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Monday, August 1st, 2022

Waves of yellowing grass covering the hillsides under ominous grey clouds.

A field in England.

Monday, June 27th, 2022

On reading

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder is a very short book. Most of the time, this is a feature, not a bug.

There are plenty of non-fiction books I’ve read that definitely could’ve been much, much shorter. Books that have a good sensible idea, but one that could’ve been written on the back of a napkin instead of being expanded into an arbitrarily long form.

In the world of fiction, there’s the short story. I guess the equivelent in the non-fiction world is the essay. But On Tyranny isn’t an essay. It’s got chapters. They’re just really, really short.

Sometimes that brevity means that nuance goes out the window. What might’ve been a subtle argument that required paragraphs of pros and cons in another book gets reduced to a single sentence here. Mostly that’s okay.

The premise of the book is that Trump’s America is comparable to Europe in the 1930s:

We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

But in making the comparison, Synder goes all in. There’s very little accounting for the differences between the world of the early 20th century and the world of the early 21st century.

This becomes really apparent when it comes to technology. One piece of advice offered is:

Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.

Wait. He’s not actually saying that words on screens are in some way inherently worse than words on paper, is he? Surely that’s just the nuance getting lost in the brevity, right?

Alas, no:

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. … So get screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

I mean, I’m all for reading books. But books are about what’s in them, not what they’re made of. To value words on a page more than the same words on a screen is like judging a book by its cover; its judging a book by its atoms.

For a book that’s about defending liberty and progress, On Tyranny is puzzingly conservative at times.

Sunday, June 12th, 2022

A woman with fabulously flamboyant headgear dances in front of a group of percussionists in matching blue and yellow outfits while little kids look on in fascination.

Sunday Samba street party in Hanover.

Wednesday, April 13th, 2022

Speaking at the Leading Design Conference, New York ‘22

The presentations themselves afforded a level of candor in personal narrative unlike any event I’ve been a part of thus far. We laughed, we cried (both quite literally), we were inspired — all, together. I can’t say enough about the vulnerability and courage of my fellow speakers, sharing their stories to move all of us — forward.

This is a lovely write-up of Leading Design New York from Justin.

The level of thought given to every nuance of this conference—from inclusiveness and safety, to privacy of discussed material and questions asked, to thoughtfulness of conference gear, to quality of the coffee via the on-premises baristas, to the well-conceived accompanying online program—were simply top-notch. Macro and micro. The event organizers and team: equally thoughtful and tremendous to work with.

Wednesday, March 30th, 2022

Eventing

In person events are like buses. You go two years without one and then three come along at once.

My buffer is overflowing from experiencing three back-to-back events. Best of all, my participation was different each time.

First of all, there was Leading Design New York, where I was the host. The event was superb, although it’s a bit of a shame I didn’t have any time to properly experience Manhattan. I wasn’t able to do any touristy things or meet up with my friends who live in the city. Still the trip was well worth it.

Right after I got back from New York, I took the train to Edinburgh for the Design It Build It conference where I was a speaker. It was a good event. I particularly enjoyed Rafaela Ferro talk on accessibility. The last time I spoke at DIBI was 2011(!) so it was great to make a return visit. I liked that the audience was seated cabaret style. That felt safer than classroom-style seating, allowing more space between people. At the same time, it felt more social, encouraging more interaction between attendees. I met some really interesting people.

I got from Edinburgh just in time for UX Camp Brighton on the weekend, where I was an attendee. I felt like a bit of a moocher not giving a presentation, but I really, really enjoyed every session I attended. It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a Barcamp-style event—probably the last Indie Web Camp I attended, whenever that was. I’d forgotten how well the format works.

But even with all these in-person events, online events aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Yesterday I started hosting the online portion of Leading Design New York and I’ll be doing it again today. The post-talk discussions with Julia and Lisa are lots of fun!

So in the space of just of a couple of weeks I’ve been a host, a speaker, and an attendee. Now it’s time for me to get my head back into one other event role: conference curator. No more buses/events are on the way for the next while, so I’m going to be fully devoted to organising the line-up for UX London 2022. Exciting!

Sunday, March 27th, 2022

Hosting Leading Design New York

I went to New York to host the Leading Design conference. It was weird and wonderful.

Weird, because it felt strange and surreal to be back in a physical space with other people all sharing the same experience.

Wonderful, for exactly the same reasons.

Leading Design

This was a good way to ease back into live events. It wasn’t a huge conference. Just over a hundred people. So it felt intimate, while still allowing people to quite literally have space to themselves.

I can’t tell you much about the post-talk interviews I conducted with the speakers. That’s because what happens at Leading Design stays at Leading Design, at least when it comes to the discussions after the talks. We made it clear that Leading Design was a safe place for everyone to share their stories, even if—especially if—those were stories you wouldn’t want to share publicly or at work.

I was bowled over by how generous and open and honest all the speakers were. Sure, there were valuable lessons about management and leadership, but there were also lots of very personal stories and insights. Time and time again I found myself genuinely moved by the vulnerability that the speakers displayed.

Leadership can be lonely. Sometimes very lonely. I got the impression that everyone—speakers and attendees alike—really, really appreciated having a non-digital space where they could come together and bond over shared travails. I know it’s a cliché to talk about “connecting” with others, but at this event it felt true.

The talks themselves were really good too. I loved seeing how themes emerged and wove themselves throughout the two days. Rebecca did a fantastic job of curating the line-up. I’ve been to a lot of events over the years and I’ve seen conference curation of varying degrees of thoughtfulness. Leading Design New York 2022 is right up there with the best of them. It was an honour to play the part of the host (though I felt very guilty when people congratulated me on such a great event—“Don’t thank me”, I said, “Thank Rebecca—I’m just the public face of the event; she did all the work!”)

My hosting duties aren’t over. This week we’ve got the virtual portion of Leading Design New York. There’ll be two days of revisiting some of the conference talks, and one day of workshops.

For the two days of talks, I’m going to be joined by two brilliant panelists for post-talk discussions—Julia Whitney and Lisa Welchman. This should be fun!

Best of all, for this portion of the event I don’t need to get into an airplane and cross the Atlantic.

That said, the journey was totally worth it for Leading Design New York. Also, by pure coincidence, the event coincided with St. Patrick’s Day. For the first time in two years, New York hosted its legendary parade and it was just a block or two away from the conference venue.

I nipped out during the lunch break to cheer on the marching bands. Every county was represented. When the representatives from county Cork went by, there’d be shouts of “Up Cork!” When the county Donegal delegation went by, it was “Up Donegal!”

It’s just a shame I couldn’t stick around for the representatives from county Down.

Monday, March 7th, 2022

Is HTML A Programming Language? (Webbed Briefs)

I’m glad that Heydon has answered this question once and for all.

I’m sure that’ll be the end of it now.

Saturday, October 2nd, 2021

Tiny Helpers

A very comprehensive collection of standalone little tools for web design and development—tools that do one thing.

Wednesday, August 11th, 2021

Nestflix

This is so in-depth! Movies and TV shows from within movies and TV shows. All of them are real …I mean, they’re not real, they’re fake—that’s but the point—but they’re all from real movies and TV …ah, never mind.

Monday, August 9th, 2021

Design Titles

Keep refreshing until you find your next job title.

Friday, July 9th, 2021

Goomics

These comics by a former Googler give a cumulative insight into the decaying culture there.

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021

Sans Bullshit Sans — Leveraging the synergy of ligatures

As part of my content buddying process, I am henceforth going to typeset all drafts in this font. I just tested it with this sentence:

We can leverage the synergy of a rich immersive user paradigm shift.

Friday, February 12th, 2021

Adam Curtis’s Seaside Dream (Phil Gyford’s website)

chef’s kiss!

(you know my opinion of Adam Curtis’s documentaries)

Thursday, January 21st, 2021

Letters of exclusion

I think my co-workers are getting annoyed with me. Any time they use an acronym or initialism—either in a video call or Slack—I ask them what it stands for. I’m sure they think I’m being contrarian.

The truth is that most of the time I genuinely don’t know what the letters stand for. And I’ve got to that age where I don’t feel any inhibition about asking “stupid” questions.

But it’s also true that I really, really dislike acronyms, initialisms, and other kinds of jargon. They’re manifestations of gatekeeping. They demarcate in-groups from outsiders.

Of course if you’re in a conversation with an in-group that has the same background and context as you, then sure, you can use acronyms and initialisms with the confidence that there’s a shared understanding. But how often can you be that sure? The more likely situation—and this scales exponentially with group size—is that people have differing levels of inside knowledge and experience.

I feel sorry for anyone trying to get into the field of web performance. Not only are there complex browser behaviours to understand, there’s also a veritable alphabet soup of initialisms to memorise. Here’s a really good post on web performance by Harry, but notice how the initialisms multiply like tribbles as the post progresses until we’re talking about using CWV metrics like LCP, FID, and CLS—alongside TTFB and SI—to look at PLPs, PDPs, and SRPs. And fair play to Harry; he expands each initialism the first time he introduces it.

But are we really saving any time by saying FID instead of first input delay? I suspect that the only reason why the word “cumulative” precedes “layout shift” is just to make it into the three-letter initialism CLS.

Still, I get why initialisms run rampant in technical discussions. You can be sure that most discussions of particle physics would be incomprehensible to outsiders, not necessarily because of the concepts, but because of the terminology.

Again, if you’re certain that you’re speaking to peers, that’s fine. But if you’re trying to communicate even a little more widely, then initialisms and abbreviations are obstacles to overcome. And once you’re in the habit of using the short forms, it gets harder and harder to apply context-shifting in your language. So the safest habit to form is to generally avoid using acronyms and initialisms.

Unnecessary initialisms are exclusionary.

Think about on-boarding someone new to your organisation. They’ve already got a lot to wrap their heads around without making them figure out what a TAM is. That’s a real example from Clearleft. We have a regular Thursday afternoon meeting. I call it the Thursday afternoon meeting. Other people …don’t.

I’m trying—as gently as possible—to ensure we’re not being exclusionary in our language. My co-workers indulge me, even it’s just to shut me up.

But here’s the thing. I remember many years back when a job ad went out on the Clearleft website that included the phrase “culture fit”. I winced and explained why I thought that was a really bad phrase to use—one that is used as code for “more people like us”. At the time my concerns were met with eye-rolls and chuckles. Now, as knowledge about diversity and inclusion has become more widespread, everyone understands that using a phrase like “culture fit” can be exclusionary.

But when I ask people to expand their acronyms and initialisms today, I get the same kind of chuckles. My aversion to abbreviations is an eccentric foible to be tolerated.

But this isn’t about me.

Saturday, December 12th, 2020

Thursday, November 5th, 2020

Webbed Briefs

Heydon is back on his bullshit, making extremely entertaining and occassionally inappropriate short videos about web stuff.

WEBBED BRIEFS are brief videos about the web, its technologies, and how to make the most of them. They’re packed with information, fun times™, and actual goats. Yes, it’s a vlog, but it isn’t on Youtube. Unthinkable!

The pilot episode is entitled “What Is ARIA Even For?”

Saturday, October 10th, 2020

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

When you browse Instagram and find former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s passport number

This was an absolute delight to read! Usually when you read security-related write-ups, the fun comes from the cleverness of the techniques …but this involved nothing cleverer than dev tools. In this instance, the fun is in the telling of the tale.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

T E N Ǝ T

Jessica and I went to cinema yesterday.

Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in our current circumstances, it was something of a momentous decision that involved a lot of risk assessment and weighing of the odds. We’ve been out and about a few times, but always to outdoor locations: the beach, a park, or a pub’s beer garden. For the first time, we were evaluating whether or not to enter an indoor environment, which given what we now know about the transmission of COVID-19, is certainly riskier than being outdoors.

But this was a cinema, so in theory, nobody should be talking (or singing or shouting), and everyone would be wearing masks and keeping their distance. Time was also on our side. We were considering a Monday afternoon showing—definitely not primetime. Looking at the website for the (wonderful) Duke of York’s cinema, we could see which seats were already taken. Less than an hour before the start time for the film, there were just a handful of seats occupied. A cinema that can seat a triple-digit number of people was going to be seating a single digit number of viewers.

We got tickets for the front row. Personally, I love sitting in the front row, especially in the Duke of York’s where there’s still plenty of room between the front row and the screen. But I know that it’s generally considered an undesirable spot by most people. Sure enough, the closest people to us were many rows back. Everyone was wearing masks and we kept them on for the duration of the film.

The film was Tenet). We weren’t about to enter an enclosed space for just any ol’ film. It would have to be pretty special—a new Star Wars film, or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune …or a new Christopher Nolan film. We knew it would look good on the big screen. We also knew it was likely to be spoiled for us if we didn’t see it soon enough.

At this point I am sounding the spoiler horn. If you have not seen Tenet yet, abandon ship at this point.

I really enjoyed this film. I understand the criticism that has been levelled at it—too cold, too clinical, too confusing—but I still enjoyed it immensely. I do think you need to be able to enjoy feeling confused if this is going to be a pleasurable experience. The payoff is that there’s an equally enjoyable feeling when things start slotting into place.

The closest film in Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue to Tenet is Inception in terms of twistiness and what it asks of the audience. But in some ways, Tenet is like an inverted version of Inception. In Inception, the ideas and the plot are genuinely complex, but Nolan does a great job in making them understandable—quite a feat! In Tenet, the central conceit and even the overall plot is, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. But Nolan has made it seem more twisty and convuluted than it really is. The ten minute battle at the end, for example, is filled with hard-to-follow twists and turns, but in actuality, it literally doesn’t matter.

The pitch for the mood of this film is that it’s in the spy genre, in the same way that Inception is in the heist genre. Though there’s an argument to be made that Tenet is more of a heist movie than Inception. But in terms of tone, yeah, it’s going for James Bond.

Even at the very end of the credits, when the title of the film rolled into view, it reminded me of the Bond films that would tease “The end of (this film). But James Bond will return in (next film).” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the very end of Tenet’s credits finished with “The end of Tenet. But the protagonist will return in …Tenet.”

The pleasure I got from Tenet was not the same kind of pleasure I get from watching a Bond film, which is a simpler, more basic kind of enjoyment. The pleasure I got from Tenet was more like the kind of enjoyment I get from reading smart sci-fi, the kind that posits a “what if?” scenario and isn’t afraid to push your mind in all kinds of uncomfortable directions to contemplate the ramifications.

Like I said, the central conceit—objects or people travelling backwards through time (from our perspective)—isn’t actually all that complex, but the fun comes from all the compounding knock-on effects that build on that one premise.

In the film, and in interviews about the film, everyone is at pains to point out that this isn’t time travel. But that’s not true. In fact, I would argue that Tenet is one of the few examples of genuine time travel. What I mean is that most so-called time-travel stories are actually more like time teleportation. People jump from one place in time to another instaneously. There are only a few examples I can think of where people genuinely travel.

The grandaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, is one example. There are vivid descriptions of the world outside the machine playing out in fast-forward. But even here, there’s an implication that from outside the machine, the world cannot perceive the time machine (which would, from that perspective, look slowed down to the point of seeming completely still).

The most internally-consistent time-travel story is Primer. I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who didn’t like Tenet and people who wouldn’t like Primer is a circle. Again, it’s a film where the enjoyment comes from feeling confused, but where your attention will be rewarded and your intelligence won’t be insulted.

In Primer, the protagonists literally travel in time. If you want to go five hours into the past, you have to spend five hours in the box (the time machine).

In Tenet, the time machine is a turnstile. If you want to travel five hours into the past, you need only enter the turnstile for a moment, but then you have to spend the next five hours travelling backwards (which, from your perspective, looks like being in a world where cause and effect are reversed). After five hours, you go in and out of a turnstile again, and voila!—you’ve time travelled five hours into the past.

Crucially, if you decide to travel five hours into the past, then you have always done so. And in the five hours prior to your decision, a version of you (apparently moving backwards) would be visible to the world. There is never a version of events where you aren’t travelling backwards in time. There is no “first loop”.

That brings us to the fundamental split in categories of time travel (or time jump) stories: many worlds vs. single timeline.

In a many-worlds story, the past can be changed. Well, technically, you spawn a different universe in which events unfold differently, but from your perspective, the effect would be as though you had altered the past.

The best example of the many-worlds category in recent years is William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It genuinely reinvents the genre of time travel. First of all, no thing travels through time. In The Peripheral only information can time travel. But given telepresence technology, that’s enough. The Peripheral is time travel for the remote worker (once again, William Gibson proves to be eerily prescient). But the moment that any information travels backwards in time, the timeline splits into a new “stub”. So the many-worlds nature of its reality is front and centre. But that doesn’t stop the characters engaging in classic time travel behaviour—using knowledge of the future to exert control over the past.

Time travel stories are always played with a stacked deck of information. The future has power over the past because of the asymmetric nature of information distribution—there’s more information in the future than in the past. Whether it’s through sports results, the stock market or technological expertise, the future can exploit the past.

Information is at the heart of the power games in Tenet too, but there’s a twist. The repeated mantra here is “ignorance is ammunition.” That flies in the face of most time travel stories where knowledge—information from the future—is vital to winning the game.

It turns out that information from the future is vital to winning the game in Tenet too, but the reason why ignorance is ammunition comes down to the fact that Tenet is not a many-worlds story. It is very much a single timeline.

Having a single timeline makes for time travel stories that are like Greek tragedies. You can try travelling into the past to change the present but in doing so you will instead cause the very thing you set out to prevent.

The meat’n’bones of a single timeline time travel story—and this is at the heart of Tenet—is the question of free will.

The most succint (and disturbing) single-timeline time-travel story that I’ve read is by Ted Chiang in his recent book Exhalation. It’s called What’s Expected Of Us. It was originally published as a single page in Nature magazine. In that single page is a distillation of the metaphysical crisis that even a limited amount of time travel would unleash in a single-timeline world…

There’s a box, the Predictor. It’s very basic, like Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. It has a button and a light. The button activates the light. But this machine, like an inverted object in Tenet, is moving through time differently to us. In this case, it’s very specific and localised. The machine is just a few seconds in the future relative to us. Cause and effect seem to be reversed. With a normal machine, you press the button and then the light flashes. But with the predictor, the light flashes and then you press the button. You can try to fool it but you won’t succeed. If the light flashes, you will press the button no matter how much you tell yourself that you won’t (likewise if you try to press the button before the light flashes, you won’t succeed). That’s it. In one succinct experiment with time, it is demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist.

Tenet has a similarly simple object to explain inversion. It’s a bullet. In an exposition scene we’re shown how it travels backwards in time. The protagonist holds his hand above the bullet, expecting it to jump into his hand as has just been demonstrated to him. He is told “you have to drop it.” He makes the decision to “drop” the bullet …and the bullet flies up into his hand.

This is a brilliant bit of sleight of hand (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) on Nolan’s part. It seems to imply that free will really matters. Only by deciding to “drop” the bullet does the bullet then fly upward. But here’s the thing: the protagonist had no choice but to decide to drop the bullet. We know that he had no choice because the bullet flew up into his hand. The bullet was always going to fly up into his hand. There is no timeline where the bullet doesn’t fly up into his hand, which means there is no timeline where the protagonist doesn’t decide to “drop” the bullet. The decision is real, but it is inevitable.

The lesson in this scene is the exact opposite of what it appears. It appears to show that agency and decision-making matter. The opposite is true. Free will cannot, in any meaningful sense, exist in this world.

This means that there was never really any threat. People from the future cannot change the past (or wipe it out) because it would’ve happened already. At one point, the protagonist voices this conjecture. “Doesn’t the fact that we’re here now mean that they don’t succeed?” Neil deflects the question, not because of uncertainty (we realise later) but because of certainty. It’s absolutely true that the people in the future can’t succeed because they haven’t succeeded. But the protagonist—at this point in the story—isn’t ready to truly internalise this. He needs to still believe that he is acting with free will. As that Ted Chiang story puts it:

It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t.

That’s true for the audience watching the film. If we were to understand too early that everything will work out fine, then there would be no tension in the film.

As ever with Nolan’s films, they are themselves metaphors for films. The first time you watch Tenet, ignorance is your ammuntion. You believe there is a threat. By the end of the film you have more information. Now if you re-watch the film, you will experience it differently, armed with your prior knowledge. But the film itself hasn’t changed. It’s the same linear flow of sequential scenes being projected. Everything plays out exactly the same. It’s you who have been changed. The first time you watch the film, you are like the protagonist at the start of the movie. The second time you watch it, you are like the protagonist at the end of the movie. You see the bigger picture. You understand the inevitability.

The character of Neil has had more time to come to terms with a universe without free will. What the protagonist begins to understand at the end of the film is what Neil has known for a while. He has seen this film. He knows how it ends. It ends with his death. He knows that it must end that way. At the end of the film we see him go to meet his death. Does he make the decision to do this? Yes …but he was always going to make the decision to do this. Just as the protagonist was always going to decide to “drop” the bullet, Neil was always going to decide to go to his death. It looks like a choice. But Neil understands at this point that the choice is pre-ordained. He will go to his death because he has gone to his death.

At the end, the protagonist—and the audience—understands. Everything played out exactly as it had to. The people in the future were hoping that reality allowed for many worlds, where the past could be changed. Luckily for us, reality turns out to be a single timeline. But the price we pay is that we come to understand, truly understand, that we have no free will. This is the kind of knowledge we wish we didn’t have. Ignorance was our ammunition and by the end of the film, it is spent.

Nolan has one other piece of misdirection up his sleeve. He implies that the central question at the heart of this time-travel story is the grandfather paradox. Our descendents in the future are literally trying to kill their grandparents (us). But if they succeed, then they can never come into existence.

But that’s not the paradox that plays out in Tenet. The central paradox is the bootstrap paradox, named for the Heinlein short story, By His Bootstraps. Information in this film is transmitted forwards and backwards through time, without ever being created. Take the phrase “Tenet”. In subjective time, the protagonist first hears of this phrase—and this organisation—when he is at the start of his journey. But the people who tell him this received the information via a subjectively older version of the protagonist who has travelled to the past. The protagonist starts the Tenet organistion (and phrase) in the future because the organisation (and phrase) existed in the past. So where did the phrase come from?

This paradox—the bootstrap paradox—remains after the grandfather paradox has been dealt with. The grandfather paradox was a distraction. The bootstrap paradox can’t be resolved, no matter how many times you watch the same film.

So Tenet has three instances of misdirection in its narrative:

  • Inversion isn’t time travel (it absolutely is).
  • Decisions matter (they don’t; there is no free will).
  • The grandfather paradox is the central question (it’s not; the bootstrap paradox is the central question).

I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet again. Though it can never be the same as that first time. Ignorance can never again be my ammunition.

I’m very glad that Jessica and I decided to go to the cinema to see Tenet. But who am I kidding? Did we ever really have a choice?

Sunday, September 6th, 2020