Tags: evolution

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Monday, August 10th, 2020

Influence

Hidde gave a great talk recently called On the origin of cascades (by means of natural selectors):

It’s been 25 years since the first people proposed a language to style the web. Since the late nineties, CSS lived through years of platform evolution.

It’s a lovely history lesson that reminded me of that great post by Zach Bloom a while back called The Languages Which Almost Became CSS.

The TL;DR timeline of CSS goes something like this:

Håkon and Bert joined forces and that’s what led to the Cascading Style Sheet language we use today.

Hidde looks at how the concept of the cascade evolved from those early days. But there’s another idea in Håkon’s proposal that fascinates me:

While the author (or publisher) often wants to give the documents a distinct look and feel, the user will set preferences to make all documents appear more similar. Designing a style sheet notation that fill both groups’ needs is a challenge.

The proposed solution is referred to as “influence”.

The user supplies the initial sheet which may request total control of the presentation, but — more likely — hands most of the influence over to the style sheets referenced in the incoming document.

So an author could try demanding that their lovely styles are to be implemented without question by specifying an influence of 100%. The proposed syntax looked like this:

h1.font.size = 24pt 100%

More reasonably, the author could specify, say, 40% influence:

h2.font.size = 20pt 40%

Here, the requested influence is reduced to 40%. If a style sheet later in the cascade also requests influence over h2.font.size, up to 60% can be granted. When the document is rendered, a weighted average of the two requests is calculated, and the final font size is determined.

Okay, that sounds pretty convoluted but then again, so is specificity.

This idea of influence in CSS reminds me of Cap’s post about The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck:

Hold on a second. I’m like a two-out-of-ten on this. How strongly do you feel?

I’m probably a six-out-of-ten, I replied after a couple moments of consideration.

Cool, then let’s do it your way.

In the end, the concept of influence in CSS died out, but user style sheets survived …for a while. Now they too are as dead as a dodo. Most people today aren’t aware that browsers used to provide a mechanism for applying your own visual preferences for browsing the web (kind of like Neopets or MySpace but for literally every single web page …just think of how empowering that was!).

Even if you don’t mourn the death of user style sheets—you can dismiss them as a power-user feature—I think it’s such a shame that the concept of shared influence has fallen by the wayside. Web design today is dictatorial. Designers and developers issue their ultimata in the form of CSS, even though technically every line of CSS you write is a suggestion to a web browser—not a demand.

I wish that web design were more of a two-way street, more of a conversation between designer and end user.

There are occassional glimpses of this mindset. Like I said when I added a dark mode to my website:

Y’know, when I first heard about Apple adding dark mode to their OS—and also to CSS—I thought, “Oh, great, Apple are making shit up again!” But then I realised that, like user style sheets, this is one more reminder to designers and developers that they don’t get the last word—users do.

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

It was 20 years ago today… - Web Directions

John’s article, A Dao Of Web Design, is twenty years old. If anything, it’s more relevant today than when it was written.

Here, John looks back on those twenty years, and forward to the next twenty…

Friday, September 27th, 2019

The Octopus: An Alien Among Us | Literary Hub

An excerpt from the book Rethinking Consciousness by Michael S. A. Graziano, which looks like an interesting companion piece to Peter Godfrey-Smith’s excellent Other Minds.

Also, can I just say how nice this reading experience is—the typography, the arresting image …I like it.

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

Chaos Design: Before the robots take our jobs, can we please get them to help us do some good work?

This is a great piece! It starts with a look back at some of the great minds of the nineteenth century: Herschel, Darwin, Babbage and Lovelace. Then it brings us, via JCR Licklider, to the present state of the web before looking ahead to what the future might bring.

So what will the life of an interface designer be like in the year 2120? or 2121 even? A nice round 300 years after Babbage first had the idea of calculations being executed by steam.

I think there are some missteps along the way (I certainly don’t think that inline styles—AKA CSS in JS—are necessarily a move forwards) but I love the idea of applying chaos engineering to web design:

Think of every characteristic of an interface you depend on to not ‘fail’ for your design to ‘work.’ Now imagine if these services were randomly ‘failing’ constantly during your design process. How might we design differently? How would our workflows and priorities change?

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

Evolution of Webdesign

Funny because it’s true.

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

Is the universe pro-life? The Fermi paradox can help explain — Quartz

Living things are just a better way for nature to dissipate energy and increase the universe’s entropy.

No anthropocentric exceptionalism here; just the laws of thermodynamics.

According to the inevitable life theory, biological systems spontaneously emerge because they more efficiently disperse, or “dissipate” energy, thereby increasing the entropy of the surroundings. In other words, life is thermodynamically favorable.

As a consequence of this fact, something that seems almost magical happens, but there is nothing supernatural about it. When an inanimate system of particles, like a group of atoms, is bombarded with flowing energy (such as concentrated currents of electricity or heat), that system will often self-organize into a more complex configuration—specifically an arrangement that allows the system to more efficiently dissipate the incoming energy, converting it into entropy.

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

UX past, present, and future | Clearleft

This long zoom by Andy is right up my alley—a history of UX design that begins in 1880. It’s not often that you get to read something that includes Don Norman, Doug Engelbart, Lilian Gilbreth, and Vladimir Lenin. So good!

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

The Ecological Impact of Browser Diversity | CSS-Tricks

This is a terrific spot-on piece by Rachel. I firmly believe that healthy competition and diversity in the browser market is vital for the health of the web (which is why I’m always saddened and frustrated to hear web developers wish for a single monocultural rendering engine).

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

Design Laws in Nature by Jordan Moore

A deep, deep dive into biomicry in digital design.

Nature is our outsourced research and development department. Observing problems solved by nature can help inform how we approach problems in digital design. Nature doesn’t like arbitrary features. It finds a way to shed unnecessary elements in advancing long-term goals over vast systems.

Monday, March 20th, 2017

1917. Free history.

Time-shifted reports from the Russian revolution, 100 years on.

All the texts used are taken from genuine documents written by historical figures: letters, memoirs, diaries and other documents of the period.

Every day, when you go onto the site, you will find out what happened exactly one hundred years ago: what various people were thinking about and what happened to each of them in this eventful year. You may not fast-forward into the future, but must follow events as they happen in real time.

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

The Computational Foundation of Life | Quanta Magazine

Philip Ball certainly has a way with words.

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

Richard Dawkins, Mount Improbable: Play With Evolution

A lovely interactive demonstration of evolution, based on the original code Richard Dawkins used for Climbing Mount Improbable.

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Stephen Wolfram in The European magazine: I Like to Build Alien Artifacts

Thoughts on artificial intelligence, computation and complexity.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

The Robot-Readable World – Blog – BERG

Wonderful musings from Matt on meeting the emerging machine intelligence halfway.

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson on Where Ideas Come From | Magazine

You'll need to use Instapaper/Readability/Safari Reader to make it legible, but this conversation is well worth reading. Now I want to get those books.

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Evolution and Creativity: Why Humans Triumphed - WSJ.com

Matt Ridley's new book sounds like a corker.

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Canvas Test

Conway's Game of Life executed using the canvas element.

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

NCSE Resource

To counter the creationists' lists of "scientists who doubt evolution" here's a list of scientists named Steve who support Darwin's theory. (via Steven Pinker's Q&A after a lecture last week)

Monday, July 30th, 2007

Biologists Helping Bookstores

A blog devoted entirely to reshelving books in their correct categories in bookstores, specifically the science and religion categories. I approve.

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size and language in humans

The Dunbar number gets bandied about a lot in conversations about social networks these days. Here's the original paper that shows the research behind the oft-misused term.