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Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Just enough Internet | doteveryone

The carbon cost of collecting and storing data no one can use is already a moral issue.

So before you add another field, let alone make a new service, can you be sure it will make enough of a difference to legitimise its impact on the planet?

Saturday, November 23rd, 2019

Save .ORG | SaveDotOrg.org

I’ve signed this letter.

Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

2019 End-of-Year Thoughts Archives | CSS-Tricks

I’m really enjoying this end-of-the-year round-up from people speaking their brains. It’s not over yet, but there’s already a lot of thoughtful stuff to read through.

There are optimistic hopeful thoughts from Sam and from Ire:

Only a few years ago, I would need a whole team of developers to accomplish what can now be done with just a few amazing tools.

And I like this zinger from Geoff:

HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: it’s still the best cocktail in town.

Then there are more cautious prognostications from Dave and from Robin:

The true beauty of web design is that you can pick up HTML, CSS, and the basics of JavaScript within a dedicated week or two. But over the past year, I’ve come to the conclusion that building a truly great website doesn’t require much skill and it certainly doesn’t require years to figure out how to perform the coding equivalent of a backflip.

What you need to build a great website is restraint.

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

Mental models

I’ve found that the older I get, the less I care about looking stupid. This is remarkably freeing. I no longer have any hesitancy about raising my hand in a meeting to ask “What’s that acronym you just mentioned?” This sometimes has the added benefit of clarifying something for others in the room who might have been to shy to ask.

I remember a few years back being really confused about npm. Fortunately, someone who was working at npm at the time came to Brighton for FFConf, so I asked them to explain it to me.

As I understood it, npm was intended to be used for managing packages of code for Node. Wasn’t it actually called “Node Package Manager” at one point, or did I imagine that?

Anyway, the mental model I had of npm was: npm is to Node as PEAR is to PHP. A central repository of open source code projects that you could easily add to your codebase …for your server-side code.

But then I saw people talking about using npm to manage client-side JavaScript. That really confused me. That’s why I was asking for clarification.

It turns out that my confusion was somewhat warranted. The npm project had indeed started life as a repo for server-side code but had since expanded to encompass client-side code too.

I understand how it happened, but it confirmed a worrying trend I had noticed. Developers were writing front-end code as though it were back-end code.

On the one hand, that makes total sense when you consider that the code is literally in the same programming language: JavaScript.

On the other hand, it makes no sense at all! If your code’s run-time is on the server, then the size of the codebase doesn’t matter that much. Whether it’s hundreds or thousands of lines of code, the execution happens more or less independentally of the network. But that’s not how front-end development works. Every byte matters. The more code you write that needs to be executed on the user’s device, the worse the experience is for that user. You need to limit how much you’re using the network. That means leaning on what the browser gives you by default (that’s your run-time environment) and keeping your code as lean as possible.

Dave echoes my concerns in his end-of-the-year piece called The Kind of Development I Like:

I now think about npm and wonder if it’s somewhat responsible for some of the pain points of modern web development today. Fact is, npm is a server-side technology that we’ve co-opted on the client and I think we’re feeling those repercussions in the browser.

Writing back-end and writing front-end code require very different approaches, in my opinion. But those differences have been erased in “modern” JavaScript.

The Unix Philosophy encourages us to write small micro libraries that do one thing and do it well. The Node.js Ecosystem did this in spades. This works great on the server where importing a small file has a very small cost. On the client, however, this has enormous costs.

In a funny way, this situation reminds me of something I saw happening over twenty years ago. Print designers were starting to do web design. They had a wealth of experience and knowledge around colour theory, typography, hierarchy and contrast. That was all very valuable to bring to the world of the web. But the web also has fundamental differences to print design. In print, you can use as many typefaces as you want, whereas on the web, to this day, you need to be judicious in the range of fonts you use. But in print, you might have to limit your colour palette for cost reasons (depending on the printing process), whereas on the web, colours are basically free. And then there’s the biggest difference of all: working within known dimensions of a fixed page in print compared to working within the unknowable dimensions of flexible viewports on the web.

Fast forward to today and we’ve got a lot of Computer Science graduates moving into front-end development. They’re bringing with them a treasure trove of experience in writing robust scalable code. But web browsers aren’t like web servers. If your back-end code is getting so big that it’s starting to run noticably slowly, you can throw more computing power at it by scaling up your server. That’s not an option on the front-end where you don’t really have one run-time environment—your end users have their own run-time environment with its own constraints around computing power and network connectivity.

That’s a very, very challenging world to get your head around. The safer option is to stick to the mental model you’re familiar with, whether you’re a print designer or a Computer Science graduate. But that does a disservice to end users who are relying on you to deliver a good experience on the World Wide Web.

The GitHub Archive Program will safely store every public GitHub repo for 1,000 years in the Arctic World Archive in Svalbard, Norway.

This is a fascinating project from Github, the Long Now Foundation, the Internet Archive, the Bodleian Library and others. All of the public code on Github on February 2nd, 2020 will be archived for 1000 years in a vault in Svalbard.

Mind you, given the amount of dependencies that most “modern” code projects rely on, I can’t foresee the code working after 1000 days.

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

Firefox’s fight for the future of the web | Technology | The Guardian

A good overview of the unfair playing field of web browsers, dominated by the monopolistic practices by Google and Apple.

Mozilla is no longer fighting for market share of its browser: it is fighting for the future of the web.

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

Morphosis: Goliath, David, Adam

A biblical short story from Adam Roberts.

The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising - The Correspondent

The benchmarks that advertising companies use — intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed — are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).

It gets worse: the brightest minds of this generation are creating algorithms which only increase the effects of selection.

A terrificly well-written piece on the emperor’s new clothes worn by online advertising. Equal parts economic rigour and Gladwellian anecdata, it’s a joy to read! Kudos to Alana Gillespie for the great translation work (the original article was written in Dutch).

We currently assume that advertising companies always benefit from more data. … But the majority of advertising companies feed their complex algorithms silos full of data even though the practice never delivers the desired result. In the worst case, all that invasion of privacy can even lead to targeting the wrong group of people.

This insight is conspicuously absent from the debate about online privacy. At the moment, we don’t even know whether all this privacy violation works as advertised.

The interaction design of this article is great too—annotations, charts, and more!

Web Layers Of Pace

How cool is this!!?

Tom took one of the core ideas from my talk at Beyond Tellerrand and turned it into this animated CodePen!

Monday, November 11th, 2019

Cat encounters

The latest episode of Ariel’s excellent Offworld video series (and podcast) is all about Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.

Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.

This is a timely discussion. There’s a new book by Daniel Oberhaus published by MIT Press called Extraterrestrial Languages:

If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?

You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:

Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.

Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.

It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.

But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.

The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:

  1. Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
  2. Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.

This is the raycat solution.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Jotter

Here’s a super simple little note-taking app from Andy that works offline. Add to your home screen and away you go:

Jotter is a helpful little notepad that’ll save your notes offline, automatically for you as you type.

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.

Stab a Book, the Book Won’t Die — by Craig Mod

Craig compares and contrasts books to “attention monsters”:

That is, any app / service / publication whose business is predicated on keeping a consumer engaged and re-engaged for the benefit of the organization (often to the detriment of the mental and physical health of the user), dozens if not hundreds or thousands of times a day.

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

The web is not dying | Go Make Things

A counterpart to the piece by Baldur that I linked to yesterday:

There are many challenges to face as the web grows.

Most of them are people problems. Habits. Inertia. A misalignment of priorities with user needs. Those can be overcome.

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

The Web Falls Apart – Baldur Bjarnason

This isn’t a “the web is doomed, DOOMED, I tells ya” kind of blog post. It’s more in the “the web in its current form isn’t sustainable and will collapse into a simpler, more sustainable form, possibly several” genre.

Baldur points to the multiple causes of the web’s current quagmire.

I honestly have no idea on how to mitigate this harm or even how long the decline is going to take. My hope is that if we can make the less complex, more distributed aspects of the web safer and more robust, they will be more likely to thrive when the situation has forced the web as a whole to break up and simplify.

Monday, October 28th, 2019

Silent push for the web

After Indie Web Camp in Berlin last year, I wrote about Seb’s nifty demo of push without notifications:

While I’m very unwilling to grant permission to be interrupted by intrusive notifications, I’d be more than willing to grant permission to allow a website to silently cache timely content in the background. It would be a more calm technology.

Phil Nash left a comment on the Medium copy of my post explaining that Seb’s demo of using the Push API without showing a notification wouldn’t work for long:

The browsers allow a certain number of mistakes(?) before they start to show a generic notification to say that your site sent a push notification without showing a notification. I believe that after ~10 or so notifications, and that’s different between browsers, they run out of patience.

He also provided me with the name to describe what I’m after:

You’re looking for “silent push” as are many others.

Silent push is something that is possible in native apps. It isn’t (yet?) available on the web, presumably because of security concerns.

It’s an API that would ripe for abuse. I mean, just look at the mess we’ve made with APIs like notifications and geolocation. Sure, they require explicit user opt-in, but these opt-ins are seen so often that users are sick of seeing them. Silent push would be one more permission-based API to add to the stack of annoyances.

Still, I’d really like silent push for the web—the ability to update a cache with fresh content as soon as it’s published; that would be nifty! At the same time, I understand the concerns. It feels more powerful than other permission-based APIs like notifications.

Maybe there could be another layer of permissions. What if adding a site to your home screen was the first step? If a site is running on HTTPS, has a service worker, has a web app manifest, and has been added to the homescreen, maybe then and only then should it be allowed to prompt for permission to do silent push.

In other words, what if certain very powerful APIs were only available to progressive web apps that have successfully been added to the home screen?

Frankly, I’d be happy if the same permissions model applied to web notifications too, but I guess that ship has sailed.

Anyway, all this is pure conjecture on my part. As far as I know, silent push isn’t on the roadmap for any of the browser vendors right now. That’s fair enough. Although it does annoy me that native apps have this capability that web sites don’t.

It used to be that there was a long list of features that only native apps could do, but that list has grown shorter and shorter. The web’s hare is catching up to native’s tortoise.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

2001 A Space Odyssey, Epilogue. Featuring Frank Poole on Vimeo

This is quite a beautiful homage to Kubrick’s masterpiece.

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

Jeremy Keith & Remy Sharp - How We Built the World Wide Web in Five Days on Vimeo

Here’s the talk that Remy and I gave at Fronteers in Amsterdam, all about our hack week at CERN. We’re both really pleased with how this turned out and we’d love to give it again!

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.

Thursday, October 3rd, 2019

A Modern CSS Reset - Andy Bell

Some very smart ideas in here for resetting default browser styles, like only resetting lists that have classes applied to them:

ul[class],
ol[class] {
  padding: 0;
}

I select only lists that do have a class attribute because if a plain ol’ <ul> or <ol> gets used, I want it to look like a list. A lot of resets, including my previous ones, aggressively remove that.