Considering the average website is less than ten years old, that old warning from your parents that says to “be careful what you post online because it’ll be there forever” is like the story your dad told you about chocolate milk coming from brown cows, a well-meant farce. On the contrary, librarians and archivists have implored us for years to be wary of the impermanence of digital media; when a website, especially one that invites mass participation, goes offline or executes a huge dump of its data and resources, it’s as if a smallish Library of Alexandria has been burned to the ground. Except unlike the burning of such a library, when a website folds, the ensuing commentary from tech blogs asks only why the company folded, or why a startup wasn’t profitable. Ignored is the scope and species of the lost material, or what it might have meant to the scant few who are left to salvage the digital wreck.
Saturday, May 27th, 2023
Thursday, May 4th, 2023
I did an episode of the Clearleft podcast on innovation a while back:
Everyone wants to be innovative …but no one wants to take risks.
The word innovation is often bandied about in an unquestioned positive way. But if we acknowledge that innovation is—by definition—risky, then the exhortations sound less positive.
“We provide innovative solutions for businesses!” becomes “We provide risky solutions for businesses!”
I was reminded of this when I saw the website for the Podcast Standards Project. The original text on the website described the project as:
…a grassroots coalition working to establish modern, open standards, to enable innovation in the podcast industry.
I pushed back on that wording (partly because I’ve seen the word “innovation” used as a smoke screen for user-hostile practices like tracking and surveillance). The wording has since changed to:
…a grassroots coalition dedicated to creating standards and practices that improve the open podcasting ecosystem for both listeners and creators.
That’s better. It’s more precise.
Am I nitpicking? Only if you think that “innovation” and “improvement” are synonyms. I don’t think they are.
Innovation implies change. Improvement implies positive change.
Not all change is positive. Not all innovation is positive.
Innovation goes hand in hand with disruption. Again, disruption involves change. But not necessarily positive change.
Think about the antonyms of change and disruption: stasis and stability. Those words don’t sound very exciting, but in some arenas they’re exactly what you should be aiming for; arenas like infrastructure or standards.
Not to get all pace layers-y here, but it seems to me that every endeavour has a sweet spot for innovation. For some projects, too little innovation is bad. For others, too much innovation is worse.
The trick is knowing which kind of project you’re working on.
(As a side note, I think some people use the word innovation to describe the generative, divergent phase of a design project: “how might we come up with innovative new approaches?” But we already have a word to describe the practice of generating novel and interesting ideas. That word isn’t innovation. It’s creativity.)
Tuesday, April 25th, 2023
Scroll up to the Kármán line.
Thursday, March 9th, 2023
This is a terrific walkthrough from Andy showing how smart fundamentals in your CSS can give you a beautiful readable document without much work.
Sunday, March 5th, 2023
This video was in my “Watch Later” queue for ages but I finally got ‘round to watching it this weekend. It’s ace! Great content, great narrative, great delivery—would’ve made a good dConstruct talk.
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2023
This game is hard:
Sayable Space is a television game for 1 or more people, it consists of saying “Space” out loud at the same time as Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) during the intro to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or actually that’s just half of the game. The second half is saying “Space”, and the first half is remembering that you are playing this game.
Tuesday, January 24th, 2023
The positively steampunk piece of hardware used for tracking Alexei Leonov’s Apollo-Soyuz mission.
Monday, January 16th, 2023
A few years ago, I wrote about how much I enjoyed the book Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Not everyone liked that book. A lot of people were put off by its structure, in which the dream of interstellar colonisation meets the harsh truth of reality and the book follows where that leads. It pours cold water over the very idea of humanity becoming interplanetary.
I wonder if the author might regret the way that some have taken his Mars trilogy as a sort of manual, Torment Nexus style. Kim Stanley Robinson is very much concerned with this planet in this time period, but others use his work to do the opposite.
But the backlash to Mars has begun.
Maciej wrote Why Not Mars:
The goal of this essay is to persuade you that we shouldn’t send human beings to Mars, at least not anytime soon. Landing on Mars with existing technology would be a destructive, wasteful stunt whose only legacy would be to ruin the greatest natural history experiment in the Solar System. It would no more open a new era of spaceflight than a Phoenician sailor crossing the Atlantic in 500 B.C. would have opened up the New World. And it wouldn’t even be that much fun.
Manu Saadia is writing a book about humanity in space, and he has a corresponding newsletter called Against Mars: Space Colonization and its Discontents:
What if space colonization was merely science-fiction, a narrative, or rather a meta-narrative, a myth, an ideology like any other? And therefore, how and why did it catch on? What is so special and so urgent about space colonization that countless scientists, engineers, government officials, billionaire oligarchs and indeed, entire nations, have committed work, ingenuity and treasure to make it a reality.
What if, and hear me out, space colonization was all bullshit?
I mean that quite literally. No hyperbole. Once you peer under the hood, or the nose, of the rocket ship, you encounter a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ghoulish garbage.
Two years ago, Shannon Stirone went into the details of why Mars Is a Hellhole
The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).
Perhaps the most damning indictment of the case for Mars colonisation is that its most ardent advocate turns out to be an idiotic small-minded eugenicist who can’t even run a social media company, much less a crewed expedition to another planet.
But let’s be clear: we’re talking here about the proposition of sending humans to Mars—ugly bags of mostly water that probably wouldn’t survive. Robots and other uncrewed missions in our solar system …more of that, please!
Monday, January 2nd, 2023
I’ve come to believe the best way to look at our Mars program is as a faith-based initiative. There is a small cohort of people who really believe in going to Mars, the way some people believe in ghosts or cryptocurrency, and this group has an outsize effect on our space program.
Maciej lays out the case against a crewed mission to Mars.
Like George Lucas preparing to release another awful prequel, NASA is hoping that cool spaceships and nostalgia will be enough to keep everyone from noticing that their story makes no sense. But you can’t lie your way to Mars, no matter how sincerely you believe in what you’re doing.
And don’t skip the footnotes:
Fourth graders writing to Santa make a stronger case for an X-Box than NASA has been able to put together for a Mars landing.
Sunday, December 11th, 2022
NASA is posting some lovely pictures on Flickr from the first Artemis mission.
Monday, November 28th, 2022
Designing a Utopian layout grid: Working with fluid responsive values in a static design tool. | Utopia
James describes his process for designing fluid grid layouts, which very much involves working with the grain of the web but against the grain of our design tools:
In 2022 our design tools are still based around fixed-size artboards, while we’re trying to design products which scale gracefully to suit any screen.
Wednesday, November 16th, 2022
Two weeks ago I was on stage for two days hosting Leading Design in London.
Last week I was on stage for two days hosting Clarity in New Orleans.
It was an honour and a pleasure to MC at both events. Hard work, but very, very rewarding. And people seemed to like the cut of my jib, so that’s good.
With my obligations fulfilled, I’m now taking some time off before diving back into some exciting events-related work (he said, teasingly).
Jessica and I left New Orleans for Florida on the weekend. We’re spending a week at the beach house in Saint Augustine, doing all the usual Floridian activities: getting in the ocean, eating shrimp, sitting around doing nothing, that kind of thing.
But last night we got to experience something very unusual indeed.
We stayed up late, fighting off tiredness until strolling down to the beach sometime after 1am.
It was a mild night. I was in shorts and short sleeves, standing on the sand with the waves crashing, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness.
We were looking to the south. That’s where Cape Canaveral is, about a hundred miles away.
A hundred miles is quite a distance, and it was a cloudy night, so I wasn’t sure whether we’d be able to see anything. But when the time came, shortly before 2am, there was no mistaking it.
An orange glow appeared on the ocean, just over the horizon. Then an intense bright orange-red flame burst upwards. Even at this considerable distance, it was remarkably piercing.
It quickly travelled upwards, in an almost shaky trajectory, until entering the clouds.
This is so cool—Ariel was on BBC World TV News live during the Artemis launch!
Tuesday, November 15th, 2022
What happens if the ‘pace layers’ get out of sync?
A very thoughtful post by Miriam on how tools can adversely affect the pace of progress in the world of web standards.
When tools intervene between you and your access to the web platform, proceed with caution. Ask not only: How well does it work? But also: How well does it fail? Not only: What features do they provide? But also: What features do they prevent?
Monday, November 7th, 2022
In a way, I find these pictures—taken by someone from the ground with regular equipment—just as awe-inspiring as the images from the James Webb Space Telescope.
Tuesday, August 16th, 2022
When I wrote about democratising dev, I made brief mention of the growing “no code” movement:
Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.
But I didn’t describe what no-code is, as I understand it.
By that definition, something like WordPress.com (as opposed to WordPress itself) is a no-code tool:
Create any kind of website. No code, no manuals, no limits.
I’d also put Squarespace in the same category:
Start with a flexible template, then customize to fit your style and professional needs with our website builder.
And its competitor, Wix:
Discover the platform that gives you the freedom to create, design, manage and develop your web presence exactly the way you want.
Webflow provides the same kind of service, but with a heavy emphasis on marketing websites:
Your website should be a marketing asset, not an engineering challenge.
Bubble is trying to cover a broader base:
Bubble lets you create interactive, multi-user apps for desktop and mobile web browsers, including all the features you need to build a site like Facebook or Airbnb.
Wheras Carrd opts for a minimalist one-page approach:
Simple, free, fully responsive one-page sites for pretty much anything.
All of those tools emphasise that don’t need to need to know how to code in order to have a professional-looking website. But there’s a parallel universe of more niche no-code tools where the emphasis is on creativity and self-expression instead of slickness and professionalism.
Create your own free website. Unlimited creativity, zero ads.
Make a website in 5 minutes. Messy encouraged.
unique tool for web publishing & internet samizdat
I’m kind of fascinated by these two different approaches: professional vs. expressionist.
I’ve seen people grapple with this question when they decide to have their own website. Should it be a showcase of your achievements, almost like a portfolio? Or should it be a glorious mess of imagery and poetry to reflect your creativity? Could it be both? (Is that even doable? Or desirable?)
Robin Sloan recently published his ideas—and specs—for a new internet protocol called Spring ’83:
It’s not a no-code tool (you need to publish in HTML), although someone could easily provide a no-code tool to sit on top of the protocol. Conceptually though, it feels like it’s an a similar space to the chaotic good of neocities.org, mmm.page, and hotglue.me with maybe a bit of tilde.town thrown in.
It feels like something might be in the air. With Spring ’83, the Block protocol, and other experiments, people are creating some interesting small pieces that could potentially be loosely joined. No code required.
Tuesday, July 19th, 2022
Tuesday, May 24th, 2022
Pace layers and design principles
I think it was Jason who once told me that if you want to make someone’s life a misery, teach them about typography. After that they’ll be doomed to notice all the terrible type choices and kerning out there in the world. They won’t be able to unsee it. It’s like trying to unsee the arrow in the FedEx logo.
I think that Stewart Brand’s pace layers model is a similar kind of mind virus, albeit milder. Once you’ve been exposed to it, you start seeing in it in all kinds of systems.
Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.
Last month I sent out an edition of the Clearleft newsletter that was all about pace layers. I gathered together examples of people who have been infected with the pace-layer mindworm who were applying the same layered thinking to other areas:
- Rich applied pace layers to career paths,
- Mark applied pace layers to the design process, and
- Jorge Arango applied pace layers to reading.
Recently I had another flare-up of the pace-layer pattern-matching infection.
I was talking to some visiting Austrian students on the weekend about design principles. I explained my mild obsession with design principles stemming from the fact that they sit between “purpose” (or values) and “patterns” (the actual outputs):
Purpose » Principles » Patterns
Your purpose is “why?”
That then influences your principles, “how?”
Those principles inform your patterns, “what?”
Hey, wait a minute! If you put that list in reverse order it looks an awful lot like the pace-layers model with the slowest moving layer at the bottom and the fastest moving layer at the top. Perhaps there’s even room for an additional layer when patterns go into production:
Your purpose should rarely—if ever—change. Your principles can change, but not too frequently. Your patterns need to change quite often. And what you’re actually putting out into production should be constantly updated.
As you travel from the most abstract layer—“purpose”—to the most concrete layer—“production”—the pace of change increases.
I can’t tell if I’m onto something here or if I’m just being apopheniac. Again.
Sunday, May 15th, 2022
A fascinating and inspiring meditation on aerodynamics.
Wednesday, April 27th, 2022
This is a great little tip from Eric for those situations when you want an element to be centred but you want the content inside that element to remain uncentred:
max-inline-size: max-content; margin-inline: auto;
And I completely concur with his closing thoughts on CSS today:
It’s a nice little example of the quiet revolution that’s been happening in CSS of late. Hard things are becoming easy, and more than easy, simple. Simple in the sense of “direct and not complex”, not in the sense of “obvious and basic”. There’s a sense of growing maturity in the language, and I’m really happy to see it.