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Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

as days pass by — Browsers are not rendering engines

You see, diversity of rendering engines isn’t actually in itself the point. What’s really important is diversity of influence: who has the ability to make decisions which shape the web in particular ways, and do they make those decisions for good reasons or not so good?

Stuart responds to a post from Brian that was riffing off a post of mine from a while back. I like this kind of social network.

Today’s Javascript, from an outsider’s perspective | Lea Verou

This is a damning and all-too typical example of what it’s like for someone to trying to get to grips with the current state of the JavaScript ecosystem:

Note that John is a computer scientist that knows a fair bit about the Web: He had Node & npm installed, he knew what MIME types are, he could start a localhost when needed. What hope do actual novices have?

I think it’s even worse than that. Not only are potential new devs being put off ever getting started, I know plenty of devs with experience who have pushed out by the overwhelming and needless complexity of the modern web’s toolchain. It’s like a constant gaslighting where any expression of unease is summarily dismissed as being the whinings of “the old guard” who just won’t get with the programme.

John gives up. Concludes never to touch Node, npm, or ES6 modules with a barge pole.

The End.

(Just watch as Lea’s post gets written off as an edge case.)

Monday, May 25th, 2020

Playing The Butterfly (slip jig) by Tommy Potts on bouzouki:

https://thesession.org/tunes/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9f_FnQwqcs

Friday, May 15th, 2020

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

Why we at $FAMOUS_COMPANY Switched to $HYPED_TECHNOLOGY

Ultimately, however, our decision to switch was driven by our difficulty in hiring new talent for $UNREMARKABLE_LANGUAGE, despite it being taught in dozens of universities across the United States. Our blog posts on $PRACTICAL_OPEN_SOURCE_FRAMEWORK seemed to get fewer upvotes when posted on Reddit as well, cementing our conviction that our technology stack was now legacy code.

This is all just mwah—chef’s kiss!—perfect:

Every metric that matters to us has increased substantially from the rewrite, and we even identified some that were no longer relevant to us, such as number of bugs, user frustration, and maintenance cost.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

The History of the Future

It me:

Although some communities have listed journalists as “essential workers,” no one claims that status for the keynote speaker. The “work” of being a keynote speaker feels even more ridiculous than usual these days.

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

Is it time for a Web Performance rebrand? – Simon Hearne

I think Simon is onto something here. While the word “performance” means something amongst devs, it’s too vague to be useful when communicating with other disciplines. I like the idea of using the more descriptive “page speed” or “site speed” in those situations.

Web Performance and Web Performance Optimization are still valid and descriptive terms for our industry, but we might benefit from a change to our language when working with others. The language we use could be critical to the success of making the web a faster and more accessible place.

Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

The Coronavirus and Our Future | The New Yorker

Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now.

Kim Stanley Robinson knows the score:

Margaret Thatcher said that “there is no such thing as society,” and Ronald Reagan said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” These stupid slogans marked the turn away from the postwar period of reconstruction and underpin much of the bullshit of the past forty years.

Tuesday, April 28th, 2020

Late weeknotes 024 - Attitude of Ingratitude

This might be the most insightful thing that Dan has written since his seminal 2013 Medium article:

The problem with Scrappy Doo, isn’t that he’s annoying, which he is, but that the ghosts suddenly became real, which is an afront to science.

I know this hot-take is about 40 years old, but I’ve been bottling it up.

Friday, April 17th, 2020

What’s in a name? | Sarah Higley

This is a terrific explanation of the concept of accessible names in HTML, written with verve and style!

Contrary to what you may think, naming an element involves neither a birth certificate nor the HTML name attribute. The name attribute is never directly exposed to the user, and is used only when submitting forms. Birth certificates have thus far been ignored by spec authors as a potential method for naming controls, but perhaps when web UI becomes sentient and self-propagating, we’ll need to revisit that.

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

It was 20 years ago today… - Web Directions

John’s article, A Dao Of Web Design, is twenty years old. If anything, it’s more relevant today than when it was written.

Here, John looks back on those twenty years, and forward to the next twenty…

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

The Cuneiform Tablets of 2015 [PDF]

A 2015 paper by Long Tien Nguyen and Alan Kay with a proposal for digital preservation.

We discuss the problem of running today’s software decades,centuries, or even millennia into the future.

Monday, April 6th, 2020

6, 95: Barrel aged

Human consciousness is the most astonishing thing, and most of it happened in deep time, beyond the reach of any writing and most legends. Human experience, in general, is prehistoric. And prehistoric experience was just as full as yours and mine: just as deeply felt, just as intelligent, just as real. What we know of it is mostly from durable artifacts and graves. I’m thinking of the woman found near the Snake River, buried at the end of the ice age with a perfectly crafted and unused stone knife tucked under her head. I’m thinking of the huge conical hats, beaten from single pieces of gold and inscribed with calendars, found north of the Alps. I’m thinking of Grave 8 at Vedbæk, where a woman held her premature baby on the spread wing of a swan. These are snapshot that experts can assemble into larger ideas, but what they tell all of us is that we’ve been people, not just humans, for a very long time.

Monday, March 30th, 2020

Living Through The Future

You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.

Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.

On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.

But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.

When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?

At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.

Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.

For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).

In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.

I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:

Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.

The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.

Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.

I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.

I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:

The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.

Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”

Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.

Prioritising Requirements | Trys Mudford

Over the past few years, I’ve given quite a few workshops and talks on evaluating technology. This methodical approach to evaluation and prioritisation from Trys is right up my alley!

In any development project, there is a point at which one must decide on the tech stack. For some, that may feel like a foregone conclusion, dictated by team appetite and experience.

Even if the decision seems obvious, it’s always worth sense-checking your thought process. Along with experience and gut-feelings, we also have blind-spots and biases.

I feel like there’s a connection here to having good design principles—the kind that explicitly value one facet over another.

Friday, March 20th, 2020

Is Me Cavechild Getting Too Much Pictogram-Time? - McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Sometimes me think me should just tear bull pictogram down. Can bull pictogram really be worth it? Sure, pictogram help advance caveculture and foster writing system. But what good that stuff if whole cave society is just bunch of brainwashed bull-pictogram-watchers? You know what Aiden say yesterday? When he grow up, he want be bull-pictogram-painter! That not real job! Real job hunter! Or at least gatherer! How many bull-pictogram-painters world need?

Friday, March 13th, 2020

Rise of the Digital Fonts

A history of typesetting from movable type to variable fonts.

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

I got an email a little while back from Michael at Repeater Books asking me if I wanted an advance copy of Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology From Capitalism by Wendy Liu. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I said “Sure!”

I’m happy to say that the book is most excellent …or at least mostly excellent.

Contrary to what the book title—or its blurb—might tell you, this is a memoir first and foremost. It’s a terrific memoir. It’s utterly absorbing.

Just as the most personal songs can have the most universal appeal, this story feels deeply personal while being entirely accessible. You don’t have to be a computer nerd to sympathise with the struggles of a twenty-something in a start-up trying to make sense of the world. This well-crafted narrative will resonate with any human. It calls to mind Ellen Ullman’s excellent memoir, Close to the Machine—not a comparison I make lightly.

But as you might have gathered from the book’s title, Abolish Silicon Valley isn’t being marketed as a memoir:

Abolish Silicon Valley is both a heartfelt personal story about the wasteful inequality of Silicon Valley, and a rallying call to engage in the radical politics needed to upend the status quo.

It’s true that the book finishes with a political manifesto but that’s only in the final chapter or two. The majority of the book is the personal story, and just as well. Those last few chapters really don’t work in this setting. They feel tonally out of place.

Don’t get me wrong, the contents of those final chapters are right up my alley—they’re preaching to the converted here. But I think they would be better placed in their own publication. The heavily-researched academic style jars with the preceeding personal narrative.

Abolish Silicon Valley is 80% memoir and 20% manifesto. I worry that the marketing isn’t making that clear. It would be a shame if this great book didn’t find its audience.

The book will be released on April 14th. It’s available to pre-order now. I highly recommend doing just that. I think you’ll really enjoy it. But if you get mired down in the final few chapters, know that you can safely skip them.

Insecure

Universal access is at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s also something I value when I’m building anything on the web. Whatever I’m building, I want you to be able to visit using whatever browser or device that you choose.

Just to be clear, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to have the same experience in an old browser as you are in the latest version of Firefox or Chrome. Far from it. Not only is that not feasible, I don’t believe it’s desirable either. But if you’re using an old browser, while you might not get to enjoy the newest CSS or JavaScript, you should still be able to access a website.

Applying the principle of progressive enhancement makes this emminently doable. As long as I build in a layered way, everyone gets access to the barebones HTML, even if they can’t experience newer features. Crucially, as long as I’m doing some feature detection, those newer features don’t harm older browsers.

But there’s one area where maintaining backward compatibility might well have an adverse effect on modern browsers: security.

I don’t just mean whether or not you’re serving sites over HTTPS. Even if you’re using TLS—Transport Layer Security—not all security is created equal.

Take a look at Mozilla’s very handy SSL Configuration Generator. You get to choose from three options:

  1. Modern. Services with clients that support TLS 1.3 and don’t need backward compatibility.
  2. Intermediate. General-purpose servers with a variety of clients, recommended for almost all systems.
  3. Old. Compatible with a number of very old clients, and should be used only as a last resort.

Because I value universal access, I should really go for the “old” setting. That ensures my site is accessible all the way back to Android 2.3 and Safari 1. But if I do that, I will be supporting TLS 1.0. That’s not good. My site is potentially vulnerable.

Alright then, I’ll go for “intermediate”—that’s the recommended level anyway. Now I’m no longer providing TLS 1.0 support. But that means some older browsers can no longer access my site.

This is exactly the situation I found myself in with The Session. I had a score of A+ from SSL Labs. I was feeling downright smug. Then I got emails from actual users. One had picked up an old Samsung tablet second hand. Another was using an older version of Safari. Neither could access the site.

Sure enough, if you cut off TLS 1.0, you cut off Safari below version six.

Alright, then. Can’t they just upgrade? Well …no. Apple has tied Safari to OS X. If you can’t upgrade your operating system, you can’t upgrade your browser. So if you’re using OS X Mountain Lion, you’re stuck with an insecure version of Safari.

Fortunately, you can use a different browser. It’s possible to install, say, Firefox 37 which supports TLS 1.2.

On desktop, that is. If you’re using an older iPhone or iPad and you can’t upgrade to a recent version of iOS, you’re screwed.

This isn’t an edge case. This is exactly the kind of usage that iPads excel at: you got the device a few years back just to do some web browsing and not much else. It still seems to work fine, and you have no incentive to buy a brand new iPad. And nor should you have to.

In that situation, you’re stuck using an insecure browser.

As a site owner, I can either make security my top priority, which means you’ll no longer be able to access my site. Or I can provide you access, which makes my site less secure for everyone. (That’s what I’ve done on The Session and now my score is capped at B.)

What I can’t do is tell you to install a different browser, because you literally can’t. Sure, technically you can install something called Firefox from the App Store, or you can install something called Chrome. But neither have anything to do with their desktop counterparts. They’re differently skinned versions of Safari.

Apple refuses to allow browsers with any other rendering engine to be installed. Their reasoning?

Security.

Point, don’t point — I love Typography

A brief history of the manicule, illustrated with some extreme examples.