Friday, August 14th, 2020
As a web designer or developer burnout comes calling when you try to do good work, but you’re not allowed.
- You want to make the app more performant; your boss wants to fill it full of third party trackers
- You want to make the app more accessible; your boss wants you to focus on the ‘able market’ instead
- You want to word the app more clearly; your boss wants to trick users with misleading language
If you are a good developer, and a good person, asked to do shit work, you will burn out.
Thursday, August 13th, 2020
Back in February, I wrote about an excellent proposal by Jake for how browsers could display URLs in a safer way. Crucially, this involved highlighting the important part of the URL, but didn’t involve hiding any part. It’s a really elegant solution.
Turns out it was a Trojan horse. Chrome are now running an experiment where they will do the exact opposite: they will hide parts of the URL instead of highlighting the important part.
You can change this behaviour if you’re in the less than 1% of people who ever change default settings in browsers.
I’m really disappointed to see that Jake’s proposal isn’t going to be implemented. It was a much, much better solution.
No doubt I will hear rejoinders that the “solution” that Chrome is experimenting with is pretty similar to what Jake proposed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jake’s solution empowered users with knowledge without taking anything away. What Chrome will be doing is the opposite of that, infantalising users and making decisions for them “for their own good.”
Seeing a complete URL is going to become a power-user feature, like View Source or user style sheets.
I’m really sad about that because, as Jake’s proposal demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Wednesday, August 12th, 2020
An Orbital Ring System as an alternative to a space elevator.
Representing nothing short of the most ambitious project in the history of space exploration and exploitation, the Orbital Ring System is more or less what you would imagine it to be, a gargantuan metal ring high above the Earth, spanning the length of its 40,000 kilometer-long diameter.
Tuesday, August 11th, 2020
Monday, August 10th, 2020
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:
- June 1993: Rob Raisch proposes some ideas for stylesheets in HTML on the
- October 1993: Pei Wei shares his ideas for a stylesheet language, also on the
- October 1994: Håkon Wium Lie publishes Cascading HTML style sheets — a proposal.
- March 1995: Bert Bos publishes his Stream-based Style sheet Proposal.
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.
Sunday, August 9th, 2020
I had a double-whammy of a stress dream during the week.
I dreamt I was at a conference where I was supposed to be speaking, but I wasn’t prepared, and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there. Worse, my band were supposed to be playing a gig on the other side of town at the same time. Not only was I panicking about getting myself and my musical equipment to the venue on time, I was also freaking out because I couldn’t remember any of the songs.
You don’t have to be Sigmund freaking Freud to figure out the meanings behind these kinds of dreams. But usually these kind of stress dreams are triggered by some upcoming event like, say, oh, I don’t know, speaking at a conference or playing a gig.
I felt really resentful when I woke up from this dream in a panic in the middle of the night. Instead of being a topical nightmare, I basically had the equivalent of one of those dreams where you’re back at school and it’s the day of the exam and you haven’t prepared. But! When, as an adult, you awake from that dream, you have that glorious moment of remembering “Wait! I’m not in school anymore! Hallelujah!” Whereas with my double-booked stress dream, I got all the stress of the nightmare, plus the waking realisation that “Ah, shit. There are no more conferences. Or gigs.”
I miss them.
Mind you, there is talk of re-entering the practice room at some point in the near future. Playing gigs is still a long way off, but at least I could play music with other people.
Actually, I got to play music with other people this weekend. The music wasn’t Salter Cane, it was traditional Irish music. We gathered in a park, and played together while still keeping our distance. Jessica has written about it in her latest journal entry:
It wasn’t quite a session, but it was the next best thing, and it was certainly the best we’re going to get for some time. And next week, weather permitting, we’ll go back and do it again. The cautious return of something vaguely resembling “normality”, buoying us through the hot days of a very strange summer.
No chance of travelling to speak at a conference though. On the plus side, my carbon footprint has never been lighter.
Online conferences continue. They’re not the same, but they can still be really worthwhile in their own way.
Designing and developing on the web can feel like a never-ending crusade against the unknown. Design principles are one way of unifying your team to better fight this battle. But as well as the design principles specific to your product or service, there are core principles underpinning the very fabric of the World Wide Web itself. Together, we’ll dive into applying these design principles to build websites that are resilient, performant, accessible, and beautiful.
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I wonder if I’ll have online-appropriate stress dreams in the next week? “My internet is down!”, “I got the date and time wrong!”, “I’m not wearing any trousers!”
Actually, that’s pretty much just my waking life these days.
Claire L. Evans on computational slime molds and other forms of unconvential computing that look beyond silicon:
In moments of technological frustration, it helps to remember that a computer is basically a rock. That is its fundamental witchcraft, or ours: for all its processing power, the device that runs your life is just a complex arrangement of minerals animated by electricity and language. Smart rocks.
Fourteen years ago, I gave a talk at the Reboot conference in Copenhagen. It was called In Praise of the Hyperlink. For the most part, it was a gushing love letter to hypertext, but it also included this observation:
For a conspiracy theorist, there can be no better tool than a piece of technology that allows you to arbitrarily connect information. That tool now exists. It’s called the World Wide Web and it was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
You know those “crazy walls” that are such a common trope in TV shows and movies? The detectives enter the lair of the unhinged villain and discover an overwhelming wall that’s like looking at the inside of that person’s head. It’s not the stuff itself that’s unnerving; it’s the red thread that connects the stuff.
Red thread. Blue hyperlinks.
When I spoke about the World Wide Web, hypertext, apophenia, and conspiracy theorists back in 2006, conspiracy theories could still be considered mostly harmless. It was the domain of Dan Brown potboilers and UFO enthusiasts with posters on their walls declaring “I Want To Believe”. But even back then, 911 truthers were demonstrating a darker side to the fun and games.
There’s always been a gamification angle to conspiracy theories. Players are rewarded with the same dopamine hits for “doing the research” and connecting unrelated topics. Now that’s been weaponised into QAnon.
In his newsletter, Dan Hon wrote QAnon looks like an alternate reality game. You remember ARGs? The kind of designed experience where people had to cooperate in order to solve the puzzle.
Being a part of QAnon involves doing a lot of independent research. You can imagine the onboarding experience in terms of being exposed to some new phrases, Googling those phrases (which are specifically coded enough to lead to certain websites, and certain information). Finding something out, doing that independent research will give you a dopamine hit. You’ve discovered something, all by yourself. You’ve achieved something. You get to tell your friends about what you’ve discovered because now you know a secret that other people don’t. You’ve done something smart.
We saw this in the games we designed. Players love to be the first person to do something. They love even more to tell everyone else about it. It’s like Crossfit.
Dan’s brother Adrian also wrote about this connection: What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon:
There is a vast amount of information online, and sometimes it is possible to solve “mysteries”, which makes it hard to criticise people for trying, especially when it comes to stopping perceived injustices. But it’s the sheer volume of information online that makes it so easy and so tempting and so fun to draw spurious connections.
This is something that Molly Sauter has been studying for years now, like in her essay The Apophenic Machine:
Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us, when we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet, the web circling back to itself again and again. The internet is an apophenic machine.
I remember interviewing Lauren Beukes back in 2012 about her forthcoming book about a time-travelling serial killer:
Me: And you’ve written a time-travel book that’s set entirely in the past.
Lauren: Yes. The book ends in 1993 and that’s because I did not want to have to deal with Kirby the heroine getting some access to CCTV cameras and uploading the footage to 4chan and having them solve the mystery in four minutes flat.
By the way, I noticed something interesting about the methodology behind conspiracy theories—particularly the open-ended never-ending miasma of something like QAnon. It’s no surprise that the methodology is basically an inversion of the scientific method. It’s the Texas sharpshooter fallacy writ large. Well, you know the way that I’m always going on about design principles and they way that good design principles should be reversible? Conspiracy theories take universal principles and invert them. Take Occam’s razor:
Do not multiply entities without necessity.
That’s what they want you to think! Wake up, sheeple! The success of something like QAnon—or a well-designed ARG—depends on a mindset that rigorously inverts Occam’s razor:
Multiply entities without necessity!
That’s always been the logic of conspiracy theories from faked moon landings to crop circles. I remember well when the circlemakers came clean and showed exactly how they had been making their beautiful art. Conspiracy theorists—just like cultists—don’t pack up and go home in the face of evidence. They double down. There was something almost pitiable about the way the crop circle UFO crowd were bending over backwards to reject proof and instead apply the inversion of Occam’s razor to come up with even more outlandish explanations to encompass the circlemakers’ confession.
I think the best way to fight QAnon, at its roots, is with a robust social safety net program. This not-a-game is being played out of fear, out of a lack of safety, and it’s meeting peoples’ needs in a collectively, societally destructive way.
I want to add one more red thread to this crazy wall. There’s a book about conspiracy theories that has become more and more relevant over time. It’s also wonderfully entertaining. Here’s my recommendation from that Reboot presentation in 2006:
For a real hot-tub of conspiracy theory pleasure, nothing beats Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.
…luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…
This is wonderful! A whole series on the history of the web from Jay Hoffman, the creator of the similarly-themed newsletter and timeline.
This first chapter is right up my alley, looking at the origins of hypertext, the internet, and the World Wide Web.