The return of NASA’s iconic “worm” logo (for some missions).
Friday, April 3rd, 2020
Monday, March 30th, 2020
Living Through The Future
You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.
Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.
On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.
But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.
When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?
At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.
Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.
For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).
In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.
I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:
Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.
The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.
Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.
I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.
I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:
The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.
Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”
Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.
Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020
Well, this is a grim collection from Dave:
There are some cases where even using plain ol’ HTML causes accessibility problems. I get frustrated and want to quit web development whenever I read about these types of issues. Because if browsers can’t get this right, what hope is there for the rest of us.
It’s worth clicking through each link he lists—the situation is often much more nuanced than simply “Don’t use X.”
Monday, February 24th, 2020
Jen kicked off a fascinating thread here:
It’s come up quite a few times recently that the world of people who make websites would greatly benefit from the CSS Working Group officially defining ”CSS 4”, and later “CSS 5“, etc.
The level is discourse is impressively smart and civil.
Personally, I don’t (yet) have an opinion on this either way, but I’ll be watching it unfold with keen interest.
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.
Tuesday, October 29th, 2019
Periodic background sync
Yesterday I wrote about how much I’d like to see silent push for the web:
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.
hi there, just read your blog post about Silent Push for acthe web, and wondering if Periodic Background Sync would cover a few of those use cases?
Periodic background sync looks very interesting indeed!
It’s not the same as silent push. As the name suggests, this is about your service worker waking up periodically and potentially fetching (and caching) fresh content from the network. So the service worker is polling rather than receiving a push. But I’ll take it! It’s definitely close enough for the kind of use-cases I’ve been thinking about.
Interestingly, periodic background sync also ties into the other part of what I was writing about: permissions. I mentioned that adding a site the home screen could be interpreted as a signal to potentially allow more permissions (or at least allow prompts for more permissions).
Well, Chromium has a document outlining metrics for attempting to gauge site engagement. There’s some good thinking in there.
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.
Friday, September 27th, 2019
Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon. Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.
Tuesday, September 10th, 2019
Get an idea of how much your website is contributing to the climate crisis.
In total, the internet produces 2% of global carbon emissions, roughly the same as that bad boy of climate change, the aviation industry.
Sunday, August 4th, 2019
The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million. It was a victory, as Armstrong immediately recognized, not of Western democratic capitalism over Soviet tyranny, or of America over the rest of the world, but for humanity. It belongs to the United States no more than Michelangelo does to Italy or Machu Picchu to Peru.
Thursday, July 18th, 2019
A delightful dialogue …on the moon!
Thursday, July 4th, 2019
Summer of Apollo
It’s July, 2019. You know what that means? The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission is this month.
I’ve already got serious moon fever, and if you’d like to join me, I have some recommendations…
Watch the Apollo 11 documentary in a cinema. The 70mm footage is stunning, the sound design is immersive, the music is superb, and there’s some neat data visualisation too. Watching a preview screening in the Duke of York’s last week was pure joy from start to finish.
Listen to 13 Minutes To The Moon, the terrific ongoing BBC podcast by Kevin Fong. It’s got all my favourite titans of NASA: Michael Collins, Margaret Hamilton, and Charlie Duke, amongst others. And it’s got music by Hans Zimmer.
Experience the website Apollo 11 In Real Time on the biggest monitor you can. It’s absolutely wonderful! From July 16th, you can experience the mission timeshifted by exactly 50 years, but if you don’t want to wait, you can dive in right now. It genuinely feels like being in Mission Control!
Wednesday, June 26th, 2019
Over the last fifty years, we have come to recognize that the fuel of our civilizational expansion has become the main driver of our extinction, and that of many of the species we share the planet with. We are now coming to realize that is as true of our cognitive infrastructure. Something is out of sync, felt everywhere: something amiss in the temporal order, and it is as related to political and technological shifts, shifts in our own cognition and attention, as it is to climatic ones. To think clearly in such times requires an intersectional understanding of time itself, a way of thinking that escapes the cognitive traps, ancient and modern, into which we too easily fall. Because our technologies, the infrastructures we have built to escape our past, have turned instead to cancelling our future.
James writes beautifully about rates of change.
The greatest trick our utility-directed technologies have performed is to constantly pull us out of time: to distract us from the here and now, to treat time as a kind of fossil fuel which can be endlessly extracted in the service of a utopian future which never quite arrives. If information is the new oil, we are already, in the hyper-accelerated way of present things, well into the fracking age, with tremors shuddering through the landscape and the tap water on fire. But this is not enough; it will never be enough. We must be displaced utterly in time, caught up in endless imaginings of the future while endlessly neglecting the lessons and potential actions of the present moment.
Saturday, June 22nd, 2019
What a magnificent website! You can watch, read, and listen to the entire Apollo 11 mission! Do it now, or wait until until July 16th when you can follow along in real time …time-shifted by half a century.
Tuesday, May 21st, 2019
This is an utterly fascinating interactive description of network effects, complete with Nicky Case style games. Play around with the parameters and suddenly you can see things “going viral”:
We can see similar things taking place in the landscape for ideas and inventions. Often the world isn’t ready for an idea, in which case it may be invented again and again without catching on. At the other extreme, the world may be fully primed for an invention (lots of latent demand), and so as soon as it’s born, it’s adopted by everyone. In-between are ideas that are invented in multiple places and spread locally, but not enough so that any individual version of the idea takes over the whole network all at once. In this latter category we find e.g. agriculture and writing, which were independently invented ~10 and ~3 times respectively.
Play around somewhere and you start to see why cities are where ideas have sex:
What I learned from the simulation above is that there are ideas and cultural practices that can take root and spread in a city that simply can’t spread out in the countryside. (Mathematically can’t.) These are the very same ideas and the very same kinds of people. It’s not that rural folks are e.g. “small-minded”; when exposed to one of these ideas, they’re exactly as likely to adopt it as someone in the city. Rather, it’s that the idea itself can’t go viral in the countryside because there aren’t as many connections along which it can spread.
This really is a wonderful web page! (and it’s licensed under a Creative Commons Zero licence)
We tend to think that if something’s a good idea, it will eventually reach everyone, and if something’s a bad idea, it will fizzle out. And while that’s certainly true at the extremes, in between are a bunch of ideas and practices that can only go viral in certain networks. I find this fascinating.
Thursday, March 7th, 2019
There’s something deliciously appropriate about using a painting cloning service to clone a photograph of some cloned dogs.
“Did you just order an oil painting of Barbra Streisand’s dogs?” is the most Simon and Natalie thing ever.
Although this comes close:
Tuesday, March 5th, 2019
Hui-Jing talks through her process of building a to-do app on Glitch using a progressive enhancement mindset:
Thursday, January 31st, 2019
Now this is a feature request I can get behind!
I’m serious about this. It’s is an excellent proposal for WebKit, similar to the never-slow mode proposed by Alex for Chromium.
Saturday, November 24th, 2018
Tuesday, November 13th, 2018
Remember when I said that if we want to see CSS exclusions implemented in browsers, we need to make some noise?
Well, Rachel is taking names, so if you’ve got a use-case, let her know.