I am not a believer in the AI singularity — the rapture of the nerds — that is, in the possibility of building a brain-in-a-box that will self-improve its own capabilities until it outstrips our ability to keep up. What CS professor and fellow SF author Vernor Vinge described as “the last invention humans will ever need to make”. But I do think we’re going to keep building more and more complicated, systems that are opaque rather than transparent, and that launder our unspoken prejudices and encode them in our social environment. As our widely-deployed neural processors get more powerful, the decisions they take will become harder and harder to question or oppose. And that’s the real threat of AI — not killer robots, but “computer says no” without recourse to appeal.
Monday, December 16th, 2019
Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
After reading this account of a wonderfully surreal text adventure game, you’ll probably want to play AI Dungeon 2:
A PhD student named Nathan trained the neural net on classic dungeon crawling games, and playing it is strangely surreal, repetitive, and mesmerizing, like dreaming about playing one of the games it was trained on.
Friday, September 27th, 2019
Also, can I just say how nice this reading experience is—the typography, the arresting image …I like it.
Saturday, August 24th, 2019
The web embodies principles of openness and portability and access that best align with the needs, and frankly the purpose, of the cultural heritage sector.
Aaron’s talk from the 2019 Museums and the Web conference.
In 2019 the web is not “sexy” anymore and compared to native platforms it can sometimes seems lacking, but I think that speaks as much to people’s desire for something “new” as it does to any apples to apples comparison. On measure – and that’s the important part: on measure – the web affords a better and more sustainable framework for the cultural heritage to work in than any of the shifting agendas of the various platform vendors.
Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019
I find myself doing pseudo code before I write real code, sure, but I also leave it in place sometimes in code comments.
Monday, July 15th, 2019
A short, snappy web book on product development from Ryan Singer at Basecamp.
Like Resilient Web Design, the whole thing is online for free (really free, not “give us your email address” free).
Tuesday, June 11th, 2019
A very thoughtful post by Hidde that draws a useful distinction between the “internals” of a component (the inner workings of a React component, Vue component, or web component) and the code that wires those components together (the business logic):
I really like working on the detailed stuff that affects users: useful keyboard navigation, sensible focus management, good semantics. But I appreciate not every developer does. I have started to think this may be a helpful separation: some people work on good internals and user experience, others on code that just uses those components and deals with data and caching and solid architecture. Both are valid things, both need love. Maybe we can use the divide for good?
Tuesday, May 28th, 2019
The coming GDPR storm:
Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, is expected to circulate her decisions on some cases by July or August, with final rulings made by the end of the year.
(That’s my sister-in-law, that is.)
Monday, February 25th, 2019
While the Interaction 19 event was a bit of a mixed bag overall, there were some standout speakers.
Marty Neumeier was unsurprisingly excellent. I’d seen him speak before, at UX London a few years back, so I knew he’d be good. He has a very reassuring, avuncular manner when he’s speaking. You know the way that there are some people you could just listen to all day? He’s one of those.
Marty’s talk at Interaction 19 was particularly interesting because it was about his new book. Now, why would that be of particular interest? Well, this new book—Scramble—is a business book, but it’s written in the style of a thriller. He wanted it to be like one of those airport books that people read as a guilty pleasure.
One rainy night in December, young CEO David Stone is inexplicably called back to the office. The company’s chairman tells him that the board members have reached the end of their patience. If David can’t produce a viable turnaround plan in five weeks, he’s out of a job. His only hope is to try something new. But what?
I love this idea!
I’ve talked before about borrowing narrative structures from literature and film and applying them to blog posts and conference talks—techniques like flashback, in media res, etc.—so I really like the idea of taking an entire genre and applying it to a technical topic.
The closest I’ve seen is the comic that Scott McCloud wrote for the release of Google Chrome back in 2008. But how about a romantic comedy about service workers? Or a detective novel about CSS grid?
I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about Marty Neumeier’s book next time I’m struggling to put a conference talk together.
In the meantime, if you want to learn from the master storyteller himself, Clearleft are running a two-day Brand Master Workshop with Marty on March 14th and 15th at The Barbican in London. Early bird tickets are on sale until this Thursday, so don’t dilly-dally if you were thinking about nabbing your spot.
Saturday, February 16th, 2019
I linked to this a while back but now this great half hour documentary by Jessica Yu is ready and you can watch the whole thing online: Tim Berners-Lee, the birth of the web, and where the web has gone since.
In the scenes describing the early web, there’s footage of the recreated Line Mode Browser—how cool is that‽
Wednesday, January 16th, 2019
This is a great explanation of the difference between the
:lang CSS selectors. I wouldn’t even have thought’ve the differences so this is really valuable to me.
Monday, January 7th, 2019
In which Matthew disects a multiple choice quiz that uses CSS to do some clever logic, using the
:checked pseudo-class and
Wednesday, December 19th, 2018
Back in December 1997, when Jessica and I were living in Freiburg, Dan came to visit. Together, we boarded a train east to Vienna. There we would ring in the new year to the sounds of the Salonorchester Alhambra, the band that Dan’s brother Andrew was playing in (and the band that would later be my first paying client when I made their website—I’ve still got the files lying around somewhere).
That was a fun New Year’s ball …although I remember my mortification when we went for gulash beforehand and I got a drop on the pristine tux that I had borrowed from Andrew.
My other memory of that trip was going to the Kunsthistorisches Museum to see the amazing Bruegel collection. It’s hard to imagine that ever being topped, but then this year, they put together a “once in a lifetime” collection, gathering even more Bruegel masterpieces together in Vienna.
Jessica got the crazy idea in her head that we could go there. In a day.
Looking at the flights, it turned out to be not such a crazy idea after all. Sure, it meant an early start, but it was doable. We booked our museum tickets, and then we booked plane tickets.
That’s how we ended up going to Vienna for the day this past Monday. It was maybe more time than I’d normally like to spend in airports in a 24 hour period, but it was fun. We landed, went into town for a wiener schnitzel, and then it was off to the museum for an afternoon of medieval masterpieces. Hunters in the Snow, the Tower of Babel, and a newly restored Triumph of Death sent from the Prado were just some of the highlights.
There’s a website to accompany the exhibition called Inside Bruegel. You can zoom on each painting to see the incredible detail. You can even compare the infrared and x-ray views. Dive in and explore the world of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Saturday, October 6th, 2018
An nth-letter selector in CSS
Variable fonts are a very exciting and powerful new addition to the toolbox of web design. They was very much at the centre of discussion at this year’s Ampersand conference.
A lot of the demonstrations of the power of variable fonts are showing how it can be used to make letter-by-letter adjustments. The Ampersand website itself does this with the logo. See also: the brilliant demos by Mandy. It’s getting to the point where logotypes can be sculpted and adjusted just-so using CSS and raw text—no images required.
I find this to be thrilling, but there’s a fly in the ointment. In order to style something in CSS, you need a selector to target it. If you’re going to style individual letters, you need to wrap each one in an HTML element so that you can then select it in CSS.
For the Ampersand logo, we had to wrap each letter in a
But if the whole point of using HTML is that the content is accessible, copyable, and pastable, isn’t a bit of a shame that we then compromise the markup—and the accessibility—by wrapping individual letters in presentational tags?
What if there were an
::nth-letter selector in CSS?
There’s some prior art here. We’ve already got
::first-letter (and now the
initial-letter property or whatever it ends up being called). If we can target the first letter in a piece of text, why not the second, or third, or nth?
It raises some questions. What constitutes a letter? Would it be better if we talked about
::nth-character, and so on?
Even then, there are some tricksy things to figure out. What’s the third character in this piece of markup?
Is it “C”, becuase that’s the third character regardless of nesting? Or is it “E”, becuase techically that’s the third character token that’s a direct child of the parent element?
I imagine that implementing
::nth-character) would be quite complex so there would probably be very little appetite for it from browser makers. But it doesn’t seem as problematic as some selectors we’ve already got.
Think about it. The browser has to first calculate how many characters are in the first line of an element (like, say, a paragraph). Having figured that out, the browser can then apply the styles declared in the
::first-line selector. But those styles may involve font sizing updates that changes the number of characters in the first line. Paradox!
(Technically, only a subset of CSS of properties can be applied to
::first-line, but that subset includes
font-size so the paradox remains.)
I checked to see if
::first-line was included in one of my favourite documents: Incomplete List of Mistakes in the Design of CSS. It isn’t.
So compared to the logic-bending paradoxes of
::nth-letter selector would be relatively straightforward. But that in itself isn’t a good enough reason for it to exist. As the CSS Working Group FAQs say:
The fact that we’ve made one mistake isn’t an argument for repeating the mistake.
Now, I know that browser makers would like us to figure out how proposed CSS features should work by polyfilling a solution with Houdini. But would that work for a selector? I don’t know much about Houdini so I asked Una. She pointed me to a proposal by Greg and Tab for a full-on parser in Houdini. But that’s a loooong way off. Until then, we must petition our case to the browser gods.
This is not a new suggestion.
While I’m talking about CSS, I would also like to have
::nth-word(n), any thoughts?
Of all of these “new” selectors,
::nth-letteris likely the most useful.
In 2012, Bram linked to a blog post (now unavailable) from Adobe indicating that they were working on
::nth-letter for Webkit. That was the last anyone’s seen of this elusive pseudo-element.
In 2013, Chris (again) included
::nth-letter in his wishlist for CSS. So say we all.
Sunday, September 30th, 2018
An online museum of sounds—the recordings of analogue machines.
Friday, August 3rd, 2018
This is an interesting tool: mess around with styles on any site inside Chrome’s dev tools, and then hit a button to have the updated styles saved to a URL (a Gist on Github).
Tuesday, July 10th, 2018
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.
Wednesday, April 18th, 2018
Thursday, April 12th, 2018
A really deep dive into the
lang attribute, and the
:lang() pseudo-class (hitherto unknown to me). This is all proving really useful for a little side project I’m working on.
Wednesday, April 4th, 2018
I love this idea (and implementation)—instead of treating braille signage as something “separate but equal”, this typeface attempts to unify lettering and braille into one.
Braille Neue is a universal typeface that combines braille with existing characters. This typeface communicates to both the sighted and blind people in the same space.