Here’s the video of the talk I gave at the Web Stories conference back in February.
Monday, April 12th, 2021
Tuesday, April 6th, 2021
Of the web
I’m subscribed to a lot of blogs in my RSS reader. I follow some people because what they write about is very different to what I know about. But I also follow lots of people who have similar interests and ideas to me. So I’m not exactly in an echo chamber, but I do have the reverb turned up pretty high.
Sometimes these people post thoughts that are eerily similar to what I’ve been thinking about. Ethan has been known to do this. Get out of my head, Marcotte!
But even if Ethan wasn’t some sort of telepath, he’d still be in my RSS reader. We’re friends. Lots of the people in my RSS reader are my friends. When I read their words, I can hear their voices.
Then there are the people I’ve never met. Like Desirée García, Piper Haywood, or Jim Nielsen. Never met them, don’t know them, but damn, do I enjoy reading their blogs. Last year alone, I ended up linking to Jim’s posts ten different times.
Or Baldur Bjarnason. I can’t remember when I first came across his writing, but it really, really resonates with me. I probably owe him royalties for the amount of times I’ve cited his post Over-engineering is under-engineering.
His latest post is postively Marcottian in how it exposes what’s been fermenting in my own mind. But because he writes clearly, it really helps clarify my own thinking. It’s often been said that you should write to figure out what you think, and I can absolutely relate to that. But here’s a case where somebody else’s writing really helps to solidify my own thoughts.
It starts with some existentialist stock-taking. I can relate, what with the whole five decades thing. But then it turns the existential questioning to the World Wide Web itself, or rather, the people building the web.
In a way, it’s like taking the question of the great divide (front of the front end and back of the front end), and then turning it 45 degrees to reveal an entirely hidden dimension.
In examining the nature of the web, he hits on the litmus of how you view encapsulation:
I mention this first as it’s the aspect of the web that modern web developers hate the most without even giving it a label. Single-Page-Apps and GraphQL are both efforts to eradicate the encapsulation that’s baked into the foundation of every layer of the web.
Most modern devs are trying to get rid of it but it’s one of the web’s most strategic advantages.
I hadn’t thought of this before.
By default, if you don’t go against the grain of the web, each HTTP endpoint is encapsulated from each other.
Moreover, all of this can happen really fast if you aren’t going overboard with your CSS and JS.
He finishes with a look at another of the web’s most powerful features: distribution. In between are the things that make the web webby: hypertext and flexibility (The Dao of the Web).
It’s the idea that the web isn’t a single fixed thing but a fluid multitude whose shape is dictated by its surroundings.
This resonates with me because it highlights two different ways of viewing the web.
On the one hand, you can see the web purely as a distribution channel. In the past you might have been distributing a Flash movie. These days you might be distributing a single page app. Either way, the web is there as a low-friction way of getting your creation in front of other people.
The other way of building for the web is to go with the web’s grain, embracing flexibility and playing to the strengths of the medium through progressive enhancement. This is the distinction I was getting at when I talked about something being not just on the web, but of the web.
With that mindset, Baldur then takes us through some of the technologies that he’s excited about, like SvelteKit and Hotwire. I think it’s the same mindset that got me excited about service workers. As Baldur says:
They are helping the web become better at being its own thing.
That’s my tagline right there.
Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
I don’t think I agree with Don Knuth’s argument here from a 2014 lecture, but I do like how he sets out his table:
Why do I, as a scientist, get so much out of reading the history of science? Let me count the ways:
- To understand the process of discovery—not so much what was discovered, but how it was discovered.
- To understand the process of failure.
- To celebrate the contributions of many cultures.
- Telling historical stories is the best way to teach.
- To learn how to cope with life.
- To become more familiar with the world, and to know how science fits into the overall history of mankind.
Monday, March 29th, 2021
Ainissa Ramirez recounts the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, the Apollo project of its day.
Thursday, March 25th, 2021
Richard MacManus has started a blog all about the history of web development—this is going straight to my RSS reader!
Most internet history books, websites, podcasts, etc, are from a business perspective. What’s missing, I believe, is an internet history with a technical point of view: which products were developed, the technologies used, how the web has changed over time, developmental trends, and so on.
Simply put, I want to describe how the web actually works and how that has evolved over the past 25-30 years.
Saturday, March 20th, 2021
A profile of Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive:
Tech’s walled gardens might make it harder to get a perfect picture, but the small team of librarians, digital archivists and software engineers at the Internet Archive plan to keep bringing the world the Wayback Machine, the Open Library, the Software Archive, etc., until the end of time. Literally.
Thursday, March 11th, 2021
A wonderful look at the kind of links we didn’t get on the World Wide Web.
From the memex and Xanadu right up to web mentions, this ticks all my boxes!
Wednesday, March 10th, 2021
Saturday, March 6th, 2021
Today’s young tech policy professionals are are, quite rightfully, responding to the only internet in the only world they have ever known. The awful one. The one where the internet was and is a handful of billion-pound companies. The one where the internet has only ever been petrol on a fire. The one where the internet has been essential infrastructure like water and heat, not a thing you had to request and master. The closed internet made for them. Not the open internet I got to make.
So if you think that the biggest threat to encryption is elderly politicians who still need their secretaries to print out emails for them, it’s time you found yourself in a meeting with someone under the age of 30 who is going to war against encryption because he has never needed encryption in his life.
Sunday, February 21st, 2021
In today’s world of algorithmic recommendation engines, it’s nice to experience some serendipity every now and then. I remember how nice it was when two books I read in sequence had a wonderful echo in their descriptions of fermentation:
OMG I’m so glad these books presented themselves to you together—I think it’s a great pairing, too. And certainly, some of Ed’s writing about microbes was in my head as I was writing the novel!
I experienced another resonant echo when I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell and then starting reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind. Both books share a common theme—that human beings are fundamentally decent—but the first chapter of Humankind was mentioning the exact same events that are chronicled in A Paradise Built in Hell; the Blitz, September 11th, Katrina, and more. Then he cites from that book directly. The two books were published a decade apart, and it was just happenstance that I ended up reading them in quick succession.
I recommend both books. Humankind is thoroughly enjoyable, but it has one maddeningly frustrating flaw. A Paradise Built in Hell isn’t the only work that influenced Bregman—he also cites Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Here’s what I thought of Sapiens:
Yuval Noah Harari has fixated on some ideas that make a mess of the narrative arc of Sapiens. In particular, he believes that the agricultural revolution was, as he describes it, “history’s biggest fraud.” In the absence of any recorded evidence for this, he instead provides idyllic descriptions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that have as much foundation in reality as the paleo diet.
Humankind echoes this fabrication. Again, the giveaway is that the footnotes dry up when the author is describing the idyllic pre-historical nomadic lifestyle. Compare it with, for instance, this description of the founding of Jericho—possibly the world’s oldest city—where researchers are at pains to point out that we can’t possibly know what life was like before written records.
I worry that Yuval Noah Harari’s imaginings are being treated as “truthy” by Rutger Bregman. It’s not a trend I like.
Still, apart from that annoying detour, Humankind is a great read. So is A Paradise Built in Hell. Try them together.
Friday, February 19th, 2021
Thirty years later, it is easy to overlook the web’s origins as a tool for sharing knowledge. Key to Tim Berners-Lee’s vision were open standards that reflected his belief in the Rule of Least Power, a principle that choosing the simplest and least powerful language for a given purpose allows you to do more with the data stored in that language (thus, HTML is easier for humans or machines to interpret and analyze than PostScript). Along with open standards and the Rule of Least Power, Tim Berners-Lee wanted to make it easy for anyone to publish information in the form of web pages. His first web browser, named Nexus, was both a browser and editor.
Thursday, February 18th, 2021
I’m excited by this documentary project from John! The first video installment features three historic “pages”:
- As We May Think,
- Information Management: A Proposal, and
- the first web page.
Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021
Sunday, January 31st, 2021
There are some beautiful illustrations in this online exhibition of data visualisation in the past few hundred years.
Monday, January 25th, 2021
The intent is for this website to be used by self-forming small groups that want to create a “watching club” (like a book club) and discuss aspects of technology history that are featured in this series.
I’m about ready to rewatch Halt And Catch Fire. Anybody want to form a watching club with me?
Saturday, January 16th, 2021
The Art of Whaling: Illustrations from the Logbooks of Nantucket Whaleships – The Public Domain Review
Scrimshaws and sketches.
Feels like a Zooniverse project waiting to happen.
Thursday, December 31st, 2020
If you make an improvement, it’s not going to be to the industry as a whole — it’ll be specific. And actually improvements have always been specific; it’s just that the industries have since multiplied and narrowed. Inventors once made drops into a puddle, but the puddle then expanded into an ocean. It doesn’t make the drops any less innovative.
Wednesday, December 30th, 2020
Flash, from the very beginning, was a transitional technology. It was a language that compiled into a binary executable. This made it consistent and performant, but was in conflict with how most of the web works. It was designed for a desktop world which wasn’t compatible with the emerging mobile web. Perhaps most importantly, it was developed by a single company. This allowed it to evolve more quickly for awhile, but goes against the very spirit of the entire internet. Long-term, we never want single companies — no matter who they may be — controlling the very building blocks of the web.
Thursday, December 17th, 2020
Tending this website keeps me sane. I think of it as a digital garden, a kind of sanctuary. … And if my site is a kind of garden, then I see myself as both gardener and architect, in so much as I make plans and prepare the ground, then sow things that grow in all directions. Some things die, but others thrive, and that’s how my garden grows. And I tend it for me; visitors are a bonus.
A thoughtful and impassioned plea from Colly for more personal publishing:
I know that social media deprived the personal site of oxygen, but you are not your Twitter profile, nor are you your LinkedIn profile. You are not your Medium page. You are not your tiny presence on the company’s About page. If you are, then you look just like everyone else, and that’s not you at all. Right?