantly monitoring its citizens?” I think it’s more likely that you’d feel like you’re in a cage.
Apples to oranges? Kind of. But whether it’s surveillance communism or surveillance capitalism, there’s a shared methodology at work. They’re both systems that disempower people for the supposedly greater good of amassing data. Both are built on the false premise that problems can be solved by getting more and more data. If that results in collateral damage to people’s privacy and mental health, well …it’s all for the greater good, right?
It’s fucking bullshit. I don’t want to live in that cage and I don’t want anyone else to have to live in it either. I’m going to do everything I can to tear it down.
Tuesday, March 16th, 2021
Remember how I said I was preparing an online conference talk? Well, I’m happy to say that not only is the talk prepared, but I’ve managed to successfully record it too.
If you want to see the finished results, come along to An Event Apart Spring Summit on April 19th. To sweeten the deal, I’ve got a discount code you can use when you buy any multi-day pass: AEAJEREMY.
Recording the talk took longer than I thought it would. I think it was because I said this:
It feels a bit different to prepare a talk for pre-recording rather than live delivery on stage. In fact, it feels less like preparing a conference talk and more like making a documentary.
Once I got that idea in my head, I think I became a lot fussier about the quality of the recording. “Would David Attenborough allow his documentaries to have the sound of a keyboard audibly being pressed? No! Start again!”
I’m pleased with the final results. And I’m really looking forward to the post-presentation discussion with questions from the audience. The talk gets provocative—and maye a bit ranty—towards the end so it’ll be interesting to see how people react to that.
It feels good to have the presentation finished, but it also feels …weird. It’s like the feeling that conference organisers get once the conference is over. You spend all this time working towards something and then, one day, it’s in the past instead of looming in the future. It can make you feel kind of empty and listless. Maybe it’s the same for big product launches.
The two big projects I’ve been working on for the past few months were this talk and season two of the Clearleft podcast. The talk is in the can and so is the final episode of the podcast season, which drops tomorrow.
On the one hand, it’s nice to have my decks cleared. Nothing work-related to keep me up at night. But I also recognise the growing feeling of doubt and moodiness, just like the post-conference blues.
The obvious solution is to start another big project, something on the scale of making a brand new talk, or organising a conference, or recording another podcast season, or even writing a book.
The other option is to take a break for a while. Seeing as the UK government has extended its furlough scheme, maybe I should take full advantage of it. I went on furlough for a while last year and found it to be a nice change of pace.
Monday, January 18th, 2021
This is such a great use of an API—you can choose to view an object in the museum’s collection that no one else has seen yet.
It’s like the opposite of Amazon’s recommendation engine: “No one has ever purchased these items together…”
Wednesday, January 13th, 2021
This looks like it’ll be a good event: a keynote from Vint Cerf and talks from Val Head, Rachel Andrew, Sara Soueidan, and others.
Best of all, it’s free!
Saturday, October 3rd, 2020
Every day I’ve been recording myself playing a tune and then posting the videos here on my site.
I’m pretty pleased that I’ve managed to keep up a 200 day streak. I could keep going, but I think I’m going to take a break. I’ll keep recording and posting tunes, but I’m no longer going to give myself the deadline of doing it every single day. I’ll record and post a tune when I feel like it.
It’ll be interesting to see how the frequency changes now. Maybe I’ll still feel like recording a tune most days. Or maybe it’ll become a rare occurrence.
If you want to peruse the 200 tunes recorded so far, you can find them here on my website and in a playlist on YouTube. I also posted some videos to Instagram, but I haven’t been doing that from the start.
I’m quite chuffed with the overall output (even if some of the individual recordings are distinctly sub-par). Recording 200 tunes sounds like a big task by itself, but if you break it down to recording just one tune a day, it becomes so much more manageable. You can stand anything for ten seconds. As I said when I reached the 100 tune mark:
Recording one tune isn’t too much hassle. There are days when it’s frustrating and I have to do multiple takes, but overall it’s not too taxing. But now, when I look at the cumulative result, I’m very happy that I didn’t skip any days.
There was a side effect to recording a short video every day. I created a timeline for my hair. I’ve documented the day-by-day growth of my hair from 200 days ago to today. A self has been inadvertently quantified.
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
Thursday, August 13th, 2020
Thursday, July 30th, 2020
Friday, June 26th, 2020
We got a headstart on the lockdown. A week before the UK government finally stopped dilly-dallying (at the expense of tens of thousands of lives), Clearleft became a remote-only company. At the beginning of this stay-at-home time, I started recording a tune a day. I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep it up, but I’ve managed to keep it going the whole time.
Yesterday I recorded my 100th tune.
It’s funny how small efforts can build up into a satisfying corpus. It’s not like I’m attempting anything ambitious, like Matthias, who is doing 100 days of writing. Recording one tune isn’t too much hassle. There are days when it’s frustrating and I have to do multiple takes, but overall it’s not too taxing. But now, when I look at the cumulative result, I’m very happy that I didn’t skip any days.
One hundred is a nice round number, so this could be a good time to stop. I could quit while I’m ahead. But I think I’ll keep going. Again, despite what the official line might be from the UK government (who have lost all trust), I reckon I’ll be staying at home for a while yet. As long as I’m here, I may as well keep playing. I have plenty more tunes to play.
At some point, the daily streak will end. But even then, I think I’ll continue to record tunes like this, even if it becomes more sporadic.
Sunday, May 17th, 2020
Do you have a favourite non-personal photograph?
By non-personal, I mean one that isn’t directly related to your life; photographs of family members, friends, travel (remember travel?).
Even discounting those photographs, there’s still a vast pool of candidates. There are all the amazing pictures taken by photojournalists like Lee Miller. There’s all the awe-inspiring wildlife photography out there. Then there are the kind of posters that end up on bedroom walls, like Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss.
One of my favourite photographs of all time has music as its subject matter. No, not Johnny Cash flipping the bird, although I believe this picture to be just as rock’n’roll.
This is a photograph of Séamus Ennis and Jean Ritchie. It was probably taken around 1952 or 1953 by Ritchie’s husband, George Pickow, when Jean Ritchie and Alan Lomax were in Ireland to do field recordings.
I love everything about it.
Séamus Ennis looks genuinely larger than life (which, by all accounts, he was). And just look at the length of those fingers! Meanwhile Jean Ritchie is equally indominatable, just as much as part of the story as the musician she’s there to record.
Both of them have expressions that convey how intent they are on their machines—Ennis’s uilleann pipes and Ritchie’s tape recorder. It’s positively steampunk!
What a perfect snapshot of tradition and technology meeting slap bang in the middle of the twentieth century.
Maybe that’s why I love it so much. One single photograph is filled with so much that’s dear to me—traditional Irish music meets long-term archival preservation.
Sunday, May 3rd, 2020
Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now.
Kim Stanley Robinson knows the score:
Margaret Thatcher said that “there is no such thing as society,” and Ronald Reagan said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” These stupid slogans marked the turn away from the postwar period of reconstruction and underpin much of the bullshit of the past forty years.
Wednesday, April 8th, 2020
A 2015 paper by Long Tien Nguyen and Alan Kay with a proposal for digital preservation.
We discuss the problem of running today’s software decades,centuries, or even millennia into the future.
Monday, February 24th, 2020
Through planning and architectural design, Le Corbusier hoped to create a scientifically rational and comprehensive solution to urban problems in a way that would both promote democracy and quality of life. For him, the factory production process applied to high-rise buildings with prefabricated and standardized components is the most modern and egalitarian of urban forms.
Something something top-down design systems.