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Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020

Building

The opening presentation from the New Adventures conference held in Nottingham in January 2019.

Good morning, everybody. It is a real honour to be here. As Simon said, I was here six, seven, eight years ago attending this conference because it’s such a great conference. I’m kind of feeling the pressure now that I’m up here on the stage speaking at this conference. I’m just glad I’m on first so I can get it over with and then listen to all these great talks.

I’m here today to talk to you …which is kind of weird when you think about it. I mean, first, the fact that it’s me up here on the stage through some clerical error.

But also, I’m going to talk to you. I’m going to vibrate air over my vocal cords and move this big meaty piece of flesh inside my jaw up and down vibrating the airwaves and you’re going to listen to me doing that. It seems like a crazy thing to do except for the fact that, of course, I’ll be using language.

Language

Maybe the great distinguishing feature of our species, language. The great leap forward that happened—who knows—50,000, 100,000 years ago when we, as a species, developed language. With language, by moving those vocal cords and that big piece of flesh in my jaw, we can tell stories. I can recount something that happened in the past.

Perhaps more amazingly, we can imagine things that might come to be. I could tell you something that might happen in the future. So language is a kind of time travel.

It’s all possible because we’re speaking the same codebase. The particular language I’m talking now is English. As long as you can decode English then all these noises I’m making will make sense to you even if there isn’t actually any information in the words. I can say Chomsky’s famous one.

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

You can parse that. It doesn’t make any sense, but you can parse it.

Most of the time, the sentences we use also convey some kind of information. Language is not just time travel. Language is also communication.

There can be an idea that’s sitting in my head and I’ll, you know, vibrate the air and vocal cords, flap this big fleshy thing in my jaw around, and transfer the idea from my head to your head. Language is almost like a virus. You can’t help but take the idea in.

I can say to you, “Don’t think of an elephant,” right? Now you’ve just thought of an elephant. It’s the language equivalent of the chicken game which, if you haven’t played before, sorry. You’ve just lost.

Chicken game. Don’t look at this chicken. Game over.

This sentence, “Don’t think of an elephant,” is actually the title of a book by George Lakoff. George Lakoff is a linguist. He’s written many books. He wrote Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. He wrote this, Metaphors We Live By, because he’s kind of obsessed with metaphors.

We use metaphor all the time in language. We use conceptual metaphor, so when we take one idea and we use the language of that idea to talk about a different idea. The classic example being something intangible.

Let’s say time. How do we talk about time when we can’t touch it, we can’t feel it, it’s intangible? Well, we use metaphor.

We talk about time as though it’s a physical object moving through space. We say time flies or time drags or we talk about time as though it’s a resource. We talk about saving time, wasting time.

You can’t do any of those things with time. That’s not how time works. But the metaphor is very helpful.

The other kind of metaphor is the cognitive metaphor. This is what George Lakoff is interested in, particularly in things like political language. How we frame a debate can tip the scales of how that debate would unfold. If we were about to have a debate about tax relief, well, before the debate has even begun, we’ve framed taxation as something you need relief from and the scales have been tipped.

I’m very interested in this idea of metaphor, analogy, and simile and how we talk about the work we do. It’s such a young industry. What we do is we borrow from other industries. We’re not the first to do this. There’s a great book called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Who’s read Understanding Comics? It’s great.

It’s about comics but, really, it’s just a fantastic book. It’s written as a comic. In it, Scott McCloud makes the point of this new medium, comics, had to kind of borrow from the existing mediums that came before. He points out that this isn’t new. He says:

Each new medium begins its life by imitating its predecessors. Many early movies were like filmed stage plays. Much early television was like radio with pictures.

Right? That it takes time.

Now, this idea of a new medium having to borrow the tropes and the language of the medium that came before, this idea pops up again on the web in this article published in the year 2000 by John Allsopp on A List Apart, A Dao of Web Design. Can I get a show of hands of who’s read A Dao of Web Design? Awesome. You are my people. The rest of you, please read it. It’s such a wonderful article.

It’s crazy that I’m standing up here recommending, “Oh, yeah, you should totally read this article from the year 2000,” but it is relevant. It’s amazingly relevant still today. It’s maybe more relevant today than when it was written. 
In the article, John says:

When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, it’s ritual, and it often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.

Now, at the time John was writing this, 2000, of course, we were borrowing from what had come before in the previous medium and that was print. We were trying to figure out how do we get the same level of control that we were used to in the world of print on the web. We did that using clever techniques thanks to David Siegel who wrote this book, Creating Killer Websites. David Siegel, if you don’t know the name, you’re certainly familiar with his work because he’s the guy who came up with the idea of using tables for layout or having a one-pixel by one-pixel spacer GIF.

Hey, listen. That was the only way we could do it back then. They were hacks, yes, but they were necessary hacks. He did actually recant. Years later, he wrote a piece that said, the web is ruined and I ruined it. This may be overstating the case, but you know.

He was pointing out we could use these techniques, these hacks to constrain Web and make it work like print. We could get pixel-perfect control. John Allsopp, in his article, he’s kind of pushing against and going, no, no, no:

The web is a new medium. It has emerged from the medium of printing whose skills and design language and convention strongly influence it. It is too often shaped by that from which it sprang. Killer websites are usually those which tame the wildness of the web, constraining pages as if they were made of paper. Desktop publishing for the web.

So, I mean, John totally acknowledges that there is a lot to learn from this rich, rich history of print and, before print, just writing. This is clearly the second great leap of our species. We had language where we could communicate ideas, tell stories, imagine the future—as long as we’re in the same physical space—and then we came up with writing. Now we can communicate, re-viral ideas, talk about the future and the past, and we don’t even have to be in the same physical place. Someone who died centuries ago can put an idea in your head by putting language onto a medium like vellum or, later, paper.

You can see this evolution over centuries from illuminated manuscripts to the printing press, Gutenberg, until we get to the 20th Century and we really start to refine the design. We got the Swiss School of Design, the fonts, typography, and the grid system. There’s a lot to learn here.

The Book of Kells. Gutenberg’s bible. Grid Systems.

What’s interesting to me, though, is what seems to be this battle of extremes. We’ve got David Siegel talking about desktop publishing for the web, effectively, and John Allsopp talking about, “No, the web is its own medium. It needs to have its own conventions.”

They seem to be at opposite ends of a spectrum. Yet, they actually have a commonality because, on both sides, when they’re talking about this, they’re talking about websites — web sites. Now, that in itself is a metaphor. You don’t have physical sites on the web. It’s intangible like time. Yet, we chose this metaphor. The idea of a site, a place where you go to a physical place.

Site actually is pretty good with connotations of a building site, a construction site. That was literally the metaphor in the ’90s. The web is like a construction site. It kind of is constantly under construction. Oh, you want the full nostalgic effect?

Under construction.

There we go. We’re back to Geocities. But I feel like then we decided to grow out of this metaphor and use more grownup metaphors. We got professional. We had to borrow from other industries, other mediums, and here’s one that people are very fond of borrowing: architecture—describing what we do as architecture.

Architects

Whether it’s on the design side or the development side, talking about us as architects. It seems like a very appealing industry to borrow from, which is fascinating. If you ever talk to architects, man, it’s a shitty industry. Spec work, awards, and competition, it’s not a great industry.

But we seem to hold it up as, like, “Oh, yeah, we’re like architects because architects are awesome.” I think of Hollywood because every Hollywood movie that has an architect in it, the architects are always really nice people. They’re always like the protagonist, never the antagonist. The architect is never the villain.

It’s fair enough. It’s fair enough to borrow things from something like architecture. For example, I know plenty of designers who would say that this book is the best book about UX that they’ve ever read, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. It was published in 2007. It’s not written for UX designers. It’s not written about the web, but there are lessons in there that are directly applicable.

There are other works from the world of architecture that have definitely influenced the work we are doing today like the classic from Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language. Now this—I say classic rightly—this is a classic book. A classic book is a book everyone has heard of and nobody has read.

That is certainly the case here. Published in 1977, and it influenced lots of people doing things in the digital space. Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, he said, yeah, he was really influenced by A Pattern Language.

The idea of a pattern language, it’s architecture, but breaking things down into components that you could change the parameters we used in public spaces, buildings, things like that. It’s a modular approach. Later on, in the software world, a gang of four, they wrote Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, and they were directly influenced by Christopher Alexander, this idea of a pattern language, components, patterns, modularity.

What’s interesting is there’s another book by Molly Wright Steenson, you may remember was a blogger, Girl Wonder. She worked in the world of architecture and she’s written a book about the influence of architects and designers on the digital space. Richard Saul Wurman, and information architecture. There’s a very direct metaphor there, but also Christopher Alexander.

She points out, actually, the funny thing is, he’s had way more of an influence in the digital space than he ever had in architecture. Most architects don’t like him. They think he’s a bit preachy. But his influence in the digital space is massive. Here I am talking about modularity, components, and patterns. Well, I mean, that is so hot right now. Design systems, we’re breaking things down into patterns. 
In fact, I ended up organizing a conference in 2017, purely about design systems, pattern libraries, styles, all this stuff called Patterns Day. It was great. We had these wonderful speakers. Jina Anne was there, Rachel Andrew, Alla Kholmatova, Alice Bartlett. It was great.

But, by the end of the day, I was kind of half-joking as saying, we should have had a drinking game where, every time someone referenced Christopher Alexander, we had to take a drink because his spirit loomed large over this. Actually, the full rules of the drinking game I came up with afterward where any time someone references Christopher Alexander, you take a drink. Any time someone says Lego, you take a drink. Any time someone says that naming things is hard, take a drink. Any time someone says atomic or atomic design, take a drink. Anytime someone says bootstrap, you puke the drink back up.

A Pattern Language is a work of architecture that directly not just influenced but is still influencing our work today; the idea of breaking things down into components to reuse.

Now, there’s another work from the world of architecture that has a big influence on me. It’s a classic book, again, How Buildings Learn. It’s the best book I’ve never read, published in 1994, by Stewart Brand. There was also a TV series that went with this that’s pretty fascinating.

In this, he talks about the work of a British architect named Frank Duffy and Duffy’s idea of something he called shearing layers. What Duffy said was that a building properly conceived is several layers of longevity. He kind of broke these down. You’ve got the sites that the building is on. We’re talking about geological time scales.

Then above that, the structure you hope will last for centuries. Then you’ve got the infrastructure inside the building that you might have to swap out every few decades. Change the plumbing. Then you’ve got the walls and the doors. You can change them every so often until you get into the room. You’ve got furniture, which you can move on a daily basis.

The time scales get faster as you move inward. He diagrammed it like this. This is shearing layers diagrammed for the building. I find this really interesting, this idea of different time scales.

Shearing layers.

But there’s another factor here I’m kind of fascinated by, which is that each layer depends on the layer below. You can’t have a structure until you’ve got a site to build on. You can’t have furniture inside a room until you’ve got the room. You need to have the walls there. Each layer is building on top of what’s come before. You can’t jump straight ahead to furniture without first having all those other layers.

Now, this reminds me of another idea that the writer Steven Johnson talks about a lot in his work, for example, this book, Where Good Ideas Come From. This is the idea of the adjacent possible, that certain inventions leap forward that can’t happen until other things have happened before them.

There’s a reason why the microwave oven wasn’t invented in medieval France. Too many other things had to be invented first before something like the microwave oven becomes inevitable.

Everything we do is kind of built on this idea of the adjacent possible because businesses and services on the web are on top of a whole bunch of layers of adjacent possibilities. You can’t have Twitter, Facebook, or Wikipedia until the web exists. The web itself is built on all of these layers that have to happen first.

We have to have the Industrial Revolution. We have to have electricity. Then somebody has to create circuitry. We have to get to the idea of having computers and then networked computers, something like the Internet. Then the web becomes possible. Once the web is possible, then all these businesses on top of the web become possible.

This idea of the adjacent possible, the shearing layers, they kind of fascinate me because I’m seeing a parallel there.

Now, Stewart Brand, who wrote about shearing layers and architecture, he revisited this idea of shearing layers and took them out from the world of architecture in a later work called The Clock of the Long Now. Stewart Brand is one of the founders of the Long Now Foundation. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an organization dedicated to long-term thinking. I’m a card-carrying member. The card is designed to last for a few thousand years as well.

They’re currently building a clock that will tell time for 10,000 years. Brian Eno has written an algorithm for the chimes so that when it chimes once a century, it will never be quite the same chime. It’s encouraging long now thinking.

In this book, the full title of the book being The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer, he extrapolates shearing layers into something he calls pace layers. If you take the shearing layers model and look around you, it’s everywhere. It’s kind of like systems thinking, the Donella Meadows idea that systems are everywhere.

Pace layers.

It’s kind of true. You look around these pace layers; shearing layers applied to the real world are everywhere. The example he gives is our species. If we look at the human race, we have these different time scales. The slowest is our physical nature as in our DNA, our physiological nature. That takes millennia to change. Physiologically, there’s no difference between a caveman and a spaceman.

Above that, you’ve got culture. This takes centuries, maybe longer, to accumulate over time.

Then systems of governance; not governments — governance. How are we going to run the societies?

An infrastructure, you want that to move faster, but not too fast or it could be very disruptive. 
Then you get into commerce, trading. Very fast-moving.

Then, finally, you’ve got fashion, which is super-fast. By fashion, he means things like popular music, anything that’s supposed to move fast. If fashion moved slowly, that wouldn’t be a good thing. It’s meant to move fast. It’s meant to try things out. “What about this? No, what about this? Try this.” Right? You don’t want for the things further down.

He’s mapped this onto these layers. From shearing layers, we go to pace layers. They have different timescales.

I’m talking about the difference between these really fast layers at the top, you know, “What about this? Try this? Today, we’re doing that,” compared to the really slow layers at the bottom that move slowly and are resistant to change.

He says:

Fast learns but slow remembers. Fast proposes and slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous but slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by a crude innovation, an occasional revolution, and slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, but slow has all the power.

Now, once I was exposed to this idea and this virus had landed in my head, I found that I couldn’t get it out of my head. I started seeing pace layers everywhere. At Clear Left, where I work, it’s a running joke. On every project, we have a kickoff. It’s like, what’s the time to pace layers? How long will it be before someone makes a pace layer analogy? It’s like my brain has now been rewired to see pace layers everywhere.

It’s like, you know, the first time that someone points out the arrow in the FedEx logo. There was your life before that and there’s your life after that.

You’ve all seen the arrow in the FedEx logo. Yeah.

What about Toblerone? You’ve all seen the bear? Ah, yeah! Right? You will never be able to unsee that.

Consider the duck.

It’s a perfectly normal, ordinary duck. Agreed? But then your brain is exposed to the idea that all ducks are actually wearing dog masks.

All ducks are actually wearing dog masks. Now, when I show you the same picture of the same duck—

—you will never be able to unsee that. That’s how my brain feels when it comes to pace layers. I see them everywhere. It’s like the crazy wall part of the serial killer’s lair in the murder mystery. It’s just pace layers.

I couldn’t help but apply pace layers to the work we do mapping our medium to pace layers. Let’s try it with the World Wide Web.

The layers of the web.

Well, we build on top of the Internet. We can’t have the web before having Internet. At the very bottom layer, you’ve got the protocols of the Internet itself, you know, TCP/IP, which have been pretty much unchanged for decades. They were there from the ARPANET before the Internet. It’s a good thing that they’re unchanged. You would not want to be swapping out that low layer very quickly.

Above that, we have all the different protocols we use, protocols for email, protocols for file transfer, and protocols for the World Wide Web, HTTP, the hypertext transfer protocol. Now, this has evolved over time. We now have HTTP2, but it’s been a slow process and that feels right. Again, we shouldn’t be swapping out too quickly, but it’s a bit faster moving than the Internet protocols. 
On top of HTTP, we can put our URLs. Now, I would love it if URLs were right down at the bottom layer and they were permanent and they never changed and they never went away. That is the web I want, but I must acknowledge that, alas, you have to work hard to keep URLs alive. They do change. They do move. They do get destroyed, which is a bit of a shame, but we can work at it, people. We can work on keeping our URLs alive.

What we put at that those URLs, at the simplest level, we’ve got HTML. It was there from the start. From day one of the web, HTML was there and it’s still there today, but it’s evolved. It’s changed over time. Initially, HTML had 21 elements and now it’s got 121 elements, so it’s evolved.

But it feels like you can keep up with the pace of change. The last big evolution of HTML was 2010, later, with HTML5. We do get new editions every now and then, but it’s fine. We can keep up with it.

Then CSS, CSS changes may be more — definitely changes more rapidly than HTML. That feels like a good thing. We kind of want more. Give us some more CSS and now we’ve got Grid and we’ve got Flexbox. We’ve got all these great, new CSS things. Custom properties.

I don’t feel too overwhelmed by that. I still feel like, “Oh, no, this is good. We’ve got new CSS. I’m feeling I can keep on top of this, you know, read the right articles, read the right books, try them out. It’s fine.”

Then there’s the JavaScript ecosystem.

Specifically, the ecosystem, not the language, because the JavaScript language itself doesn’t actually change that often. ES6 or ES2000, whatever we’re talking about the evolution to the language, they’re not so rapid that we’d get overwhelmed. But the language ecosystem, the culture of JavaScript, that feels overwhelming to me. Right? Since I’ve been speaking up here, two new JavaScript frameworks have been released.

The pace, I constantly feel like I’m falling behind like, “Oh, I haven’t even heard of this new thing that apparently everybody is using.”

Does anyone else feel overwhelmed by this pace of change? Okay, good. Keep your hands up for a sec and just look around. All right? You are not alone. This turns out to be normal.

But here’s the thing. By mapping these different rates onto this model of pace layers, I actually start to feel better about this because let’s say the JavaScript ecosystem is fashion: “It’s going to do this. No, no, today we’re doing that. Try this. Try that.”

Whereas, “Oh, okay. It’s supposed to move fast. It would be bad if it moved slow. It’s meant to be trying stuff out. We see what sticks.”

With fashion, the best of pop music will probably last and find its way down the layers into culture, a slower pace layer. With the JavaScript, the patterns that work in JavaScript may find their way down into the slower moving layers.

To give you an example, when JavaScript was first invented—I’m showing my age here—I remember the common use cases were rollovers, image rollovers. And form validation, so mousing over something and changing how it looks, we’d use JavaScript for that. If someone is filling in a form and there’s a required field, we’d use JavaScript to make sure that required field was filled in.

These days, we wouldn’t even use JavaScript for either of those. We’d use CSS to do rollovers. We’d use HTML to add just one required attribute. The pattern, it stuck. The spaghetti stuck to the wall and it moved down the layers into something more stable.

That’s what JavaScript is kind of supposed to do. When we’re trying to responsive images, we had JavaScript solutions until we got to something that was further down the stack in HTML.

I do feel overwhelmed by the pace of change. But I’m starting to feel a little better about feeling overwhelmed, that it’s okay. JavaScript is meant to feel overwhelming. It’s where we try stuff out. It’s where stuff moves fast.

Now, the other thing I realized by mapping our technology stack of the web onto this pace layer model is that this is how I build. When I’m building a website, I pretty much start at the third layer. I don’t worry about, is the Internet on.

I start with URLs. I think URL design is a really good place to start designing. It is a design discipline, a neglected one, but it is design. Then I think about the content and then structure that content using the best available markup of HTML. I think about the presentation may be on a small screen first and then the presentation on larger screens using CSS. Then start thinking about extra behaviors that I can’t get with HTML and CSS, so I reach for JavaScript to add those extra behaviors.

This seems to me to make sense as a way of building on the web because it maps to the structure of the pace layers of the web. But it’s also a testament to the flexibility of the web that you don’t have to build this way. If you don’t want to build in this layered way, you don’t have to.

In fact, you can build like this. You can put something that’s on the Internet, but you just do everything in JavaScript. URL routing, let’s do that in the browser in JavaScript. The Document Object Model, let’s generate that in the browser in JavaScript. CSS, apparently we’re doing it in JS now.

Everything in JavaScript. This is an absolutely legitimate choice. You can choose to build things on the web like this. The web allows this. Again, it’s a testament to the flexibility of the web.

Now, personally, I don’t build like this and this doesn’t feel quite right to me. It doesn’t feel like it maps to the web too well. It kind of turns it into this all or nothing situation where, as long as we’ve got JavaScript, everything is going to be great. But if we don’t, there’s nothing.

You end up with this situation where we’ve turned what we’re building on the web into a binary situation. Either it works great or it just doesn’t work at all. There’s this kind of single point of failure there with the JavaScript.

Now, this model makes complete sense in other mediums. I think other mediums have influenced our thinking on the web. Maybe we’ve borrowed the metaphors of these other mediums.

For example, if you’re building a native app, this makes complete sense. If you’re building an iOS app and I have an iOS device, it works great. I get 100% of what you designed. But if you build an iOS app and I have, say, an Android device, it doesn’t work at all. You can’t install an iOS app onto an Android device. Those are your options: either it works great or it doesn’t work at all. This mental model makes complete sense in that field.

On the web, because we can have this layered approach, that means we can build like this. We can go from something that doesn’t work at all to something that just about works—maybe it’s just text on a screen—to something that works fine—maybe it’s missing a bunch of behaviors, but the user can accomplish what they want to do—to something that works well, but maybe the latest and greatest browser APIs aren’t supported by a particular browser—and then to something that works great like the latest browser running the best device, great network.

Building in layers.

Most people are going to be somewhere on this continuum. Maybe nobody is going to get 100% of what you hope they get, but no one is going to get zero percent either as long as you’re building in this way, as long as you’re building with the grain of the web, building in layers, one thing on top of the other.

I’m going to quote Ethan here. Hi, Ethan. Ethan said:

I like designing in layers. I love looking at the design of a page, a pattern, whatever, and thinking about how it would change if, say, fonts aren’t available or JavaScript doesn’t work or if someone doesn’t see the design as you and I might and is having the page read aloud to them.

In a way, this is a way of busting assumptions, the what-ifs. What if something isn’t supported? By building in a layered way, it’s okay. Everything will fall back to the layer below, the adjacent possible.

Now, Ethan, of course, we all know from this article, Responsive Web Design, published on A List Apart. When was that? 2010. My God, nine years ago. Ten years after, John Allsopp published A Dao of Web Design on A List Apart. One of the first things Ethan does in this article is to reference A Dao of Web Design. You could say that Ethan was building on top of that foundational layer that was set by John Allsopp.

Architecture again. Responsive web design. The reason why Ethan chose that term was because there was this idea in architecture called responsive architecture about buildings that could respond to the conditions of the people in the buildings. That made a really good metaphor for talking about the web on large screens, small screens, and everything in between.

This architecture thing, as a metaphor, it’s not bad. We can learn from it. I think, just be careful not to take it too far.

It’s not the only metaphor we use. Here’s another one. When we don’t talk about ourselves as architects, we’re engineers. Yeah.

Engineers

It sounds good. This one predates the web. We’ve been talking about the idea of software engineering for a long time. I’m very partial to this term: software engineering. Not so much for the term itself. Not that I think it’s a particularly good metaphor, but from where it comes from, which is fricken’ awesome.

Margaret Hamilton.

The term “software engineering” comes from Margaret Hamilton. Margaret Hamilton was in charge of the onboard flight software on the Apollo moon landing. This is engineering. That is the code base she’s standing next to there, which would then literally be woven into the computers onboard Apollo.

But as a metaphor, engineering, well, there’s a whole bunch of different kinds of it. What kind of engineer are we talking about here? Is it material engineering, structural engineering, chemical engineering, aeronautical engineering? They all have commonalities. One being, as an engineer, you’ve got to know two things. There’s the materials you’re going to be working with and the tools you’re going to use to shape those materials.

Now, I think that we can use that metaphor and apply it to the web. I would say the materials on the web are HTML, CSS, and our JavaScript, hopefully in that order. Then we’ve got the tools we use to design for the materials of the web. 
Now, the most obvious tools we could think of are graphic design tools. We started using Photoshop even though that was never intended for Web design. Since then, we’ve evolved and we’ve got tools that are much more focused on the web, things like Sketch, Figma, and all this kind of stuff.

These are obvious tools we use to build the web, but there are less obvious tools. If you were working on a Web project, these tools also get used. You’re going to be talking over email. You’re going to be communicating over Slack, organizing spreadsheets, spreadsheets people.

We talk about these as productivity tools, though sometimes I know it feels like they are reducing productivity rather than increasing it. But it’s kind of a misnomer when you think about productivity tools. All tools are productivity tools. That’s literally what tools are for is to make you more productive.

I think we should acknowledge that these are legitimate design tools. You can’t launch a project without putting in some time and some kind of communication tool.

Then when it comes to the actual welding of these materials, we’ve got a whole bunch of tools that sit in our machines or sit in our Web servers. Now I feel like I’m back up at that top layer of the pace layers and I’m getting overwhelmed with the task runners, the build tools, the chains, the transpilers, and the preprocessors. Apparently, it changes every week. Oh, you’re still using Grunt? No, we’re using Gulp. No, Webpack. That’s what’s so overwhelming.

It also feels like it’s quite complicated. This is complicated stuff, but it’s like we’ve chosen it. We’ve chosen to make our lives complicated, in a way.

I’ll tell you what it reminds me of. Do you remember that startup, Juicero?

Where they sold a big, expensive, complicated machine to make juice, but you had to buy exactly the right juice packets to put in the big, expensive machine to make the juice. It works. It works great. The big, expensive, complicated machine does its job but somebody noticed that you could actually just take the packets and squeeze them by hand and it still produces juice. I’m just saying that squeezing by hand is still an option. You can build websites by squeezing by hand. (I think this metaphor has been stretched just about as far as it can do, so I will leave it there.)

There’s this other kind of spectrum, I guess, between the materials and the tools and then the people that will be exposed to the materials and the tools. They kind of fall into two categories: the engineers themselves and the end-users.

When we’re evaluating our tools and asking, “Is this the right tool to use?” we should evaluate it from our perspective, yes, “Is this going to be a helpful tool to me as an engineer?” if we’re using that metaphor. But I strongly feel we should also ask, “Is this going to be useful for the end-user?”

If those two things come into conflict, what then? Do we privilege our own experience over the user experience? I would hope not. I worry that, in a lot of tool choices, particularly on stuff that gets sent down to the browser. “Oh, I’m going to use a CSS framework.” Great. Good for you. That’s helping you out but now the user has to pay the cost of the benefit that you get from that CSS framework because they have to download the whole CSS framework.

Sometimes, these things come into conflict and I feel like maybe we privileged the developer experience over the user experience and that worries me. The other time they don’t come into conflict. All those tools like preprocessors and task runners that just sit on your own computer, no direct effect on the end-user experience. Frankly, use whatever you like. It doesn’t make a direct effect on the end-user experience.

When we’re evaluating tools, there are all these questions to ask. Who benefits from the tool? If I choose to use this tool, will it benefit the users? Will it benefit the engineers? Neither? Both?

There are other questions we ask like, well, just how good is this tool? To evaluate that we ask; yeah, how well does it work? Does this tool do what it says it will do well?

This, of course, is a completely valid question to ask but there’s a corollary that I think is more valid and that’s to ask not just how well does it work but how well does it fail?

What happens when something goes wrong?

This is exactly why I think this layered approach makes sense because, if you build in this layered way, each one of these layers can fail well. If you build like this, then JavaScript can fail well. What if something goes wrong and you’ve got an error in your JavaScript? You fall back to something that still works. Not as great as it worked before, but it still works. It fails well.

These technologies on the web, they fail well by design. CSS fails well. Use a CSS property the browser doesn’t understand or CSS value. The browser just ignores it. It fails well.

HTML: Make up an HTML element. Throw it into a webpage. The browser doesn’t throw an error. The browser doesn’t stop parsing the webpage. It just ignores it and moves on. It fails well.

It actually makes sense to not jump ahead to the powerful stuff, to the top of the pace layers, but to try and build in layers and stay low for as long as possible. This is actually a principle, a principle that underlies the architecture of the web itself called the Principle of Least Power. You should choose the least powerful language for a given purpose, which seems really counterintuitive.

Why would I choose the least powerful language to do something? Surely, I want more power. The idea here is the power comes at an expense. Power comes at the expense of complexity, fragility. The more powerful technology is maybe more likely to fail badly.

Derek Featherstone put it well. He said:

In the web front-end stack—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and ARIA—if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof. It just works.

The example there was rollovers. How are you going to do rollovers? Do it in JavaScript? No, do it in CSS. :hover - done. Right? Oh, you need to make an interactive button? Use the button element. Be lazy.

This makes a lot of sense, the Principle of Least Power. It makes a lot of sense to me on the web, especially when you combine it with a universal law that definitely applies on the web, and that’s Murphy’s Law:

Anything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong.

This comes directly from the world of engineering. Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr. was an aerospace engineer. It’s because he had this attitude, he never lost anybody on his watch.

I think we tend to dismiss things going wrong as edge cases. We kind of assume the average output. Other industries, when they’re making cars, they test them. They strap crash test dummies in. They smack them into walls at high speed.

To be fair, a lot of the reason why they have to do that is because of regulation. They didn’t necessarily choose to do it, but still. Can you imagine if they went, well, actually, we realize that most people are going to drive cars on roads and people driving into walls is an edge case, so we’re not going to worry too much about that?

Now, obviously, you want to hope for the best but you should prepare for the worst. Trent Walton said:

Like cars designed to perform in extreme heat or on icy roads, websites should be built to face the reality of the web’s inherent variability.

The web’s inherent variability, that gets to the heart of it.

Dave Siegel was trying to battle with the pixel-perfect labels was the web’s inherent variability. What John Allsopp was calling was for us to embrace the web’s inherent variability. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Are we engineers? Can we call ourselves engineers? Well, let me tell you something from the world of structural engineering.

This is the plan for the Quebec Bridge in Canada, a cantilever bridge. Construction started at the start of the 20th Century. There was a competition to see who get to design and build a bridge because that’s the way the industry works.

The engineer in charge was named Theodore Cooper. Now, originally, the bridge was meant to be 490 meters long but Theodore Cooper changed the specification to make it 550 meters long, mostly because, up in Scotland, the Firth of Forth Bridge, that was the longest bridge in the world at the time, longest cantilever. He wanted this bridge to exceed that, so he made the bridge longer but he did not recalculate the already high stresses being placed on the material of the bridge.

Oh, also, Theodore Cooper refused to work on site. He was down in New York, supposedly overseeing construction from New York. And when it was proposed that somebody should check his calculations, he took that as a personal afront and said, “No, no, no. No, no, that won’t work,” so there was no code reviews happening on this project.

Now, someone was onsite, the young engineer named Norman McLure. By 1907, August 6th, he had started to notice that the steel was bending, getting a lot of stress. Then again, on August 27th, it had got worse.

Cooper was notified down in New York. He did send a telegram back to Quebec. He said, “Place no more load on Quebec bridge until all facts considered - stop.” But he was inferring that the work should stop. He never explicitly said, “Stop the work right now,” so the telegram was ignored and work continued.

On August 29th, 1907, the bridge collapsed. It was shortly before the end of the day. The whistle was just about to blow to signal the end of the working day. There were 86 workers on the bridge and 75 of them died.

Now, something started happening in Canada a few years after this, by 1925. Engineering schools in Canada started holding private ceremonies around graduation time. This was a ceremony that was separate from qualifications. This wasn’t about whether you were qualified to be an engineer. This was called The Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer. You would speak an obligation penned by Rudyard Kipling, which I won’t repeat here because it’s meant to stay within the confines of this ritual.

You would also receive an iron ring. This iron ring would be a symbol of pride of being an engineer, but also a symbol of humility. For the longest time, the myth persisted that the iron itself was made from the steel in the Quebec Bridge. It’s not true, but the Quebec Bridge certainly looms over the idea of the iron ring. You’d wear it on the little finger of your working hand, so it would brush against the paper or the computer keyboard during your working day as a constant reminder of your responsibility as an engineer.

The iron ring.

When we call ourselves engineers, I do have to ask, have we earned it? Do we take our responsibility seriously?

Maybe we don’t call ourselves engineers, but then what do we call ourselves? Does it even matter?

Builders

Well, we could go back to that original metaphor from the ’90s, under construction. Maybe we’re builders. We build things. The web is under construction. We’re the ones constructing it. It’s not so bad, you know, to be the ones literally building the web. It’s kind of awesome when you think about it.

Christopher Alexander, when he was talking about his reason for coming up with A Pattern Language, was because he said:

Most of the wonderful places in the world were not made by architects but by the people.

Maybe we’re at the bottom of the layer stack here as workers just building the web, but maybe we also have all the power — more power than we realize. Our collective power is greater than anything any architect could wield.

Yeah, maybe we’re builders. Maybe we’re bricklayers. I know Simon comes from a long line of bricklayers. It is a noble profession. Think about what our building blocks are, the building blocks of the World Wide Web.

The World Wide Web, I think, is the next great leap forward. We had language, writing, the printing press, and now hypertext in the form of the Word Wide Web. Who gets to build it? We do with this kind of building block: the URL, a link. What an amazing building block that is.

I can make a webpage and put two links on it linking to two different things. That combination of those two links has never existed before in the history of the web. We’ve created something new, link by link, building block by building block, building in layers.

I’m reminded of an apocryphal story may be from medieval times—who knows—a traveler coming across three workers. All three workers are doing the same thing. They’re building. They’re moving stones. They’re putting stones one on top of the other.

The traveler says to the first builder, “What are you doing?”

He says, “Oh, I’m moving stones.”

He says to the second builder, “What are you doing?” 
He says, “I’m building a wall.”

He says to the third builder, “What are you doing?”

He says, “I’m building a cathedral.”

They’re all doing the same task but thinking about it in different ways. Maybe that’s what we need to do. Forget about labels, metaphors, architecture, engineer, building, whatever. Just think about what a privilege it is to be doing this, to embrace the fact that we are the builders. We are the bricklayers.

Today, for example, we’re going to hear from quite an amazing collection of bricklayers that I’m really looking forward to hearing from. I want to hear what they’re building. I want to hear their stories of how they built it, why they built it.

But to do that, I need to stop moving air over these vocal cords and flapping this fleshy piece of meat around in my mouth and just stop talking. Thank you for listening.

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Wednesday, November 27th, 2019

Why I’m going back to New Adventures | Andrew Travers

The opening of this blog post warned the cockles of my heart:

I have a rule about conferences: go once.

Like all rules, it can be broken — usually when Jeremy Keith is involved — but not often.

Awww! That’s so nice!

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Near miss

When I was travelling across the Atlantic ocean on the Queen Mary 2 back in August, I had the pleasure of attending a series of on-board lectures by Charles Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society.

One of those presentations was on the threat of asteroid impacts—always a fun topic! Charles mentioned Spaceguard, the group that tracks near-Earth objects.

Spaceguard is a pretty cool-sounding name for any organisation. The name comes from a work of (science) fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 book Rendezvous with Rama, Spaceguard is the name of a fictional organisation formed after a devastating asteroid impact on northen Italy—an event which is coincidentally depicted as happening on September 11th. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The impact happens on the first page of the book.

At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky.  Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens—at first in utter silence—it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.

Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged.  They were the lucky ones.

Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.

Later in the same lecture, Charles talked about the Torino scale, which is used to classify the likelihood and severity of impacts. Number 10 on the Torino scale means an impact is certain and that it will be an extinction level event.

Torino—Turin—is in northern Italy. “Wait a minute!”, I thought to myself. “Is this something that’s also named for that opening chapter of Rendezvous with Rama?”

I spoke to Charles about it afterwards, hoping that he might know. But he said, “Oh, I just assumed that a group of scientists got together in Turin when they came up with the scale.”

Being at sea, there was no way to easily verify or disprove the origin story of the Torino scale. Looking something up on the internet would have been prohibitively slow and expensive. So I had to wait until we docked in New York.

On our first morning in the city, Jessica and I popped into a bookstore. I picked up a copy of Rendezvous with Rama and re-read the details of that opening impact on northern Italy. Padua, Venice and Verona are named, but there’s no mention of Turin.

Sure enough, when I checked Wikipedia, the history and naming of the Torino scale was exactly what Charles Barclay surmised:

A revised version of the “Hazard Index” was presented at a June 1999 international conference on NEOs held in Torino (Turin), Italy. The conference participants voted to adopt the revised version, where the bestowed name “Torino Scale” recognizes the spirit of international cooperation displayed at that conference toward research efforts to understand the hazards posed by NEOs.

Monday, October 14th, 2019

The World-Wide Work. — Ethan Marcotte

Here’s the transcript of Ethan’s magnificent closing talk from New Adventures. I’m pretty sure this is the best conference talk I’ve ever had the honour of seeing.

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

Reasons to be Cheerful

The new editorial project from David Byrne, as outlined in his recent Long Now talk.

Through stories of hope, rooted in evidence, Reasons to be Cheerful aims to inspire us all to be curious about how the world can be better, and to ask ourselves how we can be part of that change.

Sunday, September 1st, 2019

Monday, August 19th, 2019

Passenger’s log, Queen Mary 2, August 2019

Passenger’s log, day one: Sunday, August 11, 2019

We took the surprisingly busy train from Brighton to Southampton, with our plentiful luggage in tow. As well as the clothes we’d need for three weeks of hot summer locations in the United States, Jessica and I were also carrying our glad rags for the shipboard frou-frou evenings.

Once the train arrived in Southampton, we transferred our many bags into the back of a taxi and made our way to the terminal. It looked like all the docks were occupied, either with cargo ships, cruise ships, or—in the case of the Queen Mary 2—the world’s last ocean liner to be built.

Check in. Security. Then it was time to bid farewell to dry land as we boarded the ship. We settled into our room—excuse me, stateroom—on the eighth deck. That’s the deck that also has the lifeboats, but our balcony is handily positioned between two boats, giving us a nice clear view.

We’d be sailing in a few hours, so that gave us plenty of time to explore the ship. We grabbed a suprisingly tasty bite to eat in the buffet restaurant, and then went out on deck (the promenade deck is deck seven, just one deck below our room).

It was a blustery day. All weekend, the UK newspaper headlines had been full of dramatic stories of high winds. Not exactly sailing weather. But the Queen Mary 2 is solid, sturdy, and just downright big, so once we were underway, the wind was hardly noticable …indoors. Out on the deck, it could get pretty breezy.

By pure coincidence, we happened to be sailing on a fortuituous day: the meeting of the queens. The Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Victoria, and the Queen Mary 2 were all departing Southampton at the same time. It was a veritable Cunard convoy. With the yacht race on as well, it was a very busy afternoon in the Solent.

We stayed out on the deck as our ship powered out of Southampton, and around the Isle of Wight, passing a refurbished Palmerston sea fort on the way.

Alas, Jessica had a migraine brewing all day, so we weren’t in the mood to dive into any social activities. We had a low-key dinner from the buffet—again, surprisingly tasty—and retired for the evening.

Passenger’s log, day two: Monday, August 12, 2019

Jessica’s migraine passed like a fog bank in the night, and we woke to a bright, blustery day. The Queen Mary 2 was just passing the Scilly Isles, marking the traditional start of an Atlantic crossing.

Breakfast was blissfully quiet and chilled out—we elected to try the somewhat less-trafficked Carinthia lounge; the location of a decent espresso-based coffee (for a price). Then it was time to feed our minds.

We watched a talk on the Bolshoi Ballet, filled with shocking tales of scandal. Here I am on holiday, and I’m sitting watching a presentation as though I were at a conference. The presenter in me approved of some of the stylistic choices: tasteful transitions in Keynote, and suitably legible typography for on-screen quotes.

Soon after that, there was a question-and-answer session with a dance teacher from the English National Ballet. We balanced out the arts with some science by taking a trip to the planetarium, where the dulcet voice of Neil De Grasse Tyson told the tale of dark matter. A malfunctioning projector somewhat tainted the experience, leaving a segment of the dome unilliminated.

It was a full morning of activities, but after lunch, there was just one time and place that mattered: sign ups for the week’s ballet workshops would take place at 3pm on deck two. We wandered by at 2pm, and there was already a line! Jessica quickly took her place in the queue, hoping that she’d make into the workshops, which have a capacity of just 30 people. The line continued to grow. The Cunard staff were clearly not prepared for the level of interest in these ballet workshops. They quickly introduced some emergency measures: this line would only be for the next two day’s workshops, rather than the whole week. So there’d be more queueing later in the week for anyone looking to take more than one workshop.

Anyway, the most important outcome was that Jessica did manage to sign up for a workshop. After all that standing in line, Jessica was ready for a nice sit down so we headed to the area designated for crafters and knitters. As Jessica worked on the knitting project she had brought along, we had our first proper social interactions of the voyage, getting to know the other makers. There was much bonding over the shared love of the excellent Ravelry website.

Next up: a pub quiz at sea in a pub at sea. I ordered the flight of craft beers and we put our heads together for twenty quickfire trivia questions. We came third.

After that, we rested up for a while in our room, before donning our glad rags for the evening’s gala dinner. I bought a tuxedo just for this trip, and now it was time to put it into action. Jessica donned a ballgown. We both looked the part for the black-and-white themed evening.

We headed out for pre-dinner drinks in the ballroom, complete with big band. At one entrance, there was a receiving line to meet the captain. Having had enough of queueing for one day, we went in the other entrance. With glasses of sparkling wine in hand, we surveyed our fellow dressed-up guests who were looking in equal measure dashingly cool and slightly uncomfortable.

After some amusing words from the captain, it was time for dinner. Having missed the proper sit-down dinner the evening before, this was our first time finding out what table we had. We were bracing ourselves for an evening of being sociable, chit-chatting with whoever we’ve been seated with. Your table assignment was the same for the whole week, so you’d better get on well with your tablemates. If you’re stuck with a bunch of obnoxious Brexiteers, tough luck; you just have to suck it up. Much like Brexit.

We were shown to our table, which was …a table for two! Oh, the relief! Even better, we were sitting quite close to the table of ballet dancers. From our table, Jessica could creepily stalk them, and observe them behaving just like mere mortals.

We settled in for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. I opted for an array of pale-coloured foods; cullen skink, followed by seared scallops, accompanied by a Chablis Premier Cru. All this while wearing a bow tie, to the sounds of a string quartet. It felt like peak Titanic.

After dinner, we had a nightcap in the elegant Chart Room bar before calling it a night.

Passenger’s log, day three: Tuesday, August 13

We were woken early by the ship’s horn. This wasn’t the seven-short-and-one-long blast that would signal an emergency. This was more like the sustained booming of a foghorn. In fact, it effectively was a foghorn, because we were in fog.

Below us was the undersea mountain range of the Maxwell Fracture Zone. Outside was a thick Atlantic fog. And inside, we were nursing some slightly sore heads from the previous evening’s intake of wine.

But as a nice bonus, we had an extra hour of sleep. As long as the ship is sailing west, the clocks get put back by an hour every night. Slowly but surely, we’ll get on New York time. Sure beats jetlag.

After a slow start, we sautered downstairs for some breakfast and a decent coffee. Then, to blow out the cobwebs, we walked a circuit of the promenade deck, thereby swapping out bed head for deck head.

It was then time for Jessica and I to briefly part ways. She went to watch the ballet dancers in their morning practice. I went to a lecture by Charlie Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society, and most edifying it was too (I wonder if I can convince him to come down to give a talk at Brighton Astro sometime?).

After the lecture was done, I tracked down Jessica in the theatre, where she was enraptured by the dancers doing their company class. We stayed there as it segued into the dancers doing a dress rehearsal for their upcoming performance. It was fascinating, not least because it was clear that the dancers were having to cope with being on a slightly swaying moving vessel. That got me wondering: has ballet ever been performed on a ship before? For all I know, it might have been a common entertainment back in the golden age of ocean liners.

We slipped out of the dress rehearsal when hunger got the better of us, and we managed to grab a late lunch right before the buffet closed. After that, we decided it was time to check out the dog kennels up on the twelfth deck. There are 24 dogs travelling on the ship. They are all good dogs. We met Dillinger, a good dog on his way to a new life in Vancouver. Poor Dillinger was struggling with the circumstances of the voyage. But it’s better than being in the cargo hold of an airplane.

While we were up there on the top of the ship, we took a walk around the observation deck right above the bridge. The wind made that quite a tricky perambulation.

The rest of our day was quite relaxed. We did the pub quiz again. We got exactly the same score as we did the day before. We had a nice dinner, although this time a tuxedo was not required (but a jacket still was). Lamb for me; beef for Jessica; a bottle of Gigondas for both of us.

After dinner, we retired to our room, putting our clocks and watches back an hour before climbing into bed.

Passenger’s log, day four: Wednesday, August 14, 2019

After a good night’s sleep, we were sauntering towards breakfast when a ship’s announcement was made. This is unusual. Ship’s announcements usually happen at noon, when the captain gives us an update on the journey and our position.

This announcement was dance-related. Contradicting the listed 5pm time, sign-ups for the next ballet workshops would be happening at 9am …which was in 10 minutes time. Registration was on deck two. There we were, examining the breakfast options on deck seven. Cue a frantic rush down the stairwells and across the ship, not helped by me confusing our relative position to fore and aft. But we made it. Jessica got in line, and she was able to register for the workshop she wanted. Crisis averted.

We made our way back up to breakfast, and our daily dose of decent coffee. Then it was time for a lecture that was equally fascinating for me and Jessica. It was Physics En Pointe by Dr. Merritt Moore, ballet dancer and quantum physicist. This was a scene-setting talk, with her describing her life’s journey so far. She’ll be giving more talks throughout the voyage, so I’m hoping for some juicy tales of quantum entanglement (she works in quantum optics, generating entangled photons).

After that, it was time for Jessica’s first workshop. It was a general ballet technique workshop, and they weren’t messing around. I sat off to the side, with a view out on the middle of the Atlantic ocean, tinkering with some code for The Session, while Jessica and the other students were put through their paces.

Then it was time to briefly part ways again. While Jessica went to watch the ballet dancers doing their company class, I was once again attending a lecture by Charles Barclay of the Royal Astronomical Society. This time it was archaeoastronomy …or maybe it was astroarcheology. Either way, it was about how astronomical knowledge was passed on in pre-writing cultures, with a particular emphasis on neolithic sites like Avebury.

When the lecture was done, I rejoined Jessica and we watched the dancers finish their company class. Then it was time for lunch. We ate from the buffet, but deliberately avoided the heavier items, opting for a relatively light salad and sushi combo. This good deed would later be completely undone with a late afternoon cake snack.

We went to one more lecture. Three in one day! It really is like being at a conference. This one, by John Cooper, was on the Elizabethan settlers of Roanoke Island. So in one day, I managed to get a dose of history, science, and culture.

With the day’s workshops and lectures done, it was once again time to put on our best garb for the evening’s gala dinner. All tux’d up, I escorted Jessica downstairs. Tonight was the premier of the ballet performance. But before that, we wandered around drinking champagne and looking fabulous. I even sat at an otherwise empty blackjack table and promptly lost some money. I was a rubbish gambler, but—and this is important—I was a rubbish gambler wearing a tuxedo.

We got good seats for the ballet and settled in for an hour’s entertainment. There were six pieces, mostly classical. Some Swan Lake, some Nutcracker, and some Le Corsaire. But there was also something more modern in there—a magnificent performance from Akram Khan’s Dust. We had been to see Dust at Sadlers Wells, but I had forgotten quite how powerful it is.

After the performance, we had a quick cocktail, and then dinner. The sommelier is getting chattier and chattier with us each evening. I think he approves of our wine choices. This time, we left the vineyards of France, opting for a Pinot Noir from Central Otago.

After one or two nightcaps, we went back to our cabin and before crashing out, we set our clocks back an hour.

Passenger’s log, day five: Thursday, August 15, 2019

We woke to another foggy morning. The Queen Mary 2 was now sailing through the shallower waters of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Closer and closer to North America.

This would be my fifth day with virtually no internet access. I could buy WiFi internet access at exorbitant satellite prices, but I hadn’t felt any need to do that. I could also get a maritime mobile phone signal—very slow and very expensive.

I’ve been keeping my phone in airplane mode. Once a day, I connect to the mobile network and check just one website— thesession.org—just to make sure nothing’s on fire there. Fortunately, because I made the site, I know that the data transfer will be minimal. Each page of HTML is between 30K and 90K. There are no images to speak of. And because I’ve got the site’s service worker installed on my phone, I know that CSS and JavaScript is coming straight from a cache.

I’m not missing Twitter. I’m certainly not missing email. The only thing that took some getting used to was not being able to look things up. On the first few days of the crossing, both Jessica and I found ourselves reaching for our phones to look up something about ships or ballet or history …only to remember that we were enveloped in a fog of analogue ignorance, with no sign of terra firma digitalis.

It makes the daily quiz quite challenging. Every morning, twenty questions are listed on sheets of paper that appear at the entrance to the library. This library, by the way, is the largest at sea. As Jessica noted, you can tell a lot about the on-board priorities when the ship’s library is larger than the ship’s casino.

Answers to the quiz are to be handed in by 4pm. In the event of a tie, the team who hands in their answers earliest wins. You’re not supposed to use the internet, but you are positively encouraged to look up answers in the library. Jessica and I have been enjoying this old-fashioned investigative challenge.

With breakfast done before 9am, we had a good hour to spend in the library researching answers to the day’s quiz before Jessica needed to be at her 10am ballet workshop. Jessica got started with the research, but I quickly nipped downstairs to grab a couple of tickets for the planetarium show later that day.

Tickets for the planetarium shows are released every morning at 9am. I sauntered downstairs and arrived at the designated ticket-release location a few minutes before nine, where I waited for someone to put the tickets out. When no tickets appeared five minutes after nine, I wasn’t too worried. But when there were still no tickets at ten past nine, I grew concerned. By quarter past nine, I was getting a bit miffed. Had someone forgotten their planetarium ticket duties?

I found a crewmember at a nearby desk and asked if anyone was going to put out planetarium tickets. No, I was told. The tickets all went shortly after 9am. But I’ve been here since before 9am, I said! Then it dawned on me. The ship’s clocks didn’t go back last night after all. We just assumed they did, and dutifully changed our watches and phones accordingly.

Oh, crap—Jessica’s workshop! I raced back up five decks to the library where Jessica was perusing reference books at her leisure. I told her the bad news. We dashed down to the workshop ballroom anyway, but of course the class was now well underway. After all the frantic dashing and patient queueing that Jessica did yesterday to scure her place on the workshop! Our plans for the day were undone by our being too habitual with our timepieces. No ballet workshop. No planetarium show. I felt like such an idiot.

Well, we still had a full day of activities. There was a talk with ballet dancer, James Streeter (during which we found out that the captain had deployed all the ships stabilisers during the previous evening’s performance). We once again watched the ballet dancers doing their company class for an hour and a half. We went for afternoon tea, complete with string quartet and beautiful view out on the ocean, now mercifully free of fog.

We attended another astronomy lecture, this time on eclipses. But right before the lecture was about to begin, there was a ship-wide announcement. It wasn’t midday, so this had to be something unusual. The captain informed us that a passenger was seriously ill, and the Canadian coastguard was going to attempt a rescue. The ship was diverting closer to Newfoundland to get in helicopter range. The helicopter wouldn’t be landing, but instead attempting a tricky airlift in about twenty minutes time. And so we were told to literally clear the decks. I assume the rescue was successful, and I hope the patient recovers.

After that exciting interlude, things returned to normal. The lecture on eclipses was great, focusing in particular on the magificent 2017 solar eclipse across America.

It’s funny—Jessica and I are on this crossing because it was a fortunate convergence of ballet and being on a ship. And in 2017 we were in Sun Valley, Idaho because of a fortunate convergence of ballet and experiencing a total eclipse of the sun.

I’m starting to sense a theme here.

Anyway, after all the day’s dancing and talks were done, we sat down to dinner, where Jessica could once again surreptitiously spy on the dancers at a nearby table. We cemented our bond with the sommelier by ordering a bottle of the excellent Lebanese Château Musar.

When we got back to our room, there was a note waiting for us. It was an invitation for Jessica to take part in the next day’s ballet workshop! And, looking at the schedule for the next day, there was going to be repeats of the planetarium shows we missed today. All’s well that ends well.

Before going to bed, we did not set our clocks back.

Passenger’s log, day six: Friday, August 16, 2019

This morning was balletastic:

  • Jessica’s ballet workshop.
  • Watching the ballet dancers doing their company class.
  • Watching a rehearsal of the ballet performance.

The workshop was quite something. Jennie Harrington—who retired from dancing with Dust—took the 30 or so attendees through some of the moves from Akram Khan’s masterpiece. It looked great!

While all this was happening inside the ship, the weather outside was warming up. As we travel further south, the atmosphere is getting balmier. I spent an hour out on a deckchair, dozing and reading.

At one point, a large aircraft buzzed us—the Canadian coastguard perhaps? We can’t be that far from land. I think we’re still in international waters, but these waters have a Canadian accent.

After soaking up the salty sea air out on the bright deck, I entered the darkness of the planetarium, having successfully obtained tickets that morning by not having my watch on a different time to the rest of the ship.

That evening, there was a gala dinner with a 1920s theme. Jessica really looked the part—like a real flapper. I didn’t really make an effort. I just wore my tuxedo again. It was really fun wandering the ship and seeing all the ornate outfits, especially during the big band dance after dinner. I felt like I was in a photo on the wall of the Overlook Hotel.

Dressed for the 1920s.

Passenger’s log, day seven: Saturday, August 17, 2019

Today was the last full day of the voyage. Tomorrow we disembark.

We had a relaxed day, with the usual activities: a lecture or two; sitting in on the ballet company class.

Instead of getting a buffet lunch, we decided to do a sit-down lunch in the restaurant. That meant sitting at a table with other people, which could’ve been awkward, but turned out to be fine. But now that we’ve done the small talk, that’s probably all our social capital used up.

The main event today was always going to be the reprise and final performance from the English National Ballet. It was an afternoon performance this time. It was as good, if not better, the second time around. Bravo!

Best of all, after the performance, Jessica got to meet James Streeter and Erina Takahashi. Their performance from Dust was amazing, and we gushed with praise. They were very gracious and generous with their time. Needless to say, Jessica was very, very happy.

Shortly before the ballet performance, the captain made another unscheduled announcement. This time it was about a mechanical issue. There was a potential fault that needed to be investigated, which required stopping the ship for a while. Good news for the ballet dancers!

Jessica and I spent some time out on the deck while the ship was stopped. It’s was a lot warmer out there compared to just a day or two before. It was quite humid too—that’ll help us start to acclimatise for New York.

We could tell that we were getting closer to land. There are more ships on the horizon. From the amount of tankers we saw today, the ship must have passed close to a shipping lane.

We’re going to have a very early start tomorrow—although luckily the clocks will go back an hour again. So we did as much of our re-packing as we could this evening.

With the packing done, we still had some time to kill before dinner. We wandered over to the swanky Commodore Club cocktail bar at the fore of the ship. Our timing was perfect. There were two free seats positioned right by a window looking out onto the beautiful sunset we were sailing towards. The combination of ocean waves, gorgeous sunset, and very nice drinks ensured we were very relaxed when we made our way down to dinner.

Sailing into the sunset.

At the entrance of the dining hall—and at the entrance of any food-bearing establishment on board—there are automatic hand sanitiser dispensers. And just in case the automated solution isn’t enough, there’s also a person standing there with a bottle of hand sanitiser, catching your eye and just daring you to refuse an anti-bacterial benediction. As the line of smartly dressed guests enters the restaurant, this dutiful dispenser of cleanliness anoints the hands of each one; a priest of hygiene delivering a slightly sticky sacrament.

The paranoia is justified. A ship is a potential petri dish at sea. In my hometown of Cobh in Ireland, the old cemetery is filled with the bodies of foreign sailors whose ships were quarantined in the harbour at the first sign of cholera or smallpox. While those diseases aren’t likely to show up on the Queen Mary 2, if norovirus were to break out on the ship, it could potentially spread quickly. Hence the war on hand-based microbes.

Maybe it’s because I’ve just finished reading Ed Yong’s excellent book I contain multitudes, but I can’t help but wonder about our microbiomes on board this ship. Given enough time, would the microbiomes of the passengers begin to sync up? Maybe on a longer voyage, but this crossing almost certainly doesn’t afford enough time for gut synchronisation. This crossing is almost done.

Passenger’s log, day eight: Sunday, August 18, 2019

Jessica and I got up at 4:15am. This is an extremely unusual occurance for us. But we were about to experience something very out of the ordinary.

We dressed, looked unsuccessfully for coffee, and made our way on to the observation deck at the top of the ship. Land ho! The lights of New Jersey were shining off the port side of the ship. The lights of long island were shining off the starboard side. And dead ahead was the string of lights marking the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

The Queen Mary 2 was deliberately designed to pass under this bridge …just. The bridge has a clearance of 228 feet. The Queen Mary 2 is 236.2 feet, keel to funnel. That’s a difference of just 8.2 feet. Believe me, that doesn’t look like much when you’re on the top deck of the ship, standing right by the tallest mast.

The distant glow of New York was matched by the more localised glow of mobile phone screens on the deck. Passengers took photos constantly. Sometimes they took photos with flash, demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of how you photograph distant objects.

The distant object that everyone was taking pictures of was getting less and less distant. The Statue of Liberty was coming up on our port side.

I probably should’ve felt more of a stirring at the sight of this iconic harbour sculpture. The familiarity of its image might have dulled my appreciation. But not far from the statue was a dark area, one of the few pieces of land without lights. This was Ellis Island. If the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of welcome for your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, then Ellis Island was where the immigration rubber met the administrative road. This was where countless Irish migrants first entered the United States of America, bringing with them their songs, their stories, and their unhealthy appreciation for potatoes.

Before long, the sun was rising and the Queen Mary 2 was parallel parking at the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn. We went back belowdecks and gathered our bags from our room. Rather than avail of baggage assistance—which would require us to wait a few hours before disembarking—we opted for “self help” dismembarkation. Shortly after 7am, our time on board the Queen Mary 2 was at an end. We were in the first group of passengers off the ship, and we sailed through customs and immigration.

Within moments of being back on dry land, we were in a cab heading for our hotel in Tribeca. The cab driver took us over the Brooklyn Bridge, explaining along the way how a cash payment would really be better for everyone in this arrangement. I didn’t have many American dollars, but after a bit of currency haggling, we agreed that I could give him the last of the Canadian dollars I had in my wallet from my recent trip to Vancouver. He’s got family in Canada, so this is a win-win situation.

It being a Sunday morning, there was no traffic to speak of. We were at our hotel in no time. I assumed we wouldn’t be able to check in for hours, but at least we’d be able to leave our bags there. I was pleasantly surprised when I was told that they had a room available! We checked in, dropped our bags, and promptly went in search of coffee and breakfast. We were tired, sure, but we had no jetlag. That felt good.

I connected to the hotel’s WiFi and went online for the first time in eight days. I had a lot of spam to delete, mostly about cryptocurrencies. I was back in the 21st century.

After a week at sea, where the empty horizon was visible in all directions, I was now in a teeming mass of human habitation where distant horizons are rare indeed. After New York, I’ll be heading to Saint Augustine in Florida, then Chicago, and finally Boston. My arrival into Manhattan marks the beginning of this two week American odyssey. But this also marks the end of my voyage from Southampton to New York, and with it, this passenger’s log.

Monday, July 1st, 2019

Curating A Design System Newsletter

Some time ago I was going through the backlog of around 90 unread articles on Design Systems. About 80 of those were Medium articles and about 40 of those took me to either their user-hostile “you ready a lot and we like that” pop-up or their money-grabbing “you’ve read lots this month, pay us to read some more.”, it turns out that Medium only likes you reading things when you give money to do so.

Therefore I’ve started to add a little warning notice to each article that’s on Medium.

Friday, May 31st, 2019

The World-Wide Work

I’ve been to a lot of events and I’ve seen a lot of talks. I find that, even after all this time, I always get something out of every presentation I see. Kudos to anyone who’s got the guts to get up on stage and share their thoughts.

But there are some talks that are genuinely special. When they come along, it’s a real privilege to be in the room. Wilson’s talk, When We Build was one of those moments. There are some others that weren’t recorded, but will always stay with me.

Earlier this year, I had the great honour of opening the New Adventures conference in Nottingham. I definitely felt a lot of pressure, and I did my utmost to set the scene for the day. The final talk of the day was delivered by my good friend Ethan. He took it to another level.

Like I said at the time:

Look, I could gush over how good Ethan’s talk was, or try to summarise it, but there’s really no point. I’ll just say that I felt the same sense of being present at something genuinely important that I felt when I was in the room for his original responsive web design talk at An Event Apart back in 2010. When the video is released, you really must watch it.

Well, the video has been released and you really must watch it. Don’t multitask. Don’t fast forward. Set aside some time and space, and then take it all in.

The subject matter, the narrative structure, the delivery, and the message come together in a unique way.

If, having watched the presentation, you want to dive deeper into any of Ethan’s references, check out the reading list that accompanies the talk.

I mentioned that I felt under pressure to deliver a good opener for New Adventures. I know that Ethan was really feeling the pressure too. He needn’t have worried. He delivered one of the best conference talks I’ve ever seen.

Thank you, Ethan.

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

Can “Indie” Social Media Save Us? | The New Yorker

This is a really great, balanced profile of the Indie Web movement. There’s thoughtful criticism alongside some well-deserved praise:

If we itemize the woes currently afflicting the major platforms, there’s a strong case to be made that the IndieWeb avoids them. When social-media servers aren’t controlled by a small number of massive public companies, the incentive to exploit users diminishes. The homegrown, community-oriented feel of the IndieWeb is superior to the vibe of anxious narcissism that’s degrading existing services.

The Training Commission

Coming to your inbox soon:

The Training Commission is a speculative fiction email newsletter about the compromises and consequences of using technology to reckon with collective trauma. Several years after a period of civil unrest and digital blackouts in the United States, a truth and reconciliation process has led to a major restructuring of the federal government, major tech companies, and the criminal justice system.

Monday, May 20th, 2019

Science Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian | The New Yorker

Ted Chiang has new collection out‽ Why did nobody tell me‽

Okay, well, technically this is Joyce Carol Oates telling me. In any case …woo-hoo!!!

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

A Public Record at Risk: The Dire State of News Archiving in the Digital Age - Columbia Journalism Review

This well-researched in-depth piece doesn’t paint a pretty picture for archiving online news:

Of the 21 news organizations in our study, 19 were not taking any protective steps at all to archive their web output. The remaining two lacked formal strategies to ensure that their current practices have the kind of longevity to outlast changes in technology.

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

Sadly, this is not The Onion

It’s not funny, cause it’s true.

Friday, February 22nd, 2019

n-gate.com. we can’t both be right.

Hacker News is an echo chamber focusing on computer posturing and self-aggrandizement. It is run by Paul Graham’s investment fund and sociopath incubator, Y Combinator.

There’s never been any reason to visit Hacker News, but now you really don’t need to ever go there. This site posts a weekly roundup, complete with commentary that’s even more snarky than Hacker News.

Here’s a fairly typical summary of a fairly typical thread:

A programmer at a spamhouse is transported to a world where people are not judged by the color scheme of their Atom window, but by the character assessment and culture fit reports they write about potential new hires. Hackernews spends a lot of time discussing how to bullshit people like the author into hiring them. A few Hackernews struggle with the knowledge that there are people who contribute to business without involving Git. Furious debates about “title inflation” break out amongst people who type javascript into computers and straight-facedly refer to themselves as “engineers”.

Oh, and I love the “about” page.

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

Oh God, It’s Raining Newsletters — by Craig Mod

After musing on newsletters, Craig shares how he’s feeling about Instagram and its ilk:

Instagram will only get more complex, less knowable, more algorithmic, more engagement-hungry in 2019.

I’ve found this cycle has fomented another emotion beyond distrust, one I’ve felt most acutely in 2018: Disdain? (Feels too loaded.) Disappointment? (Too moralistic.) Wariness? (Yes!) Yes — wariness over the way social networks and the publishing platforms they provide shift and shimmy beneath our feet, how the algorithms now show posts of X quality first, or then Y quality first, or how, for example, Instagram seems to randomly show you the first image of a multi-image sequence or, no wait, the second.8

I try to be deliberate, and social networks seem more and more to say: You don’t know what you want, but we do. Which, to someone who, you know, gives a shit, is pretty dang insulting.

Wariness is insidious because it breeds weariness. A person can get tired just opening an app these days. Unpredictable is the last thing a publishing platform should be but is exactly what these social networks become. Which can make them great marketing tools, but perhaps less-than-ideal for publishing.

Friday, February 1st, 2019

New Adventures 2019 | Part Two: Progressive Web | Abstrakt

Here’s a thorough blow-by-blow account of the workshop I ran in Nottingham last week:

Jeremy’s workshop was a fascinating insight into resilience and how to approach a web project with ubiquity and consistency in mind from both a design and development point of view.

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

New Adventures 2019

My trip to Nottingham for the New Adventures conference went very well indeed.

First of all, I had an all-day workshop to run. I was nervous. Because I no longer prepare slides for workshops—and instead rely on exercises and discussions—I always feel like I’m winging it. I’m not winging it, but without the security blanket of a slide deck, I don’t have anything to fall back on.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The workshop went great. Well, I thought it went great but you’d really have to ask the attendees to know for sure. One of the workshop participants, Westley Knight, wrote about his experience:

The workshop itself was fluid enough to cater to the topics that the attendees were interested in; from over-arching philosophy to technical detail around service workers and new APIs. It has helped me to understand that learning in this kind of environment doesn’t have to be rigorously structured, and can be shaped as the day progresses.

(By the way, if you’d like me to run this workshop at your company, get in touch.)

With the workshop done, it was time for me to freak out fully about my conference talk. I was set to open the show. No pressure.

Actually, I felt pretty damn good about what I had been preparing for the past few months (it takes me aaages to put a talk together), but I always get nervous about presenting new material—until I’ve actually given the talk in front of a real audience, I don’t actually know if it’s any good or not.

Clare was speaking right after me, but she was having some technical issues. It’s funny; as soon as she had a problem, I immediately switched modes from conference speaker to conference organiser. Instead of being nervous, I flipped into being calm and reassuring, getting Clare’s presentation—and fonts—onto my laptop, and making sure her talk would go as smoothly as possible (it did!).

My talk went down well. The audience was great. Everyone paid attention, laughed along with the jokes, and really listened to what I was trying to say. For a speaker, you can’t ask for better than that. And people said very nice things about the talk afterwards. Sam Goddard wrote about how it resonated with him.

Wearing my eye-watering loud paisley shirt on stage at New Adventures.

You can peruse the slides from my presentation but they make very little sense out of context. But video of the talk is forthcoming.

The advantage to being on first was that I got my talk over with at the start of the day. Then I could relax and enjoy all the other talks. And enjoy them I did! I think all of the speakers were feeling the same pressure I was, and everybody brought their A-game. There were some recurring themes throughout the day: responsibility; hope; diversity; inclusion.

So New Adventures was already an excellent event by the time we got to Ethan, who was giving the closing talk. His talk elevated the day into something truly sublime.

Look, I could gush over how good Ethan’s talk was, or try to summarise it, but there’s really no point. I’ll just say that I felt the same sense of being present at something genuinely important that I felt when I was in the room for his original responsive web design talk at An Event Apart back in 2010. When the video is released, you really must watch it. In the meantime, you can read through the articles and books that Ethan cited in his presentation.

New Adventures 2019 was worth attending just for that one talk. I was very grateful I had the opportunity to attend, and I still can’t quite believe that I also had the opportunity to speak.

Sunday, January 27th, 2019

The Return of New Adventures

Westley came along to my workshop at New Adventures …and liked it! (phew!)

I have long been a proponent of progressive enhancement on the web, perhaps before I knew the true value of it to the people that use the things we build for the web, but Jeremy has always been able to expand my understanding of its importance in the wider scope of things, how it inherently builds resilience into your products, and how it makes it more widely available to people across the world, in vastly different scenarios. The workshop itself was fluid enough to cater to the topics that the attendees were interested in; from over-arching philosophy to technical detail around service workers and new APIs. It has helped me to understand that learning in this kind of environment doesn’t have to be rigorously structured, and can be shaped as the day progresses.

Read on to discover how I incorporated time travel into the day’s activities.