We should celebrate our hobbies for the joy-giving activities they are, and recognize that they don’t need to become anything bigger than that. And of course that’s not to say they those hobbies can’t turn into something bigger — it’s incredible when your passions and your occupation overlap — but it should be because you want to rather than that you feel pressured to. Not every activity you do needs to become a big official thing.
Monday, March 30th, 2020
Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
I wrote yesterday about how messing about on your own website can be a welcome distraction. I did some tinkering with adactio.com on the weekend that you might be interested in.
Let me set the scene…
I’ve started recording and publishing a tune a day. I grab my mandolin, open up Quicktime and make a movie of me playing a jig, a reel, or some other type of Irish tune. I include a link to that tune on The Session and a screenshot of the sheet music for anyone who wants to play along. And I embed the short movie clip that I’ve uploaded to YouTube.
iframe has been delivered for nothing.
Meanwhile over on The Session, I’ve got a strategy for embedding YouTube videos that’s better for performance. Whenever somebody posts a link to a video on YouTube, the thumbnail of the video is embedded. Only when you click the thumbnail does that image get swapped out for the
iframe with the video.
That’s what I needed to do here on adactio.com.
That code checks to see if the URL is from a service that provides an oEmbed endpoint. A what-Embed? oEmbed!
In this case
http://example.com/oembed is the endpoint and
url is the value of a URL from that provider. Here’s a real life example from YouTube:
https://www.youtube.com/oembed is the endpoint and
url is the address of any video on YouTube.
You get back some JSON with a pre-defined list of values like
html payload is the markup for your embed code.
By default, YouTube sends back markup like this:
allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture"
But now I want to use an
img instead of an
iframe. One of the other values returned is
thumbnail_url. That’s the URL of a thumbnail image that looks something like this:
In fact, once you know the ID of a YouTube video (the
?v= bit in a YouTube URL), you can figure out the path to multiple images of different sizes:
- 120 × 90:
- 320 × 180:
- 480 × 360:
- 1280 × 720:
(Although that last one—
maxresdefault.jpg—might not work for older videos.)
Okay, so I need to extract the ID from the YouTube URL. Here’s the PHP I use to do that:
parse_str(parse_url($url, PHP_URL_QUERY), $arguments);
$id = $arguments['v'];
Then I can put together some HTML like this:
<a class="videoimglink" href="'.$url.'">
<img width="100%" loading="lazy"
Over on The Session, I’m using
addEventListener but here on adactio.com I’m going to be dirty and listen for the event directly in the markup using the
When the link is clicked, I nuke the link and the image using
innerHTML. This injects an iframe where the link used to be (by updating the
innerHTML value of the link’s
But notice that I’m not using the default YouTube URL for the iframe. That would be:
Instead I’m swapping out the domain
I can’t remember where I first came across this undocumented parallel version of YouTube that has, yes, you guessed it, no cookies. It turns out that, not only is the default YouTube embed code bad for performance, it is—unsurprisingly—bad for privacy too. So the
youtube-nocookie.com domain can protect your site’s visitors from intrusive tracking. Pass it on.
Anyway, I’ve got the markup I want now:
<a class="videoimglink" href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eiqhVmSPcs"
<img width="100%" loading="lazy"
alt="The Banks Of Lough Gowna (jig) on mandolin"
The functionality is all there. But I want to style the embedded images to look more like playable videos. Time to break out some CSS (this is why I added the
videoimglink class to the YouTube link).
I’m going to use generated content to create a play button icon. Because I can’t use generated content on an
img element, I’m applying these styles to the containing
I was going to make an SVG but then I realised I could just be lazy and use the unicode character instead.
Right. Time to draw the rest of the fucking owl:
top: calc(50% - 5vmax);
left: calc(50% - 5vmax);
That’s a bunch of instructions for sizing and positioning. I’d explain it, but that would require me to understand it and frankly, I’m not entirely sure I do. But it works. I think.
With a translucent play icon positioned over the thumbnail, all that’s left is to add a
:hover style to adjust the opacity:
Wheresoever thou useth
:hover, thou shalt also useth
Okay. It’s good enough. Ship it!
If you embed YouTube videos on your site, and you’d like to make them more performant, check out this custom element that Paul made: Lite YouTube Embed. And here’s a clever technique that uses the
srcdoc attribute to get a similar result (but don’t forget to use the
Monday, March 23rd, 2020
While we’re all confined to quarters during The Situation, Gary Hustwit is offering one of his films for free every week. The fantastic Helvetica is just about to finish its run, but every one of Gary’s films is worth watching (and rewatching): Helvetica, Objectified, Urbanized, and Rams.
Filmmaker Gary Hustwit is streaming his documentaries free worldwide during the global COVID crisis. Each week we’ll be posting another film here. We hope you enjoy them, and please stay strong.
Thursday, March 19th, 2020
COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.
It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.
But it’s not the same though, is it?
I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”
Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:
It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.
Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.
I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”
Sunday, March 15th, 2020
CSS only truly exists in a browser. As soon as we start writing CSS outside of the browser, we rely on guesses and memorization and an intimate understanding of the rules. A text editor will never be able to provide as much information as a browser can.
Wednesday, March 11th, 2020
CSS is frustrating because you have to actually think of a website like a website and not an app. That mental model is what everyone finds so viscerally upsetting. And so engineers do what feels best to them; they try to make websites work like apps, like desktop software designed in the early naughts. Something that can be controlled.
Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020
Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu
I got an email a little while back from Michael at Repeater Books asking me if I wanted an advance copy of Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology From Capitalism by Wendy Liu. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I said “Sure!”
I’m happy to say that the book is most excellent …or at least mostly excellent.
Contrary to what the book title—or its blurb—might tell you, this is a memoir first and foremost. It’s a terrific memoir. It’s utterly absorbing.
Just as the most personal songs can have the most universal appeal, this story feels deeply personal while being entirely accessible. You don’t have to be a computer nerd to sympathise with the struggles of a twenty-something in a start-up trying to make sense of the world. This well-crafted narrative will resonate with any human. It calls to mind Ellen Ullman’s excellent memoir, Close to the Machine—not a comparison I make lightly.
But as you might have gathered from the book’s title, Abolish Silicon Valley isn’t being marketed as a memoir:
Abolish Silicon Valley is both a heartfelt personal story about the wasteful inequality of Silicon Valley, and a rallying call to engage in the radical politics needed to upend the status quo.
It’s true that the book finishes with a political manifesto but that’s only in the final chapter or two. The majority of the book is the personal story, and just as well. Those last few chapters really don’t work in this setting. They feel tonally out of place.
Don’t get me wrong, the contents of those final chapters are right up my alley—they’re preaching to the converted here. But I think they would be better placed in their own publication. The heavily-researched academic style jars with the preceeding personal narrative.
Abolish Silicon Valley is 80% memoir and 20% manifesto. I worry that the marketing isn’t making that clear. It would be a shame if this great book didn’t find its audience.
The book will be released on April 14th. It’s available to pre-order now. I highly recommend doing just that. I think you’ll really enjoy it. But if you get mired down in the final few chapters, know that you can safely skip them.
Friday, February 28th, 2020
The headline begs the question, but Robin makes this very insightful observation in the article itself:
Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020
This is a wonderful interactive explanation of the way CSS hierarchy works—beautiful!
Thursday, January 16th, 2020
Excellent news! All the major browsers have agreed to freeze their user-agent strings, effectively making them a relic (which they kinda always were).
For many (most?) uses of UA sniffing today, a better tool for the job would be to use feature detection.
Friday, January 10th, 2020
There’s an interesting thread on Github about the tongue-twistingly named
Let me back up…
Progressive web apps. You know what they are, right? They’re websites that have taken their vitamins. Specifically, they’re responsive websites that:
- are served over HTTPS,
- have a web app manifest, and
- have a service worker handling the offline scenario.
The web app manifest—a JSON file of metadata—is particularly useful for describing how your site should behave if someone adds it to their home screen. You can specify what icon should be used. You can specify whether the site should launch in a browser or as a standalone app (practically indistinguishable from a native app). You can specify which URL on the site should be used as the starting point when the site is launched from the home screen.
So progressive web apps work just fine when you visit them in a browser, but they really shine when you add them to your home screen. It seems like pretty much everyone is in agreement that adding a progressive web app to your home screen shouldn’t be an onerous task. But how does the browser let the user know that it might be a good idea to “install” the web site they’re looking at?
The Samsung Internet browser does ambient badging—a
+ symbol shows up to indicate that a website can be installed. This is a great approach!
I hope that Chrome on Android will also use ambient badging at some point. To start with though, Chrome notified users that a site was installable by popping up a notification at the bottom of the screen. I think these might be called “toasts”.
Needless to say, the toast notification wasn’t very effective. That’s because we web designers and developers have spent years teaching people to immediately dismiss those notifications without even reading them. Accept our cookies! Sign up to our newsletter! Install our native app! Just about anything that’s user-hostile gets put in a notification (either a toast or an overlay) and shoved straight in the user’s face before they’ve even had time to start reading the content they came for in the first place. Users will then either:
- turn around and leave, or
- use muscle memory reach for that
Xin the corner of the notification.
A tiny fraction of users might actually click on the call to action, possibly by mistake.
beforeinstallprompt can be used.
It’s a bit weird though. You have to “capture” the event that fires when the prompt would have normally been shown, subdue it, hold on to that event, and then re-release it when you think it should be shown (like when the user has completed a transaction, for example, and having your site on the home screen would genuinely be useful). That’s a lot of hoops. Here’s the code I use on The Session to only show the installation prompt to users who are logged in.
The end result is that the user is still shown a toast notification, but at least this time it’s the site owner who has decided when it will be shown. The Chrome team call this notification “the mini-info bar”, and Pete acknowledges that it’s not ideal:
The mini-infobar is an interim experience for Chrome on Android as we work towards creating a consistent experience across all platforms that includes an install button into the omnibox.
I think “an install button in the omnibox” means ambient badging in the browser interface, which would be great!
Anyway, back to that thread on Github. Basically, neither Apple nor Mozilla are going to implement the
beforeinstallprompt event (well, technically Mozilla have implemented it but they’re not going to ship it). That’s fair enough. It’s an interim solution that’s not ideal for all reasons I’ve already covered.
But there’s a lot of pushback. Even if the details of
beforeinstallprompt are troublesome, surely there should be some way for site owners to let users know that can—or should—install a progressive web app? As a site owner, I have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint. But I also understand the security and usability issues that can arise from bad actors abusing this mechanism.
Still, I have to hand it to Chrome: even if we put the
beforeinstallprompt event to one side, the browser still has a mechanism for letting users know that a progressive web app can be installed—the mini info bar. It’s not a great mechanism, but it’s better than nothing. Nothing is precisely what Firefox and Safari currently offer (though Firefox is experimenting with something).
In the case of Safari, not only do they not provide a mechanism for letting the user know that a site can be installed, but since the last iOS update, they’ve buried the “add to home screen” option even deeper in the “sharing sheet” (the list of options that comes up when you press the incomprehensible rectangle-with-arrow-emerging-from-it icon). You now have to scroll below the fold just to find the “add to home screen” option.
So while I totally get the misgivings about
beforeinstallprompt, I feel that a constructive alternative wouldn’t go amiss.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Except… there’s another interesting angle to that Github thread. There’s talk of allowing sites that are launched from the home screen to have access to more features than a site inside a web browser. Usually permissions on the web are explicitly granted or denied on a case-by-case basis: geolocation; notifications; camera access, etc. I think this is the first time I’ve heard of one action—adding to the home screen—being used as a proxy for implicitly granting more access. Very interesting. Although that idea seems to be roundly rejected here:
A key argument for using installation in this manner is that some APIs are simply so powerful that the drive-by web should not be able to ask for them. However, this document takes the position that installation alone as a restriction is undesirable.
I understand that Chromium or Google may hold such a position but Apple’s WebKit team may not necessarily agree with such a position.
If you end up with a draft of a short story or a few paragraphs of a typical UX interaction scenario, or a storyboard, or a little film of someone swiping on a screen to show how your App idea would work — you have not done Design Fiction.
What you’ve done is write a short story, which can only possibly be read as a short story.
What you should ideally produce is something a casual observer may mistake for a contemporary artefact, but which only reveals itself as a fiction on closer inspection. It should be very much “as if..” this thing really existed. It should feel real, normal, not some fantasy.
Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
So that was 2019. Quite a year.
Looking back, there were some real highlights for me…
- Going to CERN in February to be part of the project to recreate the first web browser was like a dream come true. It really was an honour and a privilege to be part of it.
- In July, I returned to Miltown Malbay for the Willie Clancy Summer School after an unreasonably long hiatus of fifteen years. I had a great time immersed in traditional Irish music.
- In August, Jessica and I crossed the Atlantic on board the Queen Mary 2. That was an unforgettable experience.
Then there were the usual benefits that come with speaking at international conferences like An Event Apart and Beyond Tellerrand. I got to visit interesting places, eat excellent food, and meet good people.
Not everything was rosy. There were some sad life events for friends and family. And of course the whole political situation here in the UK has been just awful in 2019.
So onwards to 2020. I need to remind myself that many things are going well in the world but it can be hard to keep that in mind. At a local—nay, parochial—level, there’s a good chance that 2020 will deliver a hard Brexit. I have no faith in the competence or motivations of the current government to do otherwise (I keep reminding myself that I don’t have to stay in this country if it falls apart). And at the global scale, our attempts to mitigate the climate crisis are proceeding too slowly.
That’s something I need to take more personal responsibility for in 2020: fewer plane journeys, more trains, and more carbon offsetting.
Ultimately, it’s a fairly arbitrary moment in time but I do like to pause for a moment and look back at the year that’s just been. For all its faults, I have happy memories. I’m healthy. I played lots of music. I ate well. I spent time with friends and family.
I look forward to more of that in the third decade of the 21st century.
Thursday, December 12th, 2019
When the game developer Blizzard Entertainment decommissioned some of their server blades to be auctioned off, they turned them into commemorative commodities, adding an etching onto the metal frame with the server’s name (e.g., “Proudmoore” or “Darkspear”), its dates of operation, and an inscription: “within the circuits and hard drive, a world of magic, adventure, and friendship thrived… this server was home to thousands of immersive experiences.” While stripped of their ability to store virtual memory or connect people to an online game world, these servers were valuable and meaningful as worlds and homes. They became repositories of social and spatial memory, souvenirs from WoW.
Monday, December 2nd, 2019
This book is a beautiful tribute to Cindy.
Several talented illustrators have come together to create a unique book about unique animals. Each contributor has a special connection to the book’s original illustrator, Cindy Li. When she was unable to complete the illustrations before passing away in 2018, many of Cindy’s talented friends offered to help finish the project.
I think you should get a copy of this book for the little animal lover in your life this Christmas.
Proceeds from the sale of this book benefit Apollo Li Harris and Orion Li Harris, two out-of-this-world kids who had an amazing mom.
Monday, November 11th, 2019
Here, then, is my speculation. Work is something we struggle to get and strive to keep. We love-hate it (usually not in equal measure). Sometimes it seems meaningless. I’m told this is the case even for surgeons, teachers and disaster-relief workers: those with jobs whose worth seems indisputable. For the mere facilitators, the obscure cogs in the machinery of the modern economy whose precise function and value it takes some effort to ascertain, the meaning in what we do often seems particularly elusive (I should know). I contend, however, that while our lives need to be meaningful, our work does not; it only has to be honest and useful. And if someone is voluntarily paying you to do something, it’s probably useful at least to them.
Thursday, November 7th, 2019
I really like the work that IF are doing to document patterns around handling data:
- Signing in to a service
- Giving and removing consent
- Giving access to data
- Getting access to data
- Understanding automated decisions
- Doing security checks
Each pattern has a description, advantages, limitations, and examples.
Monday, October 28th, 2019
Silent push for the web
While I’m very unwilling to grant permission to be interrupted by intrusive notifications, I’d be more than willing to grant permission to allow a website to silently cache timely content in the background. It would be a more calm technology.
Phil Nash left a comment on the Medium copy of my post explaining that Seb’s demo of using the Push API without showing a notification wouldn’t work for long:
The browsers allow a certain number of mistakes(?) before they start to show a generic notification to say that your site sent a push notification without showing a notification. I believe that after ~10 or so notifications, and that’s different between browsers, they run out of patience.
He also provided me with the name to describe what I’m after:
You’re looking for “silent push” as are many others.
Silent push is something that is possible in native apps. It isn’t (yet?) available on the web, presumably because of security concerns.
It’s an API that would ripe for abuse. I mean, just look at the mess we’ve made with APIs like notifications and geolocation. Sure, they require explicit user opt-in, but these opt-ins are seen so often that users are sick of seeing them. Silent push would be one more permission-based API to add to the stack of annoyances.
Still, I’d really like silent push for the web—the ability to update a cache with fresh content as soon as it’s published; that would be nifty! At the same time, I understand the concerns. It feels more powerful than other permission-based APIs like notifications.
Maybe there could be another layer of permissions. What if adding a site to your home screen was the first step? If a site is running on HTTPS, has a service worker, has a web app manifest, and has been added to the homescreen, maybe then and only then should it be allowed to prompt for permission to do silent push.
In other words, what if certain very powerful APIs were only available to progressive web apps that have successfully been added to the home screen?
Frankly, I’d be happy if the same permissions model applied to web notifications too, but I guess that ship has sailed.
Anyway, all this is pure conjecture on my part. As far as I know, silent push isn’t on the roadmap for any of the browser vendors right now. That’s fair enough. Although it does annoy me that native apps have this capability that web sites don’t.
It used to be that there was a long list of features that only native apps could do, but that list has grown shorter and shorter. The web’s hare is catching up to native’s tortoise.
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
When your only tool seems like a smartphone, everything looks like an app.
Amber writes on Ev’s blog about products that deliberately choose to be dependent on smartphone connectivity:
We read service outage stories like these seemingly every week, and have become numb to the fundamental reality: The idea of placing the safety of yourself, your child, or another loved one in the hands of an app dependent on a server you cannot touch, control, or know the status of, is utterly unacceptable.