A timeline showing the history of non-digital dataviz.
Sunday, October 18th, 2020
Monday, October 12th, 2020
The Web History podcast
Recently Jay started publishing essays on web history over on CSS Tricks:
Round about that time, Chris floated the idea of having people record themselves reading blog posts. I immediately volunteered my services for the web history essays.
So now you can listen to me reading Jay’s words:
Each chapter is round about half an hour long so that’s a solid two hours or so of me yapping.
And if you just can’t get enough of my voice, there’s always the Clearleft podcast …although that’s mostly other people talking, thank goodness.
Friday, September 18th, 2020
Don’t blame it on the COBOL:
It’s a common fiction that computing technologies tend to become obsolete in a matter of years or even months, because this sells more units of consumer electronics. But this has never been true when it comes to large-scale computing infrastructure. This misapprehension, and the language’s history of being disdained by an increasingly toxic programming culture, made COBOL an easy scapegoat. But the narrative that COBOL was to blame for recent failures undoes itself: scapegoating COBOL can’t get far when the code is in fact meant to be easy to read and maintain.
It strikes me that the resilience of programmes written in COBOL is like the opposite of today’s modern web stack, where the tangled weeds of nested dependencies ensures that projects get harder and harder to maintain over time.
In a field that has elevated boy geniuses and rockstar coders, obscure hacks and complex black-boxed algorithms, it’s perhaps no wonder that a committee-designed language meant to be easier to learn and use—and which was created by a team that included multiple women in positions of authority—would be held in low esteem. But modern computing has started to become undone, and to undo other parts of our societies, through the field’s high opinion of itself, and through the way that it concentrates power into the hands of programmers who mistake social, political, and economic problems for technical ones, often with disastrous results.
Monday, September 14th, 2020
A short web book on the past, present and future of interfaces, written in a snappy, chatty style.
From oral communication and storytelling 500,000 years ago to virtual reality today, the purpose of information interfaces has always been to communicate more quickly, more deeply, to foster relationships, to explore, to measure, to learn, to build knowledge, to entertain, and to create.
We interface precisely because we are human. Because we are intelligent, because we are social, because we are inquisitive and creative.
We design our interfaces and they in turn redefine what it means to be human.
Sunday, September 6th, 2020
A timeline of city maps, from 1524 to 1930.
Sunday, August 30th, 2020
This is a wonderful tale of spelunking into standards from Darius Kazemi—I had no idea that HTTP status codes have their origin in a hastily made decision in the days of ARPANET.
20 people got together at MIT in 1972 for a weekend workshop. On the second day, a handful of people in a breakout session decided it would be a good idea to standardize error messages between two services for transferring data, even though those two services had not necessarily planned to speak to one another. One thing led to another, and now 404 is synonymous with “I can’t find the thing.”
This story is exactly the kind of layering of technologies that I was getting at in the first chapter of Resilient Web Design.
HTTP status codes are largely an accident of history. The people who came up with them didn’t plan on defining a numerical namespace that would last half a century or work its way into popular culture. You see this pattern over and over in the history of technology.
The radioactive properties of React.
Friday, August 28th, 2020
An excellent explanation of the new
text-edge properties in CSS, complete with an in-depth history of leading in typography.
(I’m very happy to finally have a permanent link to point to about this, rather than a post on Ev’s blog.)
Thursday, August 20th, 2020
The latest edition in this wonderful series of science-fictional typography has some truly twisty turbolift tangents.
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
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.
Wednesday, August 5th, 2020
A great little history lesson from Amber—ah, Firebug!
Saturday, August 1st, 2020
The evolution of affordances on the web:
The URL for a page goes at the top. Text appears in a vertically scrolling column. A dropdown menu has a downward-pointing triangle next to it. Your mouse cursor is a slanted triangle with a tail, and when you hover over a link it looks like Mickey Mouse’s glove.
Most of these affordances don’t have any relationship to the physical characteristics of the interaction they mediate. But remove them from a website, application, or interface, and users get disoriented, frustrated, and unproductive.
Friday, July 31st, 2020
This is a great talk by Hidde, looking at the history and evolution of cascading style sheets. Right up my alley!
Monday, July 27th, 2020
John weighs in on the clashing priorities of browser vendors.
Imagine if the web never got CSS. Never got a way to style content in sophisticated ways. It’s hard to imagine its rise to prominence in the early 2000s. I’d not be alone in arguing a similar lack of access to the sort of features inherent to the mobile experience that WebKit and the folks at Mozilla have expressed concern about would (not might) largely consign the Web to an increasingly marginal role.
Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020
Wildlife Photographer Of The Year on the Clearleft podcast
This one is a bit different. Whereas previous episodes focused on specific topics—design systems, service design—this one is a case study. And, wow, what a case study! The whole time I was putting the episode together, I kept thinking “The team really did some excellent work here.”
I’m not sure what makes more sense: listen to the podcast episode first and then visit the site in question …or the other way around? Maybe the other way around. In which case, be sure to visit the website for Wildlife Photographer Of The Year.
This episode of the podcast ended up being half an hour long. It should probably be shorter but I just couldn’t bring myself to cut any of the insights that Helen, James, Chris, and Trys were sharing. I’m probably too close to the subject matter to be objective about it. I’m hoping that others will find it equally fascinating to hear about the process of the project. Research! Design! Dev! This has got it all.
I had a lot of fun with the opening of the episode. I wanted to create a montage effect like the scene-setting opening of a film that has overlapping news reports. I probably spent far too long doing it but I’m really happy with the final result.
And with this episode, we’re halfway through the first season of the podcast already! I figured a nice short run of six episodes is enough to cover a fair bit of ground and give a taste of what the podcast is aiming for, without it turning into an overwhelming number of episodes in a backlog for you to catch up with. Three down and three to go. Seems manageable, right?
Anyway, enough of the backstory. If you haven’t already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, you should do that. Then do these three things in whichever order you think works best:
Sunday, July 5th, 2020
Notes on the old internet, its design and frontend.
Friday, June 26th, 2020
A forthcoming documentary about Stewart Brand (with music by Brian Eno).
Friday, June 19th, 2020
What I love about the web is that it’s a hypertext. (Though in recent years it has mostly been used as a janky app delivery platform.)
I am very much enjoying Matt’s thoughts on linking, quoting, transclusion, and associative trails.
My blog is my laboratory workbench where I go through the ideas and paragraphs I’ve picked up along my way, and I twist them and turn them and I see if they fit together. I do that by narrating my way between them. And if they do fit, I try to add another piece, and then another. Writing a post is a process of experimental construction.
And then I follow the trail, and see where it takes me.
Sunday, June 14th, 2020