I moderated this panel in London last week, all about the growing field of research ops—I genuinely love moderating panels. Here, Richard recounts some of the thought nuggets I prised from the mind casings of the panelists.
Monday, October 14th, 2019
Wednesday, April 24th, 2019
Isn’t this just lovely?
Cassie made a visualisation of the power we’re getting from the solar panels we installed on the roof of the Clearleft building.
I highly recommend reading her blog post about the process too. She does such a great job of explaining how she made API calls, created SVGs, and calculated animations.
Sunday, September 30th, 2018
Monday, May 1st, 2017
Photos of analogue interfaces: switches, knobs, levers, dials, buttons, so many buttons.
Wednesday, March 8th, 2017
Here’s the panel I was on at the AMP conference. It was an honour and a pleasure to share the stage with Nicole, Sarah, Gina, and Mike.
Saturday, June 25th, 2016
The Progressive Web App Dev Summit
I was in Amsterdam again at the start of last week for the Progressive Web App Dev Summit, organised by Google. Most of the talks were given by Google employees, but not all—this wasn’t just a European version of Google I/O. Representatives from Opera, Mozilla, Samsung, and Microsoft were also there, and there were quite a few case studies from independent companies. That was very gratifying to see.
Almost all the talks were related to progressive web apps. I say, “almost all” because there were occasional outliers. There was a talk on web components, which don’t have anything directly to do with progressive web apps (and I hope there won’t be any attempts to suggest otherwise), and another on rendering performance that had good advice for anyone building any kind of website. Most of the talks were about the building blocks of progressive web apps: HTTPS, Service Workers, push notifications, and all that jazz.
I was very pleased to see that there was a move away from the suggesting that single-page apps with the app-shell architecture model were the only way of building progressive web apps.
Need to do more to change the perception that a progressive web app must be a single-page client-rendered app #pwadevsummit— Jake Archibald (@jaffathecake) June 21, 2016
There were lots of great examples of progressively enhancing existing sites into progressive web apps. Jeff Posnick’s talk was a step-by-step walkthrough of doing exactly that. Reading through the agenda, I was really happy to see this message repeated again and again:
In this session we’ll take an online-only site and turn it into a fully network-resilient, offline-first installable progressive web app. We’ll also break out of the app shell and look at approaches that better-suit traditional server-driven sites.
Progressive Web Apps should work everywhere for every user. But what happens when the technology and API’s are not available for in your users browser? In this talk we will show you how you can think about and build sites that work everywhere.
Progressive Web Apps should load fast, work great offline, and progressively enhance to a better experience in modern browsers.
How do you put the “progressive” into your current web app?
You can (and should!) build for the latest and greatest browsers, but through a collection of fallbacks and progressive enhancements you can bring a lot tomorrow’s web to yesterday’s browsers.
I think this is a really smart move. It’s a lot easier to sell people on incremental changes than it is to convince them to rip everything out and start from scratch (another reason why I’m dubious about any association between web components and progressive web apps—but I’ll save that for another post).
The other angle that I really liked was the emphasis on emerging markets, not just wealthy westerners. Tal Oppenheimer’s talk Building for Billions was superb, and Alex kicked the whole thing off with some great facts and figures on mobile usage.
In my mind, these two threads are very much related. Progressive enhancement allows us to have our progressive web app cake and eat it too: we can make websites that can be accessed on devices with limited storage and slow networks, while at the same time ensuring those same sites take advantage of all the newest features in the latest and greatest browsers. I talked to a lot of Google devs about ways to measure the quality of a progressive web app, and I’m coming to the conclusion that a truly high-quality site is one that can still be accessed by a proxy browser like Opera Mini, while providing a turbo-charged experience in the latest version of Chrome. If you think that sounds naive or unrealistic, then I think you might want to dive deeper into all the technologies that make progressive web apps so powerful—responsive design, Service Workers, a manifest file, HTTPS, push notifications; all of those features can and should be used in a layered fashion.ambient badging that Alex was talking about? Opera is doing it. The importance of being able to access URLs that I’ve been ranting about? Opera is doing it.
Then we had the idea to somehow connect it to the “pull-to-refresh” spinner, as a secondary gesture to the left or right.
Nice! I’m looking forward to seeing what other browsers come up with it. It’s genuinely exciting to see all these different browser makers in complete agreement on which standards they want to support, while at the same time differentiating their products by competing on user experience. Microsoft recently announced that progressive web apps will be indexed in their app store just like native apps—a really interesting move.
The Progressive Web App Dev Summit wrapped up with a closing panel, that I had the honour of hosting. I thought it was very brave of Paul to ask me to host this, considering my strident criticism of Google’s missteps.
Initially there were going to be six people on the panel. Then it became eight. Then I blinked and it suddenly became twelve. Less of a panel, more of a jury. Half the panelists were from Google and the other half were from Opera, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Samsung. Some of those representatives were a bit too media-trained for my liking: Ali from Microsoft tried to just give a spiel, and Alex Komoroske from Google wouldn’t give me a straight answer about whether he wants Android Instant apps to succeed—Jake was a bit more honest. I should have channelled my inner Paxman a bit more.
Needless to say, nobody from Apple was at the event. No surprise there. They’ve already promised to come to the next event. There won’t be an Apple representative on stage, obviously—that would be asking too much, wouldn’t it? But at least it looks like they’re finally making an effort to engage with the wider developer community.
All in all, the Progressive Web App Dev Summit was good fun. I found the event quite inspiring, although the sausage festiness of the attendees was depressing. It would be good if the marketing for these events reached a wider audience—I met a lot of developers who only found out about it a week or two before the event.
I really hope that people will come away with the message that they can get started with progressive web apps right now without having to re-architect their whole site. Right now the barrier to entry is having your site running on HTTPS. Once you’ve got that up and running, it’s pretty much a no-brainer to add a manifest file and a basic Service Worker—to boost performance if nothing else. From there, you’re in a great position to incrementally add more and more features—an offline-first approach with your Service Worker, perhaps? Or maybe start dabbling in push notifications. The great thing about all of these technologies (with the glaring exception of web components in their current state) is that you don’t need to bet the farm on any of them. Try them out. Use them as enhancements. You’ve literally got nothing to lose …and your users have everything to gain.
Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016
Here’s the video of the panel I moderated yesterday at the Progressive Web App Dev Summit. I had to get a bit Paxman at times with some of the more media-trained panelists.
Tuesday, June 14th, 2016
Amsterdam Brighton Amsterdam
I’m about to have a crazy few days that will see me bouncing between Brighton and Amsterdam.
It starts tomorrow. I’m flying to Amsterdam in the morning and speaking at this Icons event in the afternoon about digital preservation and long-term thinking.
Then, the next morning, I’ll be opening up the inaugural HTML Special which is a new addition the CSS Day conference. Each talk on Thursday will cover one HTML element. I am honoured to speaking about the
A element. Here’s the talk description:
The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…
Enquire within upon everything.
I’ve been working all out to get this talk done and I finally wrapped it up today. Right now, I feel pretty happy with it, but I bet I’ll change that opinion in the next 48 hours. I’m pretty sure that this will be one of those talks that people will either love or hate, kind of like my 2008 dConstruct talk, The System Of The World.
After CSS Day, I’ll be heading back to Brighton on Saturday, June 18th to play a Salter Cane gig in The Greys pub. If you’re around, you should definitely come along—not only is it free, but there will be some excellent support courtesy of Jon London, and Lucas and King.
Then, the next morning, I’ll be speaking at DrupalCamp Brighton, opening up day two of the event. I won’t be able to stick around long afterwards though, because I need to skidaddle to the airport to go back to Amsterdam!
Google are having their Progressive Web App Dev Summit there on Monday on Tuesday. I’ll be moderating a panel on the second day, so I’ll need to pay close attention to all the talks. I’ll be grilling representatives from Google, Samsung, Opera, Microsoft, and Mozilla. Considering my recent rants about some very bad decisions on the part of Google’s Chrome team, it’s very brave of them to ask me to be there, much less moderate a panel in public.
Got a burning question for browser/device makers? Write it down, post it somewhere on the web with a link back to this post, and then send me a web mention (there’s a form for you to paste in the URL at the bottom of this post).
Wednesday, August 26th, 2015
Monday, July 13th, 2015
Here’s the video of the panel I participated in at Edge conference, expertly moderated by Lyza.
Thanks to the video editing, you can’t see the face I’m making when the guy from Facebook talks about user-agent sniffing as a totally cool and reliable way of working.
Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
I really enjoyed last year’s Edge conference so I made sure not to miss this year’s event, which took place last weekend.
The format was a little different this time ‘round. Last year the whole day was taken up with panels. Now, panels are often rambling, cringeworthy affairs, but Edge Conf is one of the few events that does panels well: they’re run on a tight schedule and put together with lots of work in advance. At this year’s Edge, the morning was taken up with these tightly-run panels as usual, but the afternoon consisted of more Barcamp-like breakout sessions.
I’ve got to be honest: I don’t think the new format worked that well. The breakout sessions didn’t have the true flexibility that you get with an unconference schedule, so there was no opportunity to merge similarly-themed sessions. There was, for example, a session on components at the same time as a session on accessibility in web components.
That highlights the other issue: FOMO. I’m really not a fan of multi-track events; there were so many sessions that sounded really interesting, but I couldn’t clone myself and go to all of them at once.
But, like I said, the first half of the day was taken up with four sequential (rather than parallel) panels and they were all excellent. All of the moderators did a fantastic job, and I was fortunate enough to sit in on the progressive enhancement panel expertly moderated by Lyza.
The event is called Edge for a reason. There is a rarefied atmosphere—and not just because of the broken-down air conditioning. This is a room full of developers on the cutting edge of web development technologies. Being at Edge Conf means being in a bubble. And being in a bubble is absolutely fine as long as you’re aware you’re in a bubble. It would be problematic if anyone were to mistake the audience and the discussions at Edge as being in any way representative of typical working web devs.
One of the most insightful comments of the day came from Christian who said, “Yes, but this is Edge Conf.” You’re going to need some context for that quote, so here it is…
On the web components panel that Christian was moderating, Alex was making a point about the ubiquity of tools—”Tooling was save you”, he said—and he asked for a show of hands from the audience on who was not using some particular tooling technology; transpilers, package managers, build tools, I can’t remember the specific question. Nobody put their hand up. “See?” asked Alex. “Yes”, said Christian, “but this is Edge Conf.”
Now, while I wasn’t keen on the format of the afternoon with its multiple simultaneous breakout sessions, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the ones I plumped for. Quite the opposite. The last breakout session of the day, again expertly moderated by Lyza, was particularly great.
- It’s not about making all of your functionality available; it’s making your core functionality available: everything else can be considered an enhancement and it’s perfectly fine if not everyone gets that enhancement.
And yet the misunderstanding persists. For that reason, most of the people in the discussion at Edge Conf were in favour of simply dropping the term progressive enhancement and instead focusing on terms like availability and access. Tim writes:
I’m not sure what we call it now. Maybe we do need another term to get people to move away from the “progressive enhancement = working without JS” baggage that distracts from the real goal.
And Stuart writes:
So I’m not going to be talking about progressive enhancement any more. I’m going to be talking about availability. About reach. About my web apps being for everyone even when the universe tries to get in the way.
But Jason writes:
I completely disagree that we should change nomenclature because there exists some small segment of Web designers unwilling to expand their development toolbox. I think progressive enhancement—the term—remains useful, descriptive, and appropriate.
I’m torn. On the one hand, I agree with Jason. The term “progressive enhancement” is a great descriptor. But on the other hand, I don’t want to end up like that guy who’s made it his life’s work to change every instance of the phrase “comprises of” to “comprises” (or “consists of”) on Wikipedia. Technically, he’s correct. But it doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend your days.
I guess my worry is, if I write an article or give a presentation, and I title it something to do with progressive enhancement, am I going to alienate and put off the very audience I’m trying to reach? But if I title it something else, am I tricking people?
Words are hard.
Sunday, June 30th, 2013
The closing hot topics panel I moderated at this year’s Mobilism conference in Amsterdam, featuring Remy, Wilto, Jake, and Dan.
Thursday, May 9th, 2013
Mobilism hot topics panel
The programme for this year’s Mobilism conference in Amsterdam looks hot, hot, hot! It will wrap up with that hottest of hot things: a hot topics panel. Hot!
By the way, there are still tickets available. I suggest you grab one if you haven’t already. It’s a great gathering but for some reason it’s not selling as well this year, which means this could be your last chance to attend.
I’ve really, really enjoyed the previous two Mobilisms, and I always get a kick out of moderating panels so I’m pretty chuffed about getting the chance to host a panel for the third year running.
The first year, the panel was made up of Mobile browser vendors (excluding Apple, of course). Last year, it was more of a mixed bag of vendors and developers. This year …well, we’ll see. I’ll assemble the panel over the course of the conference’s two days. I plan to choose the sassiest and most outspoken of speakers—the last thing you want on a panel is a collection of meek, media-trained company shills.
Mind you, Dan has managed to buy his way onto the panel through some kind of sponsorship deal, but I’m hoping he’ll be able to contribute something useful about Firefox OS.
Apart from that one preordained panelist, everything else is up in the air. To help me decide who to invite onto the panel, it would be really nice to have an idea of what kind of topics people want to have us discuss. Basically, what’s hot and what’s not.
So …got a burning question about mobile, the web, or the “mobile web” (whatever that means)? I want to hear it.
If you could leave a comment with your question, ‘twould be much appreciated.
Friday, May 11th, 2012
The video of the panel I moderated on device and network APIs on the second day of Mobilism in Amsterdam. It’s not quite as snappy as the browser panel (which, given the subject matter, is unsurprising) but it was still good fun.
Mobile Browser Panel 2012, Mobile Browser Panel at Mobilism 2012 Moderated by Jeremy Keith, this panel features Andrea Trasatti (Nokia), Andreas Bovens (O…
Here’s the video of the mobile browser panel I moderated at Mobilism in Amsterdam. These guys were really good sports to put up with my wisecracking shots for cheap laughs at their expense.
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
Questions for Mobilism
I’m going to Amsterdam next week for the Mobilism conference. Bizarrely, there are still tickets available. I say “bizarrely” because it’s such an excellent event—it’s like the European equivalent of the Breaking Development conference.
Don’t worry; I won’t be giving a presentation. I’ll leave that to experts like Remy, Lyza, Brad, and Jake. But I will be getting up on the stage. I’m going to moderating not one, but two, panels. I think it’s going to be fun.
We’ll be reprising the Mobile Browser panel from last year. Once again, there will be representatives from Opera, RIM, and Nokia. This year Google is also joining the line-up. As usual, Apple will not be present.
The new addition to the schedule is a panel on device and network APIs. I will be playing the part of a curious but clueless web developer interested in such things …because, well, that’s what I am.
You have not been invited to give a speech. Before you stand up, boil your thoughts down to a single point. Then ask yourself if this point is something you want to assert or something you want to find out. There are exceptions, but if your point falls into the category of assertion, you should probably remain seated.
But I’m not planning to leave the questions entirely to the people in the room. Just as I did last year, I’d like to ask you to tell me what topics are burning in your mind when it comes to mobile browsers or device APIs.
Comments are open for one week. Let fly with your questions.
Thursday, March 22nd, 2012
Ariel: Welcome to Get Excited and Make Things with Science. I hope you all are excited, as it seems like you are.
Was that a cat meow? Jesus!
So yes, welcome to Get Excited and Make Things with Science. We have some lovely slides up here.
This is a launch of some teddy bears into space and so I thought that represented getting excited and making things with science. So this isn’t Photoshop; this is actually a real picture.
And if you want to get really excited, you can hashtag us at #sxgetexcited, but we’ll just start with some brief intros to kick things off.
Jeremy, how did you get here?
Jeremy: Okay, can everybody hear me? This lapel mic thing or should I use this one. Okay, I’ll use this one. That makes it easier.
I got here because of South by South West, actually, which was two years ago? Two years ago when I was here there was an awesome science panel, which was moderated by Tantek who’s sitting there. Ariel was on the panel and a bunch of other citizen scientists. And it was really, really inspiring. It was one of the best panels I’ve seen at South by South West.
But one of the points that was coming across was there was all these APIs out there that people weren’t using. People were having hack days and doing mash-ups, and they were doing stuff with Google Maps or something. We’ve mapped the moon! We’ve mapped Mars! Nobody’s doing hacks and mash-ups with that kind of data.
I distinctly remember sitting in the audience of the panel and turning to my friend and saying, “we should have a Science Hack Day.” And then rather than it just remaining an idea, I did it.
So we had the world’s first Science Hack Day in London later that summer. And it was incredible. We managed to get a venue which was at the Guardian offices in London. We got a bunch of developers into the room and some scientists as well, and it was a lot of fun.
I’ve been to hack days before which is, you know, developers getting together for forty eight hours, essentially hacking straight through for twenty four hours and making something cool. Usually mash-ups and stuff. So it was basically a hack day like that, but with the emphasis on science. In other words, the APIs and the data that you’d be mashing with would be science data, and that was awesome; that showed that it could work and that’s what got me here.
Matt So, my name’s Matt. I’m a particle physicist by training and I was doing research at Stanford University on BaBar experiments—I’ll mention a little bit more on that later—and the experiment was based at SLAC, which is an international lab on Stanford Campus.
I’d been trying to work with some people in communications there to do some outreach projects, and through that I met Dave Harris, who is a friend of Ariel’s. We tried getting some stuff, but there was just limited resources. He’s like, “well look my friend Ariel’s putting together this Science Hack Day, and some of these outreach ideas, some of the ideas of taking a particle physics data and making it more accessible, you might be able to get other people involved in working on the project.” Then I participated in that first Science Hack Day down in Palo Alto.
It was a great success. I’ve done another one in San Francisco since then. I’ll talk more about those in detail, but that was the path that led me to hack day in general, and Ariel and here.
Ariel: Great. So I’m Ariel and I am on a really awesome panel, because Jeremy is an awesome web developer, Matt’s a great particle physicist.
I myself, however, am neither a programmer or a scientist. I have no background in science and my degree is actually originally in print graphic design. That didn’t really end up going anywhere.
So a few years ago I randomly got a job at NASA. It was amazing. I never expected to work there. It completely changed my life.
Since working at NASA I am now on this mission to really change how we view space exploration. I always like showing this slide because space exploration often changes how we view ourselves and our place in the universe. But I really think we should change how we start viewing space exploration and science, and it being something that you don’t have to have a formal science background to do and to participate.
In a Science Hack Day you don’t need to be a developer or a scientist. Sometimes it helps, but I have proven that you don’t have to be one. So then also I went on to create Science Hack Day San Francisco, after Jeremy created his in London.
So without further ado, Jeremy, do you want to discuss some of your favourite science hacks?
Jeremy: Oh yes!
Ariel: Why they’re awesome.
Jeremy: I’m just going to geek out for a while, and tell you about things I think are awesome; specifically, science hacks.
I remember being at the hack day—not a Science Hack Day, this was one of the official sort of Yahoo! BBC hack days in London at Alexandra Palace—and it was an amazing experience. It was just a fantastic time, and there’s all sorts of hacks and mash-ups and stuff being done, incredibly inspiring stuff.
But one of the ones that I really liked was just really simple, a really simple example of a mash-up. It was this, which is a Twitter account. It’s a Twitter account that’s a bot, and it mashes up just two simple bits of data. One is: when is the ISS flying over, or when there’ll be iridium flares from satellites. The other is: what’s the weather forecast for London right now, because it can get pretty cloudy in London.
So it’s a very simple little Twitterbot that just says, “Hey, the ISS will be flying over and it’s going to be clear outside.” Simple, right? I know everybody makes lots of Twitterbots these days, it’s kind of the “hello world” of mashing up, but this was a few years ago, this was, a pretty cool idea.
I really love the simplicity of that, just taking these two sources of data, putting them together and making something really cool and really useful, that you go outside and see the ISS fly over, which is awesome.
Another example of one of these Twitterbots is Low Flying Rocks, which is really nice. That’s just again taking a feed of information that we have, which is when near earth objects are passing by the earth and just Tweeting when it happens, and interjecting maybe, if it’s a close one, it says, ‘Phew, that was close!’
I love these little Twitterbots like that.
So at the Science Hack Day in Palo Alto, Nathan Bergey—who’s a rocket scientist, amateur rocket scientist in Portland—he was at the Hack Day, and he took this Twitterbot, and he decided he wanted to make a sort of physical representation of it. So he was going to make the Near Earth Object Lamp. Instead of Tweeting when an asteroid was about to pass close to the earth, you’d get a glow; you’d get this ambient signifier.
It was truly a hack. He’s got cups that happen to be lying around the room, an arduino that’s connecting it up to a laptop, LEDs to glow.
You’d just have this thing sitting there, and it glows when there’s rocks flying past. And he actually—here’s a video over here doing it, it was awesome, it was really cool.
That all happened in the course of the Science Hack Day at Palo Alto. Brilliant little idea. There we go: glow away.
He took this one stage further after the Hack Day he thought, “Okay, here’s another idea. What if we went back to that Twitterbot of when the ISS is flying over.” Now, instead of getting a Tweet when the ISS flies over, you’re going to have a lamp that lights up. He put this idea out there and he put it on Kickstarter, and it got funded. So you can now order your ISS lamp that will glow when the ISS is flying over, so you can nip outside, look up in the sky, and see the International Space Station flying over.
I love that hack. I think it’s great. I particularly like it when there’s some sort of physical dimension to the hacks, and especially when it’s taking something from the network and making it physical. I think that’s really nice.
At Science Hack Day in London there were some people making a paper mâché globe of the Earth that had LEDs inside it, again connected with an arduino. But the datastream that they were connecting it to was the aurora borealis, when they were lighting up. So as the auroras were lighting up in real life, you got this beautiful ambient lamp lighting up. Really nice.
One of the things about the hack days is it’s always …there’s generally no shortage of developers showing up at hack days which is great, and I really like it when hardware hackers show up too, but it can be tough to get designers showing up at Science Hack Days. Or at hack days in general I would say, it can be tricky to convince the designers to come.
I was really trying to do that in the run-up to the Science Hack Day in London. I was really trying to convince designers to come along. There were a few designers there but it would’ve been nice to have some more.
So at the Science Hack Day in Palo Alto, I wanted to show how design can really help in the story of science and help in telling the story of science and data visualisation. I put together this little hack over the course of the Science Hack Day in Palo Alto. It’s just a simple little web page called Space Lift.
What it does is it just compares the cost of getting a cargo into geosynchronous orbit using various rockets, right? Now the cargo I chose happened to be various fictional spacecraft, like the Millennium Falcon or an X-Wing or Battlestar Galactica. It then compares how many of those rockets it would take and how much it would cost to lift this cargo into orbit. But always ending with how much it would cost with a space elevator.
It’s always cheaper with a space elevator!
I’m trying to tell a fairly obvious story here, which is that we need to build a space elevator, and here’s why. I’m making the financial case and I’m trying to use visualisation to do it. I mean, you can sort of see it when it’s just an X-Wing that you’re trying to lift into geosynchronous orbit, but if it’s a Rebel Blockade Runner, you can clearly see the astronomical—literally—costs it takes …or one space elevator, right?
You can actually then click through any of these and you can see that represented. The cost can be represented as a pile of pennies, and you can see the relationship with that pile of pennies to a space elevator: whether it would be a pile of pennies greater than a space elevator.
Those are all the things that happened at hack days, but there’s a whole bunch of wonderful websites that are kind of in the spirit of Science Hack Day, the spirit of science hacking.
One of those—this is one of my favourite sites on the Web—is Spacelog.org.
Has anyone seen Spacelog.org? Okay, yeah …one of the creators is sitting right back there: Norm. Hello Norm.
It’s wonderful. It does exactly what I was saying about using design—using a visualisation—to help tell a story.
What Spacelog is, is the transcripts of various NASA missions: Gemini, Mercury, Apollo missions. Those transcripts have been online for a long time. You can go to the NASA site and get them, but they’re just plainly presented. It’s just text, they’re not designed.
With Spacelog, these guys went off to a fort for a week and hacked on making a beautiful website to present this data, this information, and also to create like a linkable resource for every utterance that happened during an Apollo mission or a Gemini mission or a Mercury mission.
It’s absolutely fantastic. It’s ridiculously addictive. When I first saw this, I was like, “Oh I’ll just click through for five minutes”, and half an hour later, I was still just clicking through.
I thought it really showed how design can be so powerful. There wasn’t anything new on Spacelog. All the data existed already, but by putting it into this beautifully designed website, it came alive: it really came alive.
The ability to then link to any utterance from an astronaut was kind of cool. Nice, tweetable soundbites which led me to discover that Michael Collins is by far the coolest of all the Apollo astronauts. He’s my hero now.
So I like Spacelog. Spacelog is awesome.
Something else that isn’t directly related to Science Hack Day is—after Science Hack Day worked, it showed that it did work and if I could organise it, anybody could organise, because it’s really not my bag to be organising events—but Matt Patterson put together a History Hack Day in the same venue. He went to the Guardian, said “we want to do a History Hack Day”, taking lots of data to do with history and mashing it up and all that kind of stuff.
There was some wonderful stuff came out of that. Again with visualisations, this was taking Wikipedia edits of historical events. They’ve got timestamps and they’ve also got lat:long co-ordinates, and just visualising that over time. It’s a history of the world in a hundred edits, or it is basically just a hundred seconds of world history condensed down.
It’s again, beautiful, using design to tell that story.
I think there’s quite a large opportunity to mash up science and history. Some of my other favourite hacks I would say exist in that space of where science and history mash up together.
A site that would be right up there with Spacelog as one of my favourite sites on the internet would be Old Weather. Has anybody seen Old Weather? Okay.
Old Weather has this wonderful meeting of science and history. It’s made by the same guys who gave us Galaxy Zoo and Moon Zoo and all this stuff: the Zooniverse people. They’ve made these wonderful websites that allow people to participate in science. You can literally be a citizen scientist.
With Galaxy Zoo, you’re classifying galaxies. This is stuff that’s not that hard for human beings, because we look at a picture of a galaxy, we can see, oh it’s got spiral arms, or oh, it’s globular. That’s actually very hard for a computer, that kind of OCR is really hard.
So it’s allowing people to contribute to this classification, and not in some kind of mechanical turk, farmed out way. If you discover something on Galaxy Zoo and somebody writes a paper about it, you are one of the co-authors of that paper. It is true citizen science.
Anyway: Galaxy Zoo, awesome, fantastic All the sort of stuff they were doing, fantastic. But Old Weather, probably my favourite of all, because what Old Weather was doing was taking log books from the start of the twentieth century—from ships at the start of the twentieth century—and these log books are filled with observation. Dates, times, latitudes, longitudes; observations on the weather, barometric pressure. All written by human beings in longhand in these log books. Very, very hard for a computer to parse, but we can read it and we can hopefully make out what’s being said. So they built the site to allow people to come to the site and essentially transcribe these log books.
There’s a slight bit of gamification because you move up in rank on the ship the more you log. I’m just a cadet on this ship now, but I could become the lieutenant and then I could become the captain of the ship. But that’s not really the reason for doing it.
The reason for doing it is you’re helping science. You’re putting all this data—getting all this data out of these old log books—and making it machine readable, which is absolutely wonderful.
So Old Weather is right up there for me.
And it turns out the reason for doing this isn’t just, “Oh we need to digitise this stuff and it would be nice to have it on the Web.” This is climate data. But now it’s climate data that stretches back to the start of the twentieth century. So scientists doing climate modelling can now have much better models because they have data that stretches further back than their instruments, which is absolutely wonderful.
So that is definitely right up there as one of my favourite hacks.
I’ll stop geeking out about hacks now!
Ariel: I don’t think that’s the end of us geeking out about it.
Matt, what are your geeky, awesome hacks?
Matt: So, geeking out phase 2.
As I mentioned, I’m a particle physicist and in 2008 I started working on the BaBar experiment. This was an experiment that ran at SLAC International Lab on Stanford Campus. Over about ten years from ‘99 to about 2008 they collided matter and anti-matter, electrons and positrons, and collected a few petabytes of data to analyse.
The end goal was to actually try to understand the difference between matter and anti-matter and why the universe that we mostly see is made up of matter and not anti-matter. This table is matter. The stars, as far as we can tell, are matter and not anti-matter.
You may or may not have heard of some of the experiments going on at CERN at the LHC. This is a screenshot of the CMS experiment. I like this phrase from Ariel, these are space time smashers. These are colliding protons and overlapping their wave functions in space-time. You’re looking for the Higgs Boson and signs of super-symmetry. These are all very complicated analyses.
The analyses that I did at BaBar, even though it’s a smaller detector, it’s no less challenging. There’s numbers that you’re parsing through just streams of recorded information about these particles; the momentum, the energies, where they went. At the end of the day, you’re going to try to make a statement about how nature works.
Now the first level that you start to interact with the data are what I would call an event display. So what you’re seeing here is this 2D representation of this 3D mini-fireball, if you want, in the detector and where these particles went. All these layers of the detector are optimised to measure different things.
We don’t actually look at pictures like this until we’re doing some sort of diagnostic. Usually you look at a billion different collisions and you make some histogram, some plots and you try to summarise. Then you usually only use this for diagnostics. But looking at these helps you build up some intuition about what you’re trying to understand, not about just the physics but about the performance of the detector.
So when I was at Post Doc at Carnegie Mellon I started mucking around trying to sonify some of my data, trying to take my data, this multi-dimensional data-set and turn it into sound. I got some things that kind of half worked, but it was rattling around in my head.
Then when David Harris come to me and said, “Oh, there’s this Science Hack Day that’s going to be going on down the street, there might be some people that might want to work with you on this.” Because I was stuck. I do a lot of coding in C++ and Python and stuff, but I don’t know what’s the right language to do sonification or even visualisation a lot of this stuff. So he’s like, “Oh, I think there’s going to be some people that would like to help you on this, maybe learn about this and maybe you can get a group together.”
I brought some BaBar data which was text files that I had to explain to them. I said, “Okay, this is where it’s going in the detector in this direction, and this is the energy, this is the velocity if you want that.” And over the course of the twenty four hours, we hacked together this very, very barely held together with duct tape and code that was able to produce sounds, based on the data.
We got it working at midnight. People had been hearing us in this room sequestered, like “You guys are serious!”
Everybody else is doing robots and these cool lights and we were all trying to understand this stuff. All of a sudden we started getting sounds. And there was people that came in, they were like, “Oh what is that?” I’m like, “Well, that’s the decay of a B-meson, and it’s decaying to these things.” And they’re like, “decay of a what?” I’m like, “Oh well, let me tell you about a B-meson now; now that I’ve hooked you with these cool sounds and stuff.”
There was a moment in the night actually where these people that were working with us that were from Yahoo! and physicists that weren’t particle physicists and designers that were… I’d explain stuff to them, and at some point in the middle of the night they started talking like particle physicists. They were like, “Well, what shall we do with particle ID?” which is this very, very jargony term in our field, you know. “What should a muon sound like?” “What should a pion sound like?” “Well this is cos data, so if we turn it into X and Y, how do we…”
And it was amazing, because these people were not particle physicists, but if I had any of my collaboration walk in, they would’ve thought that they were trying to do a real analysis. And it was just fantastic.
So again, we had this website that was just held together by bleeding edge code. We wanted something live that people could map energy onto volume, and momentum onto timbre, and energy on some duration of the notes; make this mapping from these parameters that we were measuring and doing physics analysis to some sort of aural sonic quality.
We had something that just barely worked, but it wasn’t completely live. But we were able to demonstrate these sounds.
The fascinating thing was I started as me, because I was trained, I could start to hear differences in these particle decays. So this B-meson actually sounds very different than a …what’s called a light quark jet, and it doesn’t matter what that is, but know that I can hear these things. I started to realise, “God, you could start to use this to really develop an intuition for your data that maybe you didn’t have before!”
So because we’ve got it here, I’m going to play a little twenty second snippet of what a B decay sounds like, at least according to the mapping that I chose.
Did anybody hear that? Is that going through out there? No. Microphone check. You want to do that there?
So again the idea was that these things are playing the detector.
As they pass through the detector, it’s like the wind through a wind chime; they’re playing parts of the detector and you get to choose what they sound like.
Some particles move faster than others. Some of them are really slow. If you stretch out the time into nanoseconds or picoseconds, you get to hear them.
What was nice for me is that I could use this now. I could sit down and talk with people about the tools that we were using, kind of bootstrap this idea. Now I could start to develop a little visual aid.
So in my spare time I came out with this app. You can download it from my website. There’s a little control panel that allows you to choose what mappings you have. It’s written in mostly Processing. Whether or not it works today as opposed to six months ago I can’t guarantee.
This was one of my favourite hacks because it was very personable and again it was very inspiring to work with people that were interested in science. I feel like I kind of infected them with a little bit of knowledge.
Now I participated in the next Science Hack Day which was just last October, I believe, and I brought… November, and I brought some data from the LHC and we did a hack and some visualisations. And it was really cool. People liked working with fresh hot-off-the-presses data from the LHC.
But for me what was very interesting as a scientist—and trying to get some feedback also out of this—was this person did what they called the Beard Recognition Hack.
They took this little USB microscope and as you run it over your face, you get this image of whether or not you have little stubble (and I should just make mention that this girl that’s using it, that’s not a screenshot of what she has. These are mixed up. It’s not …I don’t know who she is, but I just want to let you know, hers was actually registering that it’s not beardy.)
What was neat was I could look at this code that was posted on GitHub, and I was like, “Oh there’s actually some really simple Python pattern recognition that just looks at contrast, and so it can identify lines.”
Now why that’s interesting to me is that when we’re teaching students, we use these cloud chambers that use isopropyl alcohol and form a very low, thin layer where it condenses. If you have radioactive particles that go through—like in the upper right there—you get these tracks where the isopropyl alcohol condenses along the track.
But it’s just something you watch, and if you let it sit there and you don’t put a radioactive element in it, every minute or two you actually get these muons that are produced by cosmic rays high up in the atmosphere. But it only happens every minute or so, and there’s no real way for data logging for this type of little mini-experiment.
So just by seeing this, I’m like, “God, could we use a webcam and then use this very simple software to do contrast recognition for whether these tracks are and actually use this to record and maybe do a project where students could build something like this from scratch, and then measure cosmic ray flux from the upper atmosphere.”
I’m a research scientist right now at Northern Illinois University and in the fall I’m going to be starting a gig as a Professor at Sienna College in upstate New York. I’ve applied for funding to try to get something like this together: put together a website that shows people how to build their own and everything.
But the point is that I would not have really thought about this idea unless I’d been going to these Hack Days. I think it’s real interesting the amount of information we have online and in blogs and posts, but face-to-face interaction is just a whole other level.
Again, as a scientist, I’m taking time out of my research to do this and I think outreach is incredibly important. It’s one of the most important things we can do. It was really this prime example of where there was this feedback from these Hack Day communities.
I think that’s where I’m going to end for now and let Ariel, and just emphasise, for scientists, I think these Hack Days that these guys are putting together can be a real game-changer in exploring these other communities that as scientists we don’t always have access to.
Ariel: I just think it’s really bragworthy to say that a Beard Detecting Hack inspired cosmic ray detection. It’s unexpected, which is awesome.
Atually I guess a lot of these things are related to my favourite science hacks. My favourite kind of science hacks really tap into invisibility. This is really because of the idea that ninety five per cent of everything is invisible. And when I say ninety five per cent of everything is invisible, it’s because when you look at all of the matter and all of the energy in the entire universe, seventy four percent is dark energy, twenty two per cent is dark matter, less than five per cent is all visible matter.
If you take out intergalactic gas, which—how often do we look at that? Not that often, it’s up in the pretty NASA pictures—the rest, all the stars in the universe, all the planets, everything in this room, everything on this planet makes up less than half of a per cent in the universe.
We are very much the etcetera in the universe. There’s all this invisible stuff around us all the time.
Dark Matter is really some of the coolest invisible stuff, I think. Dark Matter is really, essentially when you look at galaxies and how they’re held together, there’s not enough matter that accounts for the amount of gravity that’s needed to really hold us all together. The placeholder name for that is dark matter. All these weakly interacting particles that we can’t easily detect that are holding us all together, and it’s kind of in this globular form that you can see here.
It’s really great because we have this invisible thing that’s holding us together. It’s not actually the power of love that’s holding us together, but it’s the power of Dark Matter.
And so in a lot of ways this is a very friendly universe, we have this lovely adorable friend called Dark Matter that’s keeping us all together and that’s awesome.
But there’s also the opposite fact. We have a very evil sort of thing in the universe called Dark Energy. Dark Energy is actually trying to push us all apart. Not necessarily on the atomic level but we see it more with galaxies that are distant; they’re being pushed further and further apart, and so when we look in the universe and we see that we’re expanding, we’re actually expanding way faster than scientists think we should be expanding. We call that Dark Energy.
So absolutely ninety five per cent of everything is invisible. And hacks that tap into invisibility, to me, are really exciting and really weird, like this one.
This is a hack called Animal Superpowers. It wasn’t created at a Science Hack Day but it’s really cool.
Essentially the idea is that you wear a helmet and a couple of gloves and you navigate the Earth beneath you. You can see the Earth as seen from the perspective of an ant. You get animal superpowers by acting like you’re an ant for a day and actually getting this really magnified view of the Earth, which is kind of cool.
But the sort of invisibility superpowers can sometimes make you look dorky, like that previous hack, and this one. This is a belt that vibrates every time you face north. If you were at Amber Case’s keynote the other day, she mentioned it. The idea with this is that you began to understand how to navigate a city more intuitively if you wear this for a few weeks, as opposed to visually.
The idea of tapping into invisibility as a superpower is really tapping into the idea of sense affordances. I think this touches on a little bit of the particle wind-chime as well. Different senses have different affordances and so sometimes our ears can hear something better than our eyes can see them.
Different senses can make things visible that were otherwise invisible to us. Some people actually experience this naturally through synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is essentially where you have different senses that are crossing their wires. Some people with synaesthesia report actually associating letters with different colours. Some people have reported that when they hear a really loud sound, they see a ripple across their vision, and other cool things like that.
Tapping into synaesthesia—this superpower that some of us have but not all of us have—a group of hackers at Science Hack Day created a really creepy hack called Syneseizure. I’ll just let you all react to that for a moment.
Syneseizure is a hack that came out of Science Hack Day in November. The idea was that they wanted to simulate what it was like to be synaesthetic. So they created this mask which I’ll walk though. It’s this really, really creepy mask, but it’s really awesome.
Essentially what they did is they took a bunch of vibrating speakers and they attached it to someone’s head, I think twelve different vibrating speakers. Because it was a Hack Day, they only had twenty four hours to make a mask, so the only mask pattern that they could find in twenty four hours was an open mask pattern for a gimp mask. So they created this gimp mask. They sewed it themselves. They came here with practically nothing, and they sewed this gimp mask up with all the vibrating speakers.
They wired it all up to an arduino where the mouth should be—as you can see—and a webcam, with the idea being that any information that comes through the webcam, different parts of your face start vibrating. You can actually start feeling sight and feeling where parts of the room are darker and where parts of the room are lighter. And so you get to wear this really creepy mask and navigate around and try and feel where different parts of the room are.
It was just a lot of fun and it’s really cool to be able to tap into your different senses that way.
Similarly, there’s also a few hacks that tap into different things, maybe a little less creepy.
Someone wanted to create a font that was based on wind drag. They created a makeshift wind tunnel, and they recorded the wind drag of each of these letters. They wanted to make a font that was …all the letters had equal wind drag in them.
I don’t know why this would be useful necessarily, but if you want a typeface that has equal wind drag, this is what it looks like. They actually went through and recorded all these. This is what a typeface with equal wind drag looks like. Something you don’t normally see visible to you but now it is, so make use of it somehow.
There’s also this hack which was more … bio based.
What you’re actually seeing here is the extraction of strawberry DNA. But they’re extracting the strawberry DNA using all edible materials. They wanted to create a DNAquiri, so to speak, using all drinkable, edible materials, so that you could actually have a cocktail where you were drinking extracted DNA.
Just for note, it was absolutely disgusting! It was really, really gross, and lots and lots of alcohol as you can expect.
What you’re actually seeing in this picture is these polymers are really long, so when you extract DNA, even though it’s really tiny, the strings essentially are so long that they all start globbing up together so you can visibly see it.
There’s been another panel that’s at South By—unfortunately I think it was right before ours—but it was talking about weather balloon payloads. Of course weather balloon payloads are becoming a lot more ubiquitous. They’re just really exciting because you get to see Earth from a site that you normally don’t see. Either you get to see the curvature of the Earth if you’re going thirty kilometres up.
In this project they were actually mapping the ground of the Earth, so they tried to do a grass roots aerial mapping project using these weather balloons and just a simple camera.
So if you’re kind of thinking about all these things and thinking “Wow, how could I make a synaesthesia mask where I can walk around in Austin all the time and freak people out?” or if you would just rather hack on your own science ideas, that might be less creepy, where can you start?
Jeremy, do you have any recommendations on what people can do today that could help them get started in science hacking?
Jeremy: Yeah. I’ll come at it from the Web side of things rather than the physical hardware side. And if you do any mash-ups and web development you’re probably familiar with all these already. But I think scientists certainly can benefit from knowing about these tools that are out there, available and free.
I was talking about data visualisation earlier and how important and how useful a tool that can be. There’s the Google Chart API. It started off fairly rudimentary, and now there’s quite a lot you can do with it. It’s nice.
Some articles have been written about. There’s documentation on the Google site, but there’s articles been written about how to use it from people like Brian Suda who wrote a whole book about designing with data.
I find it can be quite useful, especially if you’ve got twenty four hours to hack something together and you need to have graphs and charts and things. It’s pretty nice.
Another useful took for developers is something from Yahoo! called YQL. Now it is from Yahoo! so it could be switched off tomorrow for all we know.
It’s like a meta API. This is like an API for APIs. There’s lots of websites out there have APIs, but then you’ve got to learn the API of each website. You’ve got to learn the Flickr API and you’ve got to learn the Amazon API, now you’ve got to learn the Guardian API or whatever. This tries to even the playing field by allowing you to use one syntax to mash up data from all these different APIs.
The syntax it uses is essentially SQL. So if you’re familiar with querying databases, it’s like that, except that now instead of querying databases, you’re querying the Web. You select from Flickr where tag = trending topic on Twitter. Mashing stuff up together.
It’s just quite useful. At Science Hack Day London we had some lightning talks at the start, partly from scientists and partly from Web people. Christian Heilmann, who was working at Yahoo! at the time, gave a talk about YQL; just demo’d it, showed what you could do with it. There was a whole bunch of different scientists in the room who were like, “Wow, we had no idea this existed. And all these plans for projects that we thought would take months, we could maybe do really quickly using these tools.”
So I find that quite useful.
And then finally just one that I think in general is so useful to any kind of mash up and development is the fact that we have GitHub now.
It can seem overwhelming: sometimes you have an idea but you can’t finish it or you can’t bring it to fruition. Throw it up there on GitHub and allow other people to take it and fork it and run with it and feed stuff back to you.
GitHub’s been great for collaboration in general, and can also be really good for finishing those hacks you started the Hack Day but never quite get around to finishing.
So those are just a few that I find pretty useful.
Ariel: And Matt, what are your recommendations for what people should be doing today from your perspective?
Matt: What people could be doing?
Ariel: Could be doing.
Matt: Could be doing.
I think that there is a tremendous benefit from coming to places like South By South West, the Science Hack Days, seeing what people are doing, getting really inspired, going and reading, following the science podcasts and stuff. But from interacting with everybody, I think there’s another level that can be gone, and I think that there’s nothing wrong with getting your hands dusty (I’m going to use—again Ariel came up with this line and I think it’s right).
I think we all have the capability of learning a lot more than we think we can, or maybe a lot more than we know now. I think that we can all have that capability: actually get some of the old text books if we want or old physics books, statistics especially, and go through them and try to really learn what these things are.
I think the people that I worked with at the Science Hack Days, like at this most recent one in San Francisco with the LHC data, we started actually going through the equations that Newton told us relates energy, momentum and mass. Then we went to the equations that Einstein taught us relate energy, momentum and mass. People are perfectly capable of learning these things. I think when you really learn it and when you grok it and when you sit down for an hour a week even, it changes how you view the world. It’s changed how I see even just casual talks.
I think that there’s so much available on the Web with Khan Academy, MIT is putting lectures online from its introductory physics and statistics course. Stanford has got a YouTube channel with lectures from its physics and statistics course. It changes how you view the world when you really sit down and go through it. It sounds kind of stodgy and boring, but it’s not when you go out into the world or you go to a conference like this and you look at things differently.
Early this morning, they had an asteroid panel, and Phil Plait or Platt?
Matt: Plait, Bad Astronomer, is talking about if he had all the planets aligned, it would be only one fiftieth the gravitational pull of the moon. I’m thinking, “Wait, is that right?” And I’m thinking, this is a perfect problem I could give my students. It’s very simple. It’s only got a couple of equations, you can look up the information on Wikipedia.
When you do something like that, you have this tremendous self of satisfaction. I’m starting to really understand the universe. I think that these events are great inspiration, but I think there is something we can go and take it to the next level and again, not just physics, but statistics. I think when you understand statistics—which is so important in my analysis—it kind of changes how you view the culture and the way the media relates stuff to you.
So again it sounds kind of boring, but with the amount of stuff online that you can learn from, I think we’re at a different level. It’s much easier and much maybe less boring to learn this stuff.
Ariel: Thanks. So my recommendations for people are really to go to Hack Days or organise Hack Days, because they are pure joy. Like this guy with the Nabaztag, which is awesome. Poor Nabaztags don’t work any more that much, but I love them.
Hack Days are really awesome. For me it’s really about being a spark for future collaborations or future ideas or future things to come out of. They’re really, really just meant to have fun and have really unexpected things come out of them, …like having cosmic ray detection come out of a Beard Detector Hack is the weirdest thing I’ve heard, possibly weirder than the Syneseizure mask.
But it’s all about this unexpected sort of stuff. Nowadays I hear a lot of people talking about Hackathons and Codathons as these things where you’re going to create this well-polished solution for your city or other things like that. And while that’s great, to me, Hack Days aren’t really about creating products. It’s not about that.
If you want to make a hack that detects when you need to shave, go for it. It shouldn’t have to end up being a product. It should just be something awesome that you’re really excited about and you don’t know where it’s going and that doesn’t matter. That’s what Hack Days are really for.
So if you haven’t been to a Hack Day, I really encourage you to do so. Specifically with Science Hack Day, it’s now become a global thing, thankfully, thanks to some help from the Sloan Foundation. Science Hack Day is actually happening all over the world.
The next one I think is in Nairobi in April. Then in May there’s one in Chicago. There’s going to be one in Iceland in June, I think. They’re happening all over.
But if they’re not happening in your town, we’ve actually open-sourced instructions for how to create a Science Hack Day in your city. So if you go to ScienceHackDay.com, you can actually figure out how to make one happen in your city, which I definitely encourage.
Mostly it’s just about getting excited. Even if you don’t go to a Science Hack Day, do this on your own weekend; just get excited and make stuff with friends. It’s just really awesome. You don’t need to be a developer and you don’t need to be a scientist. You can be anyone and just make stuff. All you have to have really is just this amazing passion for, “Oh my God, that’s so creepy and awesome” like I have with so many things.
So that’s really about it. So actually, let’s see. We have maybe about fifteen minutes or so for questions, so if you guys want to start thinking about questions and coming up to the mic, feel free to start doing so now.
We’re happy to take questions. Do keep them short and sweet. We don’t necessarily need to know your life story because we will be here afterwards and we’re happy to talk to you about that. So if you have any problems or emotional uncertainties, we can talk to you about that after the panel. We’ll be here all day, folks.
But in the meantime, if you have short and sweet questions, please feel free to come up to the mic and we’re happy to help.
Audience: That was awesome, thank you guys.
I’m just curious to hear just from the experiences you’ve had if any of you have maybe some quick stories or examples of where you’ve seen youth getting involved, youth being impacted. Just thinking about my own kids and middle school age kids and even younger, but just getting kids involved with seeing science in a new way. Just curious from your experiences if you have some insight on that to share some ideas for things to consider with getting younger kids kind of excited about some of this stuff you’re talking about?
Jeremy: Well I do have something.
This is not so much a bottom-up hack, more of a top-down project, but one of the other lightning talks at the start of the Science Hack Day in London was from some people that are working with the Wellcome Trust.
The Wellcome Trust is like, I guess, a UK equivalent of the Sloan Foundation: non-profit, dedicated to furthering science and understanding. They’re working on this project that’s in parallel with the Olympics, to get young kids to kind of understand the science of exercise and sport and all that stuff.
So again, talking about data and physical objects, this is going the other way. This is about taking data from sensors and getting it onto the Web. I’m not sure at what stage this project is right now, but the idea was they would have sensors for kids.
Now it used to be that getting sensors on a human body to measure things like heart rate and metabolism and all this stuff, it was expensive and it was bulky, but thanks to Moore’s Law and all sorts of things, they’re getting really, really small and really, really cheap.
So they were demoing this thing that was like a bouncing rubber ball. It was really durable and you could bounce it round. The kids could run around with that, and then hopefully see what to do with that data. They were looking for ideas: what shall we do with this data? If we’re going to collect all this wonderful data with these sensors, what can we do with it?
And there were some issues around privacy, obviously, because we’re dealing with children here, but it was a really interesting project. I’ll see if I can find a URL to it and point it your way. That’s the one I can think of off the top of my head about involving kids with science.
Ariel: Yeah, at Science Hack Day, San Francisco, we had a bunch of kids show up and so far, kids are welcome to come, but mostly it’s adults who come, just because a lot of my work focus is on getting people who are otherwise forgotten about, or forgotten to the science industry, which happens to be adults who chose different careers.
But a bunch of kids ended up coming and they created a video game. Over the course of the weekend, someone was actually working on some video game code. He worked with them over the weekend, and by the end of the weekend, they had coded this Pikachu video game, which was really awesome.
With them, the experience seemed to be less about “Look at this weird, crazy stuff” and “Wow, look what I was able to create: I was able to create this Pikachu video game over the weekend and learned code” which was really valuable for them.
Matt: One other thing I’ll mention. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about it, is the Google Science Fair Project.
So if you go to Google and Google Science Fair, last year they did this and they had kids from all over the country compete. You’ve got these web forms that they fill out where they have to have a hypothesis and their procedure in the end, and then winners got brought out to the Google campus and they picked the winners there.
It was really neat because it helps the kids codify their questions and their problems in a real scientific method kind of way. So I think that’s a real positive thing they’re doing and can spread all over the country.
Jeremy: Just one last thing I want to say on the subject of kids and hacking around with science.
I find it really interesting, a lot of time, a lot of stuff that we see is being really cool, this website, this thing on a screen taking this data… Kids are like, “Oh, whatever. Screens.”
Physical things …they’re blown away by it. This printed out piece of paper that has got data from the web is awesome.
So I find paper, hardware, physical things; they seem to respond to really more than we do.
Audience: Actually, mine’s a follow-up on that.
My name is Steve Amos. I’m doing a lot of work right now with kids in that regard. And you’re right: how do we connect that aspect of kids as citizen scientists, so to speak, and hack and I’m wondering, even in this room, there’s some incredible talent, incredible knowledge. Is there within the site that you mention, a way that people can share so that we may reach out say, “Hey, we’re trying to do some work.” It could be in Detroit or it could be in London or it could be in Nairobi, wherever it is, and be able to connect, so that maybe there’s some talent that says “Hey, here’s some ideas that we’ve had that we’d like to help connect with those teachers who have kids in those local areas.”
If just anybody, besides the panel, that would have a thought on that, just please let me know. My hashtag is #grsteam.
So actually, if you go to ScienceHackDay.com there is actually a link to a Wiki and on that Wiki are all the cities that are planning on doing Science Hack Days that haven’t yet. They list their contact information, and they are all looking for help I would say, from everyone.
It really is like a team effort because it’s not enough to just get one community involved in this. When we’re planning, we’re often trying to get all different types of people from all different types of backgrounds to come. So all these cities; each city is responsible for organising their own.
So if you go on there, there’s I think, oh gosh, maybe twenty five different cities listed right now who are all planning on the Wiki. So reaching out to them would be great.
Matt: Another project that I learned about—actually through another event that Ariel had planned—is Friends of the Future.
If you go to Scientific American, they were organising this thousand scientists in a thousand days, and I think …if you just poke around Google probably you’ll find it.
They were trying to pair up scientists with schools and school districts where you would either have a scientist come and talk about their work or connect through a Skype or Google Hangout connection.
I get the impression that they almost have too many more scientists, because I signed up for it about a year ago and I never got called to interact with anyone. So they might be looking for school …but I think that that’s a real positive programme, not just, even if you can’t physically get someone there, the students can interact and ask questions.
So yeah, a thousand scientists in a thousand days I believe is what it’s called.
Jeremy: I just want to say …the internet’s great and it’s able to connect people geographical distances, which is wonderful. But there’s really nothing quite like people getting together in the same room, in the same place.
One of the nice things about Science Hack Days—or any of these kind of events that get people together in the same room—is they realise, “Oh, I’m not alone.”
The kind of inspiration you get from going to a conference or some other kind of event where you realise, “Ah, my people, I’m not toiling alone.”
And this isn’t just Hack Days, it could be anything. If you’re a web developer working on something, you feel like you’re isolated, but getting together with other web developers in your town is wonderful.
Some friends of mine put together a site called Django People. You could sign up and say, “I do Django programming. I live here. These are some sites I built.” And as a result of that, there ended up being a Django meetup in San Diego, because all these people who didn’t realise they lived so close together, who were all doing Django, were able to get together in real life.
So there really is something for getting people in the same room. One of the nice things about Science Hacks is if you can get this mixture of web developers, teachers, scientists—the more the merrier—in the same physical space. A lot more seems to get done than you get with emails, wikis and stuff like that.
Audience: Okay, there seems to be a clear affinity between the kind of stuff you’re talking about with the Science Hack Days and the whole DIY maker movement.
They’ve had a lot of success in reaching out to children and doing the sort of grass-roots kind of thing in the community. I know that there was Maker Faire in Brighton last year. I went to the World Maker Faire in New York, there’s a lot of energy around that.
Has there been any thought of maybe trying to piggy-back on that? Running your event, running a Science Hack Day event in close conjunction with something like a Makers Event so that you could get a mash-up of those two movements to see if maybe it gets even more energy behind what you’re doing?
Jeremy: They show up anyway, believe me, which is great.
There was a certain amount of hardware hacking at the London one. There was a lot more I think in the Palo Alto Hack Day and I think maybe more again at the second one.
Ariel: Yeah. I mean I’ll just say, running Science Hack Day adjacent to events, yeah it can be great, and I think some cities are considering that. I know that it’s not Maker Faire, but in Iceland, there’s PopTag is going to happen there and they’re going to see if they can run Science Hack Day adjacent to that.
It is something where there’s a lot of affinity. There is a slight difference though, in that Maker Faire is often about showing stuff that you’ve already created, and Science Hack Day is all about what can you make in twenty four hours.
Audience: And I think that may be the kind of differentiation you need between Science Hack Day and Maker. Say, “Here’s the cool stuff that’ll inspire you. Now here’s a chance for you to make something yourself.”
Ariel: Right, or even vice-versa: have a Science Hack Day and have the best hacks present at a Maker Faire.
Those things are being considered. But yeah, I think it’s all fair game. I think as long as you’re not asking people to focus on too many different types of things, as far as a BarCamp and a Hack Day. Many people try and mash those up and that ends up not being super well because you’re asking people too many things.
But yeah, having things adjacent to events definitely helps as far as just getting different communities to attend an event.
Jeremy: And actually I’m thinking about in September in Brighton, there’s a whole bunch of web-related and art-related events going on, so we’ve turned September into this Brighton Digital Festival. I’m definitely looking at like trying to find a weekend there where I could fit in a Science Hack Day; do a Science Hack Day Brighton. And there will be a Maker Faire towards the start of the month, so absolutely sort of glomming these events together can be good. A rising tide raises all boats.
Audience: Hi. I’ve gone to some of these Hackathon events, more in a coding space, and I found that it’s really hard to make something that actually works in that constrained amount of time.
I’m wondering if there’s any kind of concerted effort to pick up someone else’s project and carry it forward and try to finish it. Has that happened in these events?
Jeremy: Somebody did actually just launch a site recently to have an event, I forget …it was something like, “Finish It!” Literally a weekend of hackers where you’re not allowed to start any new hacks. You just have to finish the hacks you started at other ones.
But it’s an absolutely fair point, because people can be very ambitious in what they’re trying to do. And you don’t pull it off in twenty four hours, and that’s something you learn as you go along, as “Oh, if I’d just kept it focused, I probably could’ve finished it.”
But again, I would say things like GitHub can be great if it’s software, where you can just throw it up there and say, “Please, somebody take this, finish it.”
Matt: I can give you some of my own experience.
The wind chime, like I said, we just barely had sound going and I’m like, “God, I’d really like to see visual cues with the sound.”
And so it was about, you know, six, nine months of me just working in my spare time, because I’ve got all this other work that I’ve got to get done. And so this was really hard. I got something together that you can download.
Then at this last Hack Day, I was like, “Oh we’ve got something done, I’m going to be really ambitious. We’re going to take LHC data and I’m going to teach everybody how to analyse it in the space of a few hours and then they’re going to hack something together and I’m going to post this stuff on GitHub beforehand.”
And at ten o’clock at night—I mean Ariel knows—I came and I was talking like, “I’m so depressed that we didn’t do anything. I failed. I failed everybody.”
Then I got this inspiration. I had this three-hour burst of creativity and we got something going. We got something hacked together and you can actually see these things in accumulating data.
But for me, it was actually really important to realise we got something together. I actually shouldn’t take this any further. It was the act of building something, seeing how far we could get, and then that was really as much as we could do, was as important as the previous Hack Day where I got something that I was able to carry forward.
I think sometimes it’s actually good to learn what to let go, that it was a learning experience, that it was on its own. Because I do think—I mean, we talked about this a lot—in twenty four hours there’s a limited amount you can do.
So those are my two experiences at both of those; something that was worth carrying forward and then something that was like, “Okay, we got something; going to put it aside for now and let it be.”
Ariel: So we’ve got just about four minutes left, so we’re going to try and take these last two questions really quickly.
Audience: Hi. Thank you. Beautiful panel.
I love the idea that there are no special people. You can be whatever you want if you like what you must do. As Ariel doesn’t have a background in science but is working at NASA. That’s fantastic!
My question is, how to begin in science? What’s the initial point for people with no science background to create something scientific? Advices? Hack Days?
Ariel: Well we’ve discussed some of the things that we would recommend. Like, if you are on the coding side, GitHub is great and just reading up on science in general.
With me, my relation is really just watching science documentaries on the weekend because I don’t really have a life and that’s what I do. And so, surprisingly, I learn quite a bit from those and it’s great.
But as far as like going to Hack Days and organising one, really, all you have to do is be an organised person. If you’ve got that, then you’ve got everything going for you.
I think it’s really just saying, “hey”,raising your hand and saying, “I’m really excited about this stuff, is anyone else?” And seeing what goes from there.
It’s a long trip to actually doing different things but surprisingly just meeting people actually goes a long way.
Matt: And I think your SpaceHack.org is a nice portal, actually, into ways that citizen scientists …if you want to say…
Ariel: Yeah, SpaceHack.org is just a directory of ways to participate in space exploration. So it’s space specific, but it catalogues all these different ways in which anyone with or without a science background can participate.
Jeremy: Just to say that it sounds like a flippant answer to say that watching science documentaries is how you get into science, but actually, I think it’s really important to value the storytellers who can get people excited about science. Historically people like Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman, James Burke. Now we’ve got Brian Cox. These people who do make it accessible and make it exciting. More of those kind of people; it’s wonderful.
Audience: Hi. So, as a designer who’s into scientist things …but has always been intimidated about going to any sort of Hackathon or anything like that, Ariel, have you found any way of convincing other designers to go with you? Or Jeremy mentioned there’s always trouble getting designers there?
Ariel: Yeah, it can be intimidating, and I’m really—at least with Science Hack Day—I’m really, really trying to fight that.
With San Francisco we had, I think, thirty three per cent developers, twenty per cent scientists, twenty per cent designers and the rest were a mixed bag of anything form a lawyer to a roboticist. But it is intimidating. And I really hate that. And I really hate the people who make it seem like if you’re not a developer, if you don’t know how to code, then you’re behind; too bad, you need to go back to school.
I think the best thing you can do is talk to …I guess, go to a Hackathon, maybe go with some friends and prove people wrong.
Maybe a lot of times actually it’s the fact that Hackathons would like to have designers show up, but they’re not doing a great job of reaching out to them. So also just talking to organisers and asking if there’s any place for designers. They might actually say, “Yeah, we’re actually looking for them; we don’t know any.”
There’s a really big problem with outreach in that regard. But yeah, I really hate anyone who makes it feel intimidating to join science, to join being a coder. It’s crap, because you can absolutely create anything you want and you don’t need to have specific skills to do so.
So on that note, I will thank you all for coming and getting excited with us.
Saturday, July 30th, 2011
Hot topics, transcribed
I had a great line-up of panelists:
We discussed publishing, mobile, browsers, clients and much much more. The audio is available for your huffduffing pleasure and I’ve had it transcribed. I’ve published the transcription over in the articles section of this site, so if you prefer reading to listening, I direct your attention to:
Wednesday, July 27th, 2011
- Listen to the audio recording of this panel.
Jeremy: Okay, welcome back everyone. Thank you all for joining me for the final talk of the day. This is the Hot Topics Panel.
Hands up how many of you have been to an @media before? Okay, so most of you know the drill, that I assemble a team of people here and we talk bollocks for an hour, and it’s good fun.
I have solicited questions ahead of time on my blog; I actually opened up comments. I know! …and I got some questions from that, so I’ve collated a few of those. If you have been asking on Twitter, that’s good. If you’ve handed me scraps of paper, that’s even better; thank you very much.
At this point, it’s too late to start tweeting questions to me because I’m not going to sit here and check Twitter while I’m conducting a conversation. However, I will be opening this up to you guys, because it is all about you. We need to know what are the hot topics on your mind; what do you want to know about, and I think we’ve assembled a pretty good team here to be able to answer those questions.
I have two people from the design track and two people from the development track, so it’s an equal opportunities panel.
Furthest over there, we have Brian Suda who’s living in Reykjavik, Iceland, who is an informatician and speaking today on data visualisation. He’s also been signing his book out front which I highly recommend that you buy. I was honoured to be asked to write the foreword for the book, so that’s the best bit.
Brian: The easy bit.
Jeremy: The easy bit. It’s a great book. I highly recommend you check it out and very happy to have Brian here.
And I have Mr Bruce Lawson. The legendary, the infamous Mr Bruce Lawson, who works at Opera Software but mostly I would say he works for the web. He’s all about the open web and standards, man. I’m delighted to have him join me here.
And then here we have Relly Annett-Baker, who’s just finished speaking on content and history and everything; that was mind-blowing, it was wonderful. Relly and I used to be kind of neighbours when she was living down in Brighton, but alas, she’s moved a little further afield now, so it’s good to see her again. It’s great to have her here on the panel.
And finally, I have the one, the only Douglas fucking Crockford on this panel.
Alright, so I have assembled some questions, like I say. I thought I’d kick off with some easy ones. What’s your favourite colour …in a hexadecimal value please? No, not quite that easy.
I’ve got some nice questions through my comments on my blog, from Nicole actually, Nicole Sullivan, who you will be seeing speaking tomorrow. She wanted to know—this is a nice easy one—“What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen done with CSS3?” But actually I’m going to broaden that and just say, what’s the coolest website you’ve seen recently? What’s the website you’ve seen recently that made you go “…ooohh, that’s cool!”
Who wants to be first? If you can’t think of one, I’ll dive in and lead the way.
Okay. Has anyone seen Space Log? It’s awesome. It’s basically taking the transcripts of the Apollo landings, putting them online in a beautifully designed way. The interaction is lovely. It was all built in a week in a dev fort. It’s wonderful. Hannah Donovan who’s speaking tomorrow is one of the people behind that. Absolutely great stuff. Totally addictive! I was just going to spend five minutes looking at it and half an hour later, I’m scrolling through again. Made me remember how great the web can be. And it was all about telling stories through data, through design.
Okay. That kind of thing. What have you seen lately?
Brian: I was going to say, one of the most interesting ones with CSS technology was the Nike website. As you scrolled down, the different pieces would spin at different parallax speeds.
Bruce, you got anything?
Bruce: Coolest CSS one I’ve seen is Lea Verou’s site—who spoke here earlier—because she’s got some kick-arse demonstrations on that.
Jeremy: Right, so she’s got the demos of the different sort of textures made with CSS3.
Brian: I’ve seen them
Jeremy: Yeah, it’s awesome, so do check out Lea’s site; it is awesome.
Bruce: Probably leaverou.me?
Brian: There’s some very nice tartan plaid in there.
Bruce: And the other cool site I’ve seen is one I used in my talk, which is JackDrawsAnything.com. There’s a six year old lad whose younger brother’s been in and out of hospital, so to raise money to the hospital to say thanks, he offered to draw anything you asked him to draw, for a donation. I had him draw a slide of DRM for my talk because I didn’t have an interstitial. He was aiming to raise £100, and he’s raised 20 grand, so that’s pretty cool. JackDrawsAnything.com, and his dad’s a developer.
Jeremy: It’s a bit like child labour, but still.
Bruce: It’s a lot like child labour, but it’s for a good cause, so we’ll not report it to the authorities or Esther Rantzen.
Relly: The thing that I love about that story is that he opened it up for donations, I saw an interview about it, he’s just having a book published; he’s got a book deal around it as well to raise more funds basically and put all the pictures, collate all of the pictures. He opened it up saying, ‘hey, send me requests’. Within two weeks they had to close it because he had over a thousand requests. The kid only …he’s like at school, he’s got holidays, so at the moment he’s done around 620 of them. They estimate he’ll finish by the end of the summer holidays. He’s doing about five a day at this point, bless him.
Jeremy: Like a very specialised Mechanical Turk.
Relly: Very much so. And the pictures are brilliant, really good.
On that note, one of the things that I’ve really liked recently is irkafirka, which is …you can re-tweet something to the irkafirka account, and they pick a tweet each day to draw a picture of it and give imaginary context. A similar thing was Exploding Dog, where you used to be able to send in text messages and things. But irkafirka do one every day, and they’re really, really funny. Anything like that really tickles me where they take something and re-mould that content and turn it into something new.
Jeremy: There’s a bunch of guys doing that but they’re creating a cappella harmony versions of tweets. They pick random tweets and then perform a cappella harmonies of that tweet.
Relly: See? The web is fucking amazing!
Jeremy: What have you got, Doug? Beat that.
Douglas: I saw a website that has pictures of cats and they’re doing funny things and then there’s a caption and it’s mis-spelled and it’s really funny ‘cos cats can’t spell.
Jeremy: You are so ahead of the curve!
Bruce: I haven’t seen that. Is there a URL?
Relly: Have you got a link?
Jeremy: Okay, now you’ve got some sites to visit.
Douglas: It’s all about content.
Jeremy: Douglas. You kind of dodged the question I had for you earlier after the talk…
Well my question was kind of two part and half of it was about how do we kill IE6, but the other half was cultural resistance to new ways of programming, and I actually had a question, this is from Nadine—she left a comment on the blog. Now she was talking specifically about something like Ruby on Rails—a new framework comes along—but this applies equally to Node JS. It’s something else for developers to figure out. All of a sudden we spent years mastering SQL and now this comes along and the question is, when do frameworks enable and when do they disable the developer? In other words, all this knowledge that we’ve built up over the years, now we have to ditch and learn a whole new way of doing things.
Douglas: That’s always been the way, so since the beginning of programming there’s been resistance to advances in software development. The biggest obstacle in progressing software is the programmers, and that’s why it took a generation to move from Assembly language to Fortran. It took another generation to move away from the GOTO statement, and another generation to go Object Oriented, because there are these guys who have learned to do things and figure they’ve learned enough.
Jeremy: They get comfortable.
Douglas: And we have to wait for them to retire before we get critical mass on the next innovation. So hardware—Moore’s Law—happens in two year cycles; software happens in twenty year cycles, and it’s because of this. It’s not because we can’t come up with the ideas; it’s because there’s so much resistance among our own practitioners to moving forward.
Douglas: Which was all true. But it turned out that there was a good language hidden inside of it. So the thing that’s easier than trying to get everybody to go Fortran is that we don’t have to get everybody to go forward. It’s one site at a time, perhaps even one project at a time. And so we can do this incrementally. We don’t have to push everybody at once.
Jeremy: I guess it’s kind of Darwinian as well because the people who can change will adapt and will survive, and the people who don’t…
Douglas: Yes, so we’ll grow with the smart, young people and you know, the stupid old people are useless, so we won’t worry about them.
Jeremy: I guess that question speaks to a larger topic, and another comment from Brad Koehler.
Bruce, I wonder how you handle this? Brad says that the industry seems to be moving so fast at the minute, we seem to be sprinting just to keep up. HTML5, CSS3, responsive design, boilerplates popping up left, right and centre; tons of mobile devices to look at and try and test on. How do you keep up to date without going insane?
Bruce: That’s a great question. I’m paid to do it full time. Sometimes I go away for a fortnight’s holiday and I come back and I think “Shit, the world’s just moved around a little bit.”
I’ve no idea. What I do is follow blogs from people whose opinion I trust.
Jeremy: I speak to people these days who say they don’t even have time for that; that 140 characters is about as much as they can handle.
Bruce: Yeah, but you can’t get any real information in 140 characters.
I must admit I don’t use my RSS feed any more. I wait for people I know to tweet something that’s a link to a blog or something, another resource on the web, and that’s what I do, so I’ve got stuff filtered by my peers or people I trust.
Jeremy: So Twitter acts like a filter for you?
Bruce: Yes, but you can’t say anything really worth saying in 140 characters. It’s only ephemera.
Jeremy: But if somebody links to something, or if four or five people link to something, you know it’s something you should probably be checking out?
Bruce: Yes, but generally I pick up my mobile phone and look under R and I call Remy Sharp and he knows the answer.
Jeremy: Always good. Remy’s always good for explaining stuff.
Bruce: I’ll tweet his phone number later and you can all do it.
Jeremy: It’s awesome. Remy is the king of the lazy web. If there’s something I’d love to see built or some demo or something, I just make sure I’m in the pub with Remy, and casually let it slip while he’s in earshot and then say something like “But nobody’d be able to build that.” And then he’ll build it.
So it’s not true that there’s nothing worth that you can do in 140 characters, but it is true that if you want to give Remy a kicking for being a smartarse, no jury will convict.
Jeremy: What about you, Brian? How do you keep up? Because it seems like you’ve been specialising lately, what with the book and everything—with data visualisation—but I know that you’re interests are a lot broader.
Brian: I do a lot of reading, I mean I’ve got several hundred things in the RSS reader. Partly because I love RSS feeds because I don’t have to try and remember the two or three hundred websites. When they publish, they publish.
But also—getting back to your question—you don’t necessarily need to be on top of everything. I mean it’s great to be, for you personally for your advancement in the industry, but at the end of the day, your HTML 4 site isn’t going to stop working. It’s great to know these things, but it’s not as mission critical as people might think. I seriously doubt huge domains are going to …they need to move much slower; they have a much wider browser base. They’re not going to be jumping on these very cutting edge things very quickly.
Jeremy: I guess it’s the side of standards, web standards, that people forget; it’s not necessarily about the new shiny stuff and making that work in the latest browsers. It’s ensuring the site you built ten years ago is still going to work in a browser release ten years from now.
You say you read a lot. Do you mean physical books too?
Brian: I do. I have…
Jeremy: How’s that working out for you?
Brian: Quite difficult. I mean I’m quite …Amazon does a really good job. They finally do free shipping to Iceland so I’ve been buying quite a lot.
Jeremy: You no longer have to get everything delivered to…
Brian: Exactly. Sent to somebody else’s house and mule it all the way up to London.
Jeremy: Actually, on the subject of the physical artefacts, the digital artefacts; you have a book, a great book with an awesome foreword. People buy the physical book and maybe a couple of months later, a digital version might be released, whatever format; ePub, PDF, I don’t know. Do people feel entitled to the digital version because they have a copy of the physical version?
Brian: People I think do. I mean me as a consumer, I understand if I bought this physical CD, I can rip it into iTunes and get it in digital form. In the US that was completely legal; in the UK it just became legal recently. I think a lot of people kind of have the same thing. I bought the physical book, I paid for it, but I want to also have it on my Kindle. But at the moment, those are two …sometimes it’s more expensive to have it on the Kindle, there’s two different prices.
Jeremy: Don’t get started with the pricing model!
Brian: So as an author, that’s great for me; I get sale revenue on both. From a consumer, I can completely see where people are coming from, but also as someone who creates as well, I know it takes a lot of energy. It’s not like ripping to an mp3. There’s a lot of work involved in laying it out, getting it set up for…
Relly: It’s a whole different process.
Brian: Yes, but I don’t think that’s necessarily clearly articulated to the consumers.
Jeremy: I saw you nodding your head there, Bruce. Do you have first-hand knowledge of people expecting to have the electronic version?
Bruce: Well I know that there’s been 14,000 illegal downloads of our book from tosspot.ru or something. But Remy and I have already bought one yacht each on the proceeds, so we don’t need another.
No, we wrote the book because we wanted to write a book. We wanted to get invited to speak at things like this on the back of it. It was good for us.
Jeremy: I mean, if somebody downloads an electronic copy from a warez site, that’s probably not a lost sale.
Bruce: I’d rather that person coded the shit right because they’d read an illegal version of our book than coded shit wrong because they hadn’t been able to read the book, personally.
Jeremy: Fair enough.
You’ve kind of got all this ahead of you, Relly.
Relly: Yes. Apparently I’m doing a book! Well, I am doing a book. It’s meant to be out now, and it’s not. There’s a reason for that. Books take a long time to write. Who knew?
So I’m currently writing a book with the good people at Five Simple Steps that Brian has been publishing with, and yes, I’m going through the process at the moment going backwards and forwards with an editor. I can say hands down, Five Simple Steps are amazing publishers if you ever get the chance to do a book with them, seize it completely.
But I think the kind of educational stuff we do rather than, you know, I’m not writing a fiction book, if anyone’s wondering; I’m writing a book about my job, so other people can do my job. I think for us, what you said, we’re writing it as an education, we’re not going to make a massive profit out of it. I’m hoping for a weekend away in a caravan out of the proceeds, frankly, and any more than that is great.
Jeremy: A small caravan?
Relly: A small caravan, yes. Well, I don’t want to take the kids with me. If it’s a four berth caravan, I have to take them as well.
So there is that thing that you write a book …I could write a book and give it away for free. I like books and I quite like to have a physical book.
Jeremy: You mean a physical book?
Relly: Yes. I love my Kindle; I love reading my Kindle. I said in my talk actually that the way forward for text books generally is probably going to be things like e-readers and stuff because of the print run.
So I bought a text book for my talk called The Printing Press As An Agent Of Change and the edition that I wanted was £89 hardback, and it’s like that just makes me cry, but it’s because it’s such a small print run, and so I think with the sort of things we’re doing, moving it into digital format is going to be the way to go. Maybe with the paperback accompaniment, maybe a special edition, that kind of stuff, but more and more things are going to go in that direction because it’s the only way they’re going to be profitable really.
Jeremy: And stay up to date?
Relly: And stay up to date.
Jeremy: Douglas; your book is a technology related book, but you’ve kind of had almost like a long zoom view in that it wasn’t about to go out of date any time soon.
Douglas: It’s an evergreen.
Jeremy: An evergreen. Indeed. It’s a classic. It’ll never go out of style. But that’s kind of unusual for a technology book, right?
Douglas: It is. I mean, most technical books have a version number in the title and they go obsolete in a few months.
Jeremy: Certainly when it’s physical books. So I guess this is another area where the digital could help us, where you have a constantly updated book?
Brian: This is the tricky thing as well. People are used to paying for a .1 update of a physical book, a second edition or third edition of a book, but if you paid for a PDF, do people feel entitled to get that…
Jeremy: Lifetime updates?
Brian: Yes. And I think a lot of publishers are struggling with how to take that.
Relly: One fiction author that I’ve seen deal with that quite nicely is a guy called Jasper Fforde. He writes quite comic novels. With all of his novels, he’s had a fairly rudimentary website that he’s done himself in agreement with his publisher, where he has a making of bookumentary, where he discusses the writing the book and different locations he uses as inspiration. And where he’s made mistakes and things, he has an updated version of the book, and he actually has versions that you can cut out and print the same size as your print edition, and stick it on top, which I think is a really cute idea. But it goes to show there is a need for this kind of stuff and that may be a way of handling it.
Jeremy: On the one hand, there’s all sorts of opportunities being afforded by digitising things, for example, books. But on the other hand you have these lumbering, slow-moving industries that have been built upon physical artefacts, like the publishing industry—not Five Simple Steps but standard publishing houses. They’re ignoring the lessons of the music industry and ignoring the lessons of the film industry and making the same mistakes over and over.
That’s something somebody brought up—I got handed a question from John—which is to do with what Tom Coates was talking about today. He was talking about what BERG had called Mujicomp. It’s going to be this wonderful networked environment full of things that are useful and beautiful, all connected to a network, which is a great vision, a great dream. But looking at the way that some industries have been dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age, I wonder if it might go more dystopian rather than utopian. John writes that he fears that it might be more like Ryanaircomp rather than Mujicomp, which is a frightening thought.
Brian, would you take a dystopian or utopian view of this brave digital networked future that lies ahead of us?
Brian: I think there was somebody who talked about, worried about killer robots, and he said before we get a killer robot, we’ve got a not so nice robot, and before the not so nice robot we’ve just got an angry robot.
Jeremy: Surly robot uprising.
Brian: Yes, so I think there’s a sliding scale of things we would probably stop before we had the killer robot. I would hope to think that before we ended up living in a house of Ryanaircomp, somebody would put their foot down on the Easyjetcomp, maybe the step right before.
Jeremy: Like purgatory but not hell.
Brian: So I don’t foresee it ever happening. Maybe it’ll become more popular. We see Facebook, bit of a kind of lowest common denominator that every flocks to, but I don’t, and I think there are still people with aspirational good taste that would never get down to a Ryanair.
Jeremy: But you think that would win out? You think that will in the long term…
Brian: It may tip with it. It may tip more than 50%; it would never be the way of living.
Jeremy: I guess as always with these things with technology, science fiction is a great place to look for what could happen to dystopians and the utopians. The film that I think that is of most interest to something like Mujicomp, or for designers in general, is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil because it does show a nightmare scenario where bad design is everywhere, and everything is the opposite of user-centred. Every designer …who’s seen the film Brazil? Everyone needs to see the film, because it is Ryanaircomp in film form.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find science fiction to be enormously beneficial in our industry.
Douglas: The most dystopian thing I’ve seen in digital media right now is Digital Rights Management. My reservation about buying a Kindle is that Amazon has reserved the right to delete anything they want from my device at any time for any reason, including incompetence, as they’ve already demonstrated. In order to have that right they necessarily need to know everything that I have. I don’t believe that they should have either of those rights. I’d like the device to be solely mine and I’d like to be solely responsible for what’s on it. The content industry is worried about losing control and they should, because they will. But while we still have a little bit of control, they’re trying to latch onto it as best they can with DRM, and eventually it will fail. If it doesn’t then things get really bad.
Jeremy: That would be a real dystopia. I agree; I think DRM is the epitome of the worst case scenario because what you’ll have is licensing and formats mashed together as restrictive licensing and a specific format mashed together and the result is worse, it’s like the multiplication of how bad those two things are. But I also think you’re right that it can’t in the long term succeed. As Bruce Schneier puts it; trying to make digital bits that aren’t copyable is like trying to make water that isn’t wet.
Douglas: Yes, they’re trying to repeal the laws of mathematics, and it cannot be done.
Jeremy: And we have been here already with the music industry, with the film industry. It’s sad when you see industries going down the same route. But then we have these interesting experiments; things like Five Simple Steps and other people trying interesting stuff. James Bridle—who was mentioned earlier on—he’s been doing all sorts of awesome publishing stuff. It’s an opportunity as well as a potential dystopia.
Jeremy: Someone had a question for you actually. Well I think it’s something that would relate to what you do. James Childers …I basically asked on my blog, “Tell me what grinds your gears”…
Relly: Relly. Relly grinds my gears.
Jeremy: No. A lot of people were talking about clients and how they find it frustrating. What James specifically said was “Teaching clients how to use a CMS seems impossible. They never fully grasp a concept.” Now is that a problem with the clients, or is that a problem with the CMS?
Relly: It’s a problem with the CMS. And also it’s more than that.
Jeff Eaton and Karen McGrane do a great talk together. Jeff Eaton’s really into Drupal stuff, and Karen McGrane is a UX and content strategist advocate, and they talk about how the forgotten interface of trying to use a CMS, the person who has to put this content in. Someone buys the CMS because they’ve had decisions made, they’ve had vendor meetings, a decision’s made and someone’s given them a holiday in the Bahamas or however these decisions are made. Then a completely different set of people, who aren’t necessarily from a technical background at all, are given a user interface that is wholly developer focused. Especially things like Drupal which is built by the developer community so it obviously has that kind of focus. And they’re kind of left going, “Well, I can’t make this work.” Then they start inventing their own workarounds. And that’s when the designer or developer comes back and sees what the client’s doing and goes “Yah …not like that!” Because the workflow becomes really difficult.
What we need to do is start looking back at the tools that we’re giving people and saying, “Well actually is this tool fit for purpose?” because in some cases I really don’t think it is.
Jeremy: To be fair, this isn’t just a web thing; I’ve heard this about architecture. Architects will design a building for someone who isn’t an architect. They’re designing for a completely different person and basically the architect should be made to live in that building for a year. In the same way I think the person who designs the content management system maybe should be the one using it.
Relly: A great example of that is when I lived in Brighton. I have a little boy Casper. He’s just coming up for two. When he was quite young, he was poorly quite often and he had to go to the Children’s Hospital. And the Children’s Hospital had been purpose-built for children. Apart from the beds. For some reason, they just put in these things that were meant to be like cots, but essentially they would just stop the child rolling off …the important thing was that the child was high off the ground so the nurse could get to them and could do stuff, which was fine, but I spent the entire time trying to make sure that my child who could climb out of a cot, but was not big enough for a bed, was not able to …I spent an entire night just pinning him down basically, because no one had tested this. But they thought: baby; baby in a cot; child: child in a bed and no one had thought about this…
Jeremy: Baby unit, cot unit.
Relly: Yes. No one had thought about how this was going to work. It left me with a sick child who really didn’t want to be in that bed trying to climb out of it for twelve hours, is quite tiring, and I really cursed the person that invented that bed for that reason.
Jeremy: So as I say, I’ve got quite a few comments from people talking, basically dissing clients. I think I might be the only one who’s in an agency. No, you’re in an agency as well…
Brian: I was going to say, how many people have their own …how many do they work for a product versus dealing with clients? Who does client is the question.
Jeremy: Okay, a fair few. And they’re probably all grumbling about their clients, like this comment I got…
Relly: Clients aren’t rubbish, let’s be clear on that.
Jeremy: Well this is from Chris. He says “Dumb clients always grind my gears. I end up having to spend hours, if not days, talking through how the web works in a nutshell.”
I don’t know; that’s the classic “blame the user.”
Relly: Is that not your job?
Jeremy: Explaining to Clients? I think—Bruce, tell me what you think—I think a lot of developers use clients as a crutch.
Oh, do you want to take that?
Brian: It’d better be that kidney you’re waiting for.
Bruce: I had a phone call half an hour ago telling me I’m moving house next week. That’s my reason for having the phone on.
Relly: It’s probably the Opera lawyers, isn’t it? The Opera lawyers saying, “Don’t let him speak!”
Bruce: I’m very sorry. Very rude.
Can I come back to something that Relly said about the CMSs? Because one of the reasons I left the job I used to have before joining Opera was CMSs. A horrible, horrible thing. The more expensive they are, the worse they are, I think, invariably.
There’s a million, billion different CMSs out there, all purporting effectively to do the same thing. And I’m coming around to the conclusion now there is no magic bullet. The reason there’s a million different CMSs out there is there’s a million different kinds of content out there. That’s the big trouble actually, is that they all claim they do everything. They all start life doing one thing really well. I see WordPress going this way. But it’s the best that I’ve found, in that you can’t have one CMS that does everything and is comprehensible to the human mind, let alone those stupid numpty clients…
Jeremy: Not to rag on Drupal again, but I had this very argument. I went to Drupalcon earlier this year, and it seemed to me their main problem is they’re trying to please everyone. When you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. Your CMS will turn into this Frankenstein type creation. Which is why it was interesting when Mark Boulton and Leisa Reichelt were taken on board to help re-design the admin interface, one of the first things they did was design principles, they boiled it down to four design principles. The thing about design principles that I really like is a lot of time it’s figuring out who’s going to get pissed off, who you’re not going to please. They were saying things like, “Go for the 80%, forget about the 20% exceptions.” “Privilege the content creator” was one of their design principles, which means you’re going to piss off other people; developers.
You’re right; it seems that software inevitably tries to scale to please everyone. What’s that phrase? All software evolves until it can send and receive e-mail…
Bruce: check e-mail.
Jeremy: Seems pretty much everything on the web has gone that way.
Brian: A quick aside back to dealing with clients.
I was recently reading a book, Predictably Irrational.
Jeremy: Dan Ariely?
Brian: Yes. It’s a really good book. It doesn’t deal with the web directly; it’s just talking about psychology and how we deal with other people.
In that, he had a guy who worked for a large accounting agency or bank, and he spent weeks and weeks building this beautiful PowerPoint presentation for his boss. He stayed in late, did everything he should, got paid for it, gave it to his boss on a Friday. Monday morning comes in, says “how did the meeting go over the weekend?” The boss said, “We dropped the project, it doesn’t matter, didn’t need your PowerPoint, but good job.” The guy was utterly crushed. He spent all that time and effort. He still got paid for it.
So then Dan Ariely did a quick experiment. He would ask for volunteers. He gave them a sheet of paper and said “I want you to circle every letter S on the piece of paper, and when you’re done, just bring it up.” For a third of the group, he would say “Thank you very much,” give them £5, look it over and count the number of Ss.
The second group, he would take the piece of paper, give them £5 and simply just put it on a stack.
Then for the third group, they would come up, he would give them £5 and immediately just put it into a shredder
Then they asked like how much self worth or how did you feel afterwards? The group where they actually checked it and the group where they just said “thank you” and put it off to the side felt fine about their work. But the group that had it shredded felt absolutely horrible.
Now all three of the groups got paid the same amount of money. At the end of the day, if that’s all you’re concerned with, why would you be unhappy?
In previous jobs, I used to do a lot of client work, and I would pitch all these great ideas, and the clients were like, “This is brilliant! …don’t have the money” or “This is brilliant, let’s get started,” and then they’d drop it. It’s the same sort of thing. I think just after a few months or six months of that, you just get really crushed.
Jeremy: If you do want to hear more about the psychology of websites, Stephen Anderson will be talking tomorrow about how we can all become mentalists and manipulate people. It’ll be awesome.
You make a good point about what motivates people and what motivates programmers.
Douglas, I don’t know if you’ve found this, but I think financial motivation—bonuses based on amount of code shipped—is probably the worst way to motivate human beings.
Douglas: Yes, it’s especially a very difficult way to motivate programmers. You can’t bribe programmers.
Jeremy: They want to solve the problem.
Douglas: Yes, they have their own motivation for why they do things and you hope that you can align their natural motivations to your objectives.
Jeremy: Do you deal with having to motivate people?
Douglas: No, I don’t actually do anything useful.
Jeremy: Okay, you just get Yahoo to underwrite your travels while you go off and talk about Node JS and stuff? Cool.
Relly: That’s another fact right there.
Jeremy: That sounds like a dream job to me.
So this being a hot topics panel, it is a very hot time on the web I would say. To me it feels like a really exciting time. There’s so much going on. It’s hard to keep up. HTML5, CSS3, web fonts, this, that, the other. But it’s exciting.
The one big hot topic surely has to be mobile and the way that mobile has kind of changed everything, I hope. I hope it’s making people re-assess everything they’ve assumed up ‘till now. That’s certainly the way I’m looking back on my work up to now; “Wow, we’ve been doing it wrong the whole time.”
Relly, when it comes to reading on the web, do you see mobile as a game changer?
Relly: I see the ability to free content from a desktop computer and move it onto other devices that then get designed with that in mind, yes completely. Not necessarily …I mean I read fine on my iPhone and I’m quite happy to do it but it’s not my first choice of place to go and do that. I would still buy a book over do that if I had the choice.
But then there’s the Kindle. I can only see things like that beginning to free up. I have this idea that …Tom Coates mentioned that he has a screen in every room of his small flat, and I think I’m probably …I think Paul and I are probably quite similar and we’ve got something quite close to that. But I kind of think about …so I have two small children, and when they’re …ten, fifteen years from now, what are they going to be doing their homework on? I’m going to be beaming it from the kitchen, checking it on my internet fridge. The ability to move all that stuff around, that’s what really excites me. More than mobile is a device, mobile is a concept; being able to take the data you want and take it with you where you want and be able to curate that. That’s what really excites me.
Jeremy: I think you’re right. You pointed to the Orbital Content article on A List Apart. I think what that shows is that if we’re not willing to provide this portability, people will find a way to do it anyway. People will interpret the lack of portability as damage and route around it, which they’re doing with services like Readability, Instapaper, Safari’s Reader; all these things which are about getting down to the atomic unit. It’s kind of interesting that maybe our job as designers is how can we design something that’s so nice to read on so many devices that people won’t have to reach for those tools?
Relly: Yes, I mean, Readability shouldn’t really have to exist. Readability is …it’s two things. Like Instapaper it allows you to read stuff in a much nicer environment than the average website. But it also pays a small amount to the person. You basically pay a donation subscription. It gets divided up between the content that you choose to read over that time, and to small artists and bloggers and article writers. That’s going to start stacking up too. Just like Etsy is providing a market-place for small craft people that wasn’t there a few years ago, I think articles and poetry and expressions like that, as well as factual stuff, that’s going to start becoming a way of cultivating this indie movement in content. I think that’s massively exciting. You’ve got things like Bandcamp as well and all that kind of stuff.
Jeremy: Again, not great for the traditional publishers, but it’s a huge opportunity for them. All of these disruptive technologies like Bandcamp, like Kickstarter, like Readability. Yes, they could destroy entire industries but they could also save industries if those industries just could see it.
Douglas. Mobile, from your perspective, you’re talking down at the infrastructure level on this with Node JS now.
Douglas: Mobile is really hard because of the huge variability in standards compliance. There are more manufacturers and more models within each manufacturer and variations within those models. It’s exponentially insane.
This industry, this community has savaged Microsoft for many years because of its variations in IE, but that is nothing compared to what goes on in mobile. But somehow those guys are getting a pass, and we should be on them because they’re much worse to us than Microsoft has ever been.
Jeremy: So we should be a lot angrier about the disparity.
Douglas: We absolutely should, yes.
Jeremy: Now, you work for a browser manufacturer that makes two mobile browsers. Do you find that the desktop world just seems easy-peasy compared to mobile?
Bruce: It’s bewildering to me, the amount of excitement there is about mobile at the moment because, frankly, the web was founded in 1834 or whenever it was, to be accessible on any device to anybody with a disability in any country in any language. So I’m really glad that people give a toss now.
It always gives me a wry smile when third-party people like Brian Rieger, for example, tell people how big Opera’s market share is and they go “No way, I thought it was only iOS.” It’s vindication for me as someone who’s been harping on about accessibility for a decade, and for the organisation I work for that’s been doing this.
But it is really, really hard. There’s light at the end of the tunnel I think, but at some point we’re going to be saying, “I’m really sorry that your mobile device is just not adept at this, here is raw content.”
I don’t know if anybody here still has workarounds to serve raw content for IE5 Mac or Netscape 4.7. I suspect, sadly, that we’re going to end up doing that with IE6. You have to draw a line at some point, which is terrible. I don’t know if you’ve got any questions about IE6…
Jeremy: I think Douglas would be able to take any questions you might have on IE6 and the fate you wish for it. What’s your plan for IE6, you want us all to…
Douglas: We all know that IE6 must die. Beyond that, I’m kinda fuzzy.
Jeremy: Okay, one day we’ll kill it.
Douglas: I thought that we would pick some day, we would all agree the major websites would refuse to serve IE6 past that date. But getting that agreement appears to be impossible.
Jeremy: Like you say, that’s one browser in the desktop world. In mobile that problem’s multiplied. Old Blackberry browsers, pre-WebKit, it’s just kind of nuts. I think you have to draw a line at some point and say, you’ll get the raw content.
Bruce: Well the way for IE6 to die is embarrassingly simple. Microsoft need to port IE9 to Windows XP which is used by 50% of the world.
Brian: I think it’s a little trickier, because I think a lot of institutions have OEM versions of IE6.
Relly: That’s true of the NHS. One of the projects that Paul and I have been working on recently, AlphaGov, which has been in prototype for the new UK Government, one of the things we had as a design principle was “Fuck IE6.” It caused such a big stink, because so many places within Government use an OEM version of IE6,. But it was just kind of like, “You could install Firefox or Opera, or Chrome, or…”
Jeremy: It has to be said here we’re talking about it as though it’s a binary choice, either a browser’s supported or it’s not. Whether we’re talking about IE6 or whether we’re talking about a multitude of different mobile browsers. But surely thanks to progressive enhancement, we can have our cake and eat it too? I think we can make sure everyone gets access to the content. They can find out about their government data, but the better browsers get the better experience, get the better APIs.
Jeremy: How do you test for that? Is there content negotiation going on?
Douglas: Yes, well the browsers identify themselves, you get to use user agent.
Jeremy: So you’re using a white-list of user agent strings?
Douglas: We’ll give the good content to the white list and if something comes in we don’t recognise then we’ll degrade to the web 1.0 experience.
Jeremy: I think that could be, or should be the way we should be building anyway, for mobile or not, is that we stop thinking about support as this binary thing.
Brian: I generally agree with you except some bits of me in the back of my head still think that, because a lot of websites have m.foobar.com, m.bbc, and it’s a completely different website. A lot of the same information, but it’s completely different. So the downside is you end up maintaining two websites, and it’s not progressive enhancement, but at the same time is it really the same objective?
We build a CMS that we’re trying to please everybody with, and it fails completely. We build this progressive enhancement website which should try and fit every situation, but it’s not necessarily, like a little piece of me says…
Jeremy: Adapts to every situation. By why do you need to be in a separate URL?
Brian: Because it’s technically…
Jeremy: God forbid a .mobi domain!
Brian: …that’s a whole problem in itself.
I worked for an airline who had the same website in half a dozen different languages, and then what’s the .mobi? Is it English? Is it French? Is it German? Whereas if it’s .dk, .de, you obviously know the localisation. When we dealt with the airlines, when you go to the .com website, you need all sorts of information; destinations, flights, prices, where things are, but maybe on the mobile, you’re like, “Well I don’t need…”
Jeremy: Now you get into tricky territory. You’re trying to mind-read what people want in the context of their device.
Brian: No, I’m just saying you can pick which URL you want to go to. If I go to m, I know I’m getting a very lightweight version with cancellations and flight times. If I go to the www, I’m getting the full site. That’s independent of the device.
Jeremy: It is interesting that we’re starting to see this “full site,” a desktop version and a “pared down site” for mobile. Quite a lot of times the mobile site is nicer because it is focused on one single task.
The reason why I’m excited about mobile is that it does, like you say, make us refocus on the way we’ve been doing things for years. “Wait a moment: why is the other site so big, bloated, filled with all this crap that nobody actually wants?”
For me this resurgence in interest goes back to the original spirit of the web, of one web, where it doesn’t matter what device you have, you should be able to get at the core content. That’s why I’m excited. It makes us revisit the sites we’ve been building for ten years.
I think a lot of people get confused that when we’re talking about this new way of doing different mobile that we’re effectively saying, “Oh we got the web figured out, we figured out that for ten years, and now we have to figure out mobile and we can apply what we’ve learned.” Whereas actually what’s happening is we’re turning ‘round, looking at what we’ve done for ten years and going, “Wow, we have not got this figured out at all,” we’ve been doing it wrong this whole time, building desktop-specific websites,” which is as bad as building mobile-specific websites or fridge-specific websites. It should be one web.
Bruce: A little while ago, about 2001, 2002, Tesco did a very good project. They built an accessible website and they had a special “cripples only” site really, it was a screen-reader site. People I know in the disability advocacy community said, “You know, this is crap. If you’re selling ads, serving ads to the desktop site, we want it on the real site, we want the ads too and know what’s going on.” That got merged. To me, mobile-only sites in 2011 is like screen-reader only sites in 2001.
Jeremy: And what’s interesting is the same thing happened back then, which was that the perfectly-abled customers were going to the accessible text-only version because it was easier to navigate; it was simpler.
Bruce: And quicker.
Jeremy And quicker, exactly. So once again, I think we’re seeing the same mistakes. Just as we did do those separate but equal sites as a bad practice back then, we’re doing the same thing now.
Brian: What happened was the separate but equal sites got merged into the big bloated site with just accessible things.
Jeremy: We went the wrong way. We went in the wrong direction, and we should have been removing stuff but we just started throwing stuff in there
Douglas: Yes, we absolutely did, we’ve had a generation of product managers and product designers who do not understand how their application delivers value, so instead they’re delivering bloat.
Jeremy: This is the classic thing where good design should be I think subtractive; it’s all about taking away but what happens is people throw stuff in.
Douglas: Minimalism is undervalued.
Jeremy: I agree.
At this point I’d like to throw it open to the audience. We might need a little bit of light to see the audience. We have some runners with microphones, so raise your hand if you have…
We’ve got someone over here on this side. Over here.
Relly: They are a beautiful bunch, aren’t they? What a good looking set of attendees.
Jeremy: Somebody’s waving madly. We’re just getting the microphone switched on. Keep your hand up sir, and we’ll get to you momentarily. There we go.
Audience member: This kind of goes back to what you’ve been talking about, Douglas, before around IE6 and how you’d like to see it die. Do you think we’re about three years away from having exactly the same problems all over again with IE8 because they won’t port it to XP?
Douglas: We already have those problems with IE9. I’m hoping 10 gets it right. But we still have the XP problem. Microsoft has dug in saying that they don’t want to go back, and I understand why they don’t want to go back. So my advice to anybody who’s on XP is, use a web browser which is not from Microsoft, and then it’ll be fine.
Jeremy: Problem solved!
Bruce: My advice is use Opera by the way.
Jeremy: So the thing is, what I would say is—the situation we were saying earler about in two to three years will be the same problem with IE8, IE9—the parallel I actually see is in a few more years we will have the same situation with mobile Safari, in that people are now making browser-specific websites, specifically for Safari, maybe for Android, in the same way that people made Internet Explorer specific websites and that’s how we got stuck with this damn problem.
Douglas: Or Netscape websites.
Jeremy: Or Netscape-specific websites for those of old enough to remember back that far, showing our age.
John, you’ve got a question.
Audience member: I was really interested in Relly’s talk effectively mapping civilisation as this kind of …how we’ve been able to access and use or carry content around with us. There’s another way of looking at civilisation which is effectively our tools. Our ability to do things and make things and manipulate and change the world. In some ways I see this possible parallel that one of the interesting things with mobile is a switch to applications from a world where there were a lot of websites which were mainly about navigating and finding content, to mobile where there was a lot more things that looked and felt like tools rather than places to access content.
Is there any valid difference there? Is this just in my head? Does this really mean anything? Tools as opposed to content.
Brian: I know, Jeremy, you had bookmarked something really interesting a few days ago.
Jeremy: Well I tend to have strong opinions on this question generally. May I?
Relly: You start.
Jeremy: I call shenanigans on web apps. People just use the word as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. “Oh you know, all these best practices we’ve learned about, putting content at a URL on the network that you access through a web browser. We don’t even even have to worry about this stuff any more because this isn’t a document at a URL, this is a web app, therefore none of the rules apply.”
We’ve been here before because this happened when Ajax hit the scene. Suddenly it was like, “It’s Ajax. It’s not a website, it’s a web app, so enhancement doesn’t matter any more, accessibility doesn’t matter any more, because it’s a web app.”
Define web app! Could somebody please do that for me?
Relly: An application on the web
Jeremy: An application on the web. Right. Okay, thank you Relly.
I will freely admit that there are application-like properties and there are document-like properties. I would say pretty much every website exists somewhere on that scale, but there are very, very, very few websites that are either pure documents or pure application. At some point, there’s content, even if that content is a service.
What I see is in the same way that, I mentioned earlier I think some developers use clients as a crutch, as an excuse to avoid trying something like, “Oh, the client will never go for it,” or they’ll use Internet Explorer 6 as a crutch to say, “Oh, we can’t try out this new technique because of Internet Explorer 6.” I see apps being used as like, “Oh, we don’t have to worry about making it with progressive enhancement or making sure it’s accessible because it’s a web app.” It literally is like people using it like a ‘get out of jail free’ card.
So while there is lots of revolutionary stuff going on and things moving to mobile devices, the context, the portability of the content or service, I call shenanigans on web apps.
Relly, did you…
Relly: Well from my point of view, when I talk to clients about content, I try not to get into specific containers of content. They say, “let’s have a blog,” and I try and say, “What are we doing with the blog? What’s the content going to be? Is it going to be content for education, content for entertainment, content for edification?” Defining it by that content rather than the container.
I see web apps as the same thing. I don’t necessarily think of a blog article and an audio podcast or whatever. I think of it as a category of that content, which I know is kind of unusual. I see the web apps versus web page stuff as a similar thing.
I’m lucky I guess in that a lot of those decisions are kind of made outside of what I do currently. I would like to be more part of them as a content strategist, but often they’re defined before I get there. When I do get involved early enough…
One of the things—I mentioned AlphaGov earlier—is we had to make the decision about what content we were going to create and what format it was going to be in. We had to be kind of arbitrary with the time. Was it going to be a tool, or was it going to be a guide or was it going to be an answer? All these decisions were made, and the further we got into the process, we started finding that our whiteboard, instead of saying guide tool, answer was guide/app/content/answer. It was too hard to draw ring-fences. You have to take it on a case by case basis.
Jeremy: So those fences were drawn up too early?
Jeremy: When what you really want to be thinking about is what’s the task.
Relly: Yes, what’s the task. And these things go hand in hand. It wasn’t just, “Right, we’re going to have six tools and nine apps” or whatever. But what we came to define as an app was a bundle of content that may be used in a different way; a tool, a guide to something, maybe a glossary related to that topic.
Jeremy: A bundle of …sorry, can you repeat that?
Relly: A bundle of content.
Jeremy: Okay. We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty. That’s the best definition I’ve heard yet.
I think Remy might have something to say on this.
Remy: I don’t agree with you Jeremy.
Jeremy: You’re wrong, obviously.
Bruce: He’s not.
Remy: I have argued that a blog is a website because it’s content and because you consume it, and anything you’re publishing yourself I would argue, you use a web app to publish that. There are grey areas, and I’m also playing devil’s advocate.
Jeremy: How does the content get on the blog?
Remy: You produce it, so anyway, This the question. No, but a comment is content you publish yourself, but like you said yourself, there is this grey scale. On the web apps or websites like Gmail where it is mostly application, mostly you doing something to produce content, rather than just consuming, their mobile version for their worst possible mobiles, you couldn’t progressively enhance that up to a desktop experience, because it would be awful. So they do user agent sniffing and deliver different websites.
Jeremy: It would be very difficult. It would be quite a challenge. This is the thing. I think a lot of people give up too quickly.
Remy: They do that now. They deliver three, almost four different versions of it, and it means that their mobile…
Jeremy: Because they approached it exactly the wrong way. When Gmail launched, it was the fully fledged one that required a certain level of browser, a certain level of technology, and then they had to retro-actively create the simpler version or versions as they’ve done now. If you start with the simple version—this is the key to all this stuff whether it’s one web, responsive design, any of this—the key is starting with what’s the most basic content or task and building up from there. They didn’t do that.
Remy: But the more advanced you get, the more you have to actually have executing in the browser and as we know, the browser that’s particularly popular isn’t good at loading and running a shitload of jobs.
Jeremy: It’s hard. I think it’s fascinating what Douglas was talking about, the fact that you can make that decision on a browser by browser basis. I would say they are getting the same content but the experience is completely different. And that’s okay. So I too am pretty excited about Node JS from that perspective. Not so much about the event driven speed and performance which is exciting too, but the fact that you could do real content negotiation based on capabilities of a browser.
John has a follow-up point
Audience member: I’d just come back and just say I agree, strangely I agree with both Jeremy and Remy, because I think having …I mean using the fact, “Oh I’m doing an app” as an excuse just to go back to a whole load of crap that we used to do, I mean clearly that’s wrong. But for example, my son is an electronic music, sort of weird, strange bangy noises, music composer and makes tools for composing and performing, and those …to me, that’s not a content thing. That’s a …it’s a tool that you use to do something.
Jeremy: It’s task based.
Audience member: So I absolutely agree with Jeremy’s thing that there’s a continuum, where there’s a tool with a bit of content that floats around in it and there’s a things that are a lot of content that have some tools associated with them. Yes, they feel at the far ends of that spectrum. I think they feel very different from each other.
Jeremy: They look like two very different things. Actually they’re two sides of the same thing.
Audience member: But yes, as the excuse for just being crap; no.
Jeremy: Right, there’s a cop-out.
I will qualify this. Between you and me, the correct answer is “it depends.” Because that’s the correct answer to every question on the web; it’s “it depends.” But just so you know, my public face and persona will always be hard-ass and say no, it’s got to be progressive enhancement and one web and that’s the way we’re going to go, but I know actually some situations …but don’t tell anyone. My reputation will be in tatters.
I’m kind of dominating this here. Sorry guys, I’m not giving you a chance. We need to get some more questions for everybody. There was…
Relly: There was Paul at the front
Paul: Taking on that point that you were just saying about how we should have built the…
Jeremy: I thought we were going to go on to different point! I’ve been dominating this!
Paul: Just one more quick thing?
Paul: Okay. The Gmail thing—it’s not going to be the case with Google but could be the case in other contexts—but what happens if the reason they didn’t build the basic one first is because they needed to show, they needed to prove the functionality of the bigger one in order to gain funding to continue the project, so they needed to do the big “Wow, yeah”, impress the stakeholders; let’s get some more money in, and then we can go back and do the stuff that we missed earlier.
Jeremy: Effectively what you’re talking about there is a process, a workflow thing, how you approach it.
Paul: I think you’re ignoring that by saying we’ve always got to start with the basics and work your way up.
Jeremy: It’s down to professional integrity as well and being able to sleep at night; being able to say, “I did it the right way.”
Paul: And then lose funding for the entire project as a result?
Jeremy: If all you care about is money, you’re a prostitute.
Paul: No, I’m not caring about the money. Caring about the project’s future!
Relly: Are you calling my husband a prostitute?
Jeremy: Sorry. Again, I’m being a hard ass. I’m being a hard ass. Could somebody more pragmatic than me take this question?
Relly: Don’t look at me. It’s my husband; I can talk about it for hours.
Jeremy: Sorry for calling your husband a prostitute.
Brian: Any sort of Agile sprint development, you’re trying to always build the least, or the most …is it the least minimal? Most valuable product for the least amount of time and effort, so in that case yes, you could easily say we’ve got two weeks to do this; what is the most valuable thing we can build for the least amount of effort? And that’s not the simplest thing with fifteen layers on top of it. It’s let’s build the high end thing, get it working; that’s the most valuable product for the least effort.
Because like you said, in two weeks’ time, your project could be canned.
Jeremy: You’re thinking on very short timescales here. Think about the legacy we leave behind.
Brian: This is also like rapid development.
Jeremy: Again, another crutch people use. Rapid development and Agile, they’re just used as a crutch when half-assed is what they mean. “We were kind of agile in our process.” “We did it half-assed.”
Relly: I love it when people use Agile as a verb, like we Agiled it.
And I’ve worked …I tend to work with a number of different agencies and move around, so I’ve been lucky in that I get to see a lot of different workflows. I’ve seen some really crap stuff and I’ve seen some really good stuff, right across the scale of Waterfall and Agile and things like that. The best things I’ve found is when people, when teams get together at the beginning and say, “Right, how are we actually going to make this work for us and what we’re able to do within a time-scale?”, rather than saying “Right, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that,” and being able to adapt to that sort of stuff.
I said in my talk that Agile is great for developers; pretty good for designers; really hard for content people because it doesn’t scale too well. Developers have got computer power on their side and they can get processes going and draw up code. And designers, they’ve got Photoshop and other things that help them do bits and pieces and Fireworks enable them to put it together. And then content people have got some words that we type out, and that takes time and scale. So if we’re all working in a one week sprint, I could tell you, it slaughters me every time. By Friday, I couldn’t produce any more words if I wanted to because the human mind doesn’t scale the same way as computing does.
So in some ways it’s being mindful of what individuals can do within that kind of development thing. I try and move myself as far back in the sprint as possible, so I might even be working like on the next sprint the previous …and that isn’t strictly Agile, capital A, you know everyone should be working on the same thing and this Scrum master should be whipping everyone at 9 o’clock every morning about what it is they’ve been doing that day, but it’s what works best if you’re then introducing content into it.
Jeremy: Agile, I mean proper Agile is kind of like teenage sex, right? Nobody’s actually doing it but everyone else assume everyone else is doing it, right?
Relly: Everyone says they’re doing it, and no one’s doing it well, right?
Jeremy: Right, exactly.
Douglas. Help me out. Tell me you wouldn’t tolerate short-term sloppiness for financial gain when the long term code is going to suffer? I mean come on, you gave us JS Lint, lead standards of coding…
Douglas: Yes, I’m very much opposed to doing sloppy crap, half-ass, however you say it over here. I’m against that. Particularly when we’re in these iterative models now where code is never finished, where you’re constantly going back and marking the thing again and again.
Jeremy: It’s like more important than ever to have good coding practices.
Douglas: Absolutely. You’ve got to be working from good, well designed stuff because it will crumble under youif you don’t.
Jeremy: So Paul, I’m glad the way that now it’s been established that you’re on the side of being half-assed and sloppy, but me and Douglas Crockford we’re like, “No; we’re doing it right.” That’s great.
But there are more questions. I think we had, put your hand up …we’ve got a microphone back here.
Audience member: With the implementation of the new cookie law coming in today being deferred by a year, are we going to …does the panel think that we’re going to have to trash the user experience to comply with the spirit of pre-consent, or can we rely on the year for the browser vendors to sort something out that will save our bacon, or is there something else?
Jeremy: Douglas, I don’t know if you’ve heard about what’s happening in this country; well in all of the European Union I believe, that basically cookies, with exceptions, but basically you can’t just set a cookie any more; you have to explicitly ask for user permission.
Douglas: It’s about time.
Jeremy: Tell me why you think this.
Douglas: Okay, so cookies were something that Netscape came up with to fix the fundamental problem with the web.
Jeremy: It’s stateless.
Douglas: The web is stateless and sessionless, and it turns out applications are statefull and sessionfull. So the web was fundamentally mis-matched for doing useful work. So Netscape came up with this silly patch that they called cookies, just to demonstrate how silly it was. And that has been the model by which we added statefullness and session-ness back into the web.
But we use it for a lot of other things, including authentication, and if you look at the original cookie spec, the word authentication does not appear anywhere in it. It was not designed for that, not intended for that. Instead it provides ambient authority which enables cross-site request forgeries and other mishaps.
Cookies are horrible, so I’m glad…
Jeremy: Cookies are example of exactly the kind of sloppy coding that…
Douglas: Yes, absolutely.
Brian: Was there the famous thing they would ask you, can you accept cookies, and if you said no, it had to set a cookie to remember that.
Jeremy: Yes, the Catch 22. Of course, if users could opt in to accept cookies, but if they opt out you have to ask them every single time, because the only way for the site to remember that users opted out would be to set a cookie which they’ve opted out of doing. It kind of messes with the head.
Relly: So from my point of view in terms of going back to the user experience stuff, and if you were here last year, you might have seen me talk about microcopy, and this is going to represent a microcopy nightmare, because we now have to explain to users what a cookie is. Apart from “Yeah, I’ll take cookies; who doesn’t have free cookies, you know?” (I fully expect the CD drawer to open and a cookie to come out.) But we now have to explain to people what cookies are; why they’re not dangerous, why they want them, what if they don’t want them, and this becomes a whole …and I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it because we should, but I just think there’s going to be a whole lot of sloppily-written explanations.
Jeremy: The thing is, the reason why this new law’s coming in—you’re going to love this, Douglas—the one kind of cookie that is allowed and doesn’t fall under the purview of this legislation is cookies for authentication.
Douglas: Oh dear.
Relly: It’s the best of everything
Jeremy: It’s the nice-to-have kind of cookies that are actually pretty harmless. Those are the ones that are getting outlawed.
Jeremy: Nicely localised!
Douglas: So does this new cookie regulation apply to local storage?
Jeremy: You see this is the interesting thing. They don’t specifically mention cookies; they mention …it could be interpreted as including local storage, I think. Does anybody want to interpret the text of the legislation, but the way I read it, it’s not specifically cookies; it’s any kind of locally storagey type thing that would include HTML5 local storage.
Relly: Can I just do a quick straw poll here? Who has actually read what this thing is? Who has read it compared to actually just heard of it?
Jeremy: I read the Cliffs notes. Somebody did a great blog post, some people at Torchbox did a sort of “here’s what you need to know” and boiled it down. I’m relying on them to have interpreted it correctly.
Relly: Yes, that’s a really handy point for me.
Jeremy: Have you ever tried to read legislation?
Relly: Well that’s exactly it, because one of the things that I’m looking at as part of this Government project is how the hell do you handle matters of legislation and make it understandable for people?
So that was a great straw poll. Thanks; that’s handy for my research. You can all collect your tenners on the way out.
Jeremy: We do not read that stuff. But an answer I guess to the question about how we’re going to deal with this cookies business, anybody got plans? Do you have a contingency plan in place at Opera for what you’re going to do?
Bruce: I was saying to Doug before, I hate doing these things because every time I come on the stage I get an email from the Opera lawyers saying, “What the fuck have you just said?” So this is …I’m a browser manufacturer. It’s the law. I can’t comment, except to say it’s a stupid law. I can’t comment because the lawyers will kick my arse every time.
Relly: Could you do it in interpretive dance and maybe we could…
Bruce: An interpretive dance about the law would just be… this does not reflect the opinion of my employers. TM.
Jeremy: All right. We’re going to have to wrap up pretty soon, but has anybody got some …oh, Remy wants to take it on. It’s going to be local storage?
Remy: No, no, no. It’s a copy question. Relly, you said that you’d have to explain cookies and so on. Aren’t the generations of people kind of rolling over, that actually you don’t need to explain cookies because they all know what it is? You don’t have to explain a mouse to your children because they know what it is already.
Relly: Yes, except that the moment that we have to ask permission for something that we didn’t really have to express too clearly before becomes the point where people ask questions.
So a kind of tangential explanation to that is if you say to someone, “We’re not going to use this for anything other than what we’ve said,” they start wondering about all the other things around that, that you haven’t given that declaration to. As soon as you’re complied to give one declaration, that’s where questions start that people don’t know.
Now those questions may be an excellent starting point for people to find out and think about this. But I don’t think there’s going to be legions of copywriters employed to give very good explanations to stuff. I think it’s going to be left to designers and developers to try and wade through and explain to users, without getting too technical, but also not leaving out stuff that’s legal. And then there’s going to be companies that have legal requirements around it who are going to add it to massive terms and conditions and it becomes another load of legal bloat.
Jeremy: Or we just flaunt the law.
Remy: Can’t we just bury it in the middle of the terms and conditions and say, “If you’re using this website,” just like the browsers where no one reads.
Jeremy The End User Licence Agreement.
Bruce: That’s not explicit agreement, is it? I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not Opera’s lawyer and I’m not allowed to speak.
Relly: Yes, I would go with that thing that it’s how we define it.
Jeremy: You are not a lawyer. Thank goodness.
So we have just touched on a few hot topics today I think, and there really are a lot of hot topics, a lot of exciting stuff happening. Things like Node JS, HTML5, CSS3, video, all this stuff.
At the same time, it does seem scary. How do we convince our clients, how do we get to use this new tech with older browsers like IE6 and how do we get past that? It’s kind of going back to the Ryanaircomp versus Mujicomp. Is this the best of times or is this the worst of times?
How do you feel about the web today and web development today? Thumbs up? Thumbs down?
Brian. Happy? Sad?
Brian: I’m happy. There’s no way this would’ve happened ten years ago. We’ve come so far. It can only go up.
Jeremy: And the price you pay is the complexity of what you need to know these days?
Brian: I think that’s inevitable though. A hundred years ago you needed to know how to drive a horse. Now you need to know so much more, I think it’s just part of life.
Jeremy: Bruce. Happy?
Bruce: Definite thumbs up. If nothing else, we’ve got even guys at Microsoft committed to doing standards-based browsers. The HTML5 stuff for better or for worse, and its genesis might be murky, but all the five browser manufacturers sitting down, committed to inter-op. Ten years ago, the idea that you could write some script and it would just work, it was a dream as you know. It’s a good time.
Bruce: I wish it weren’t. I wish it weren’t about who could be the fasted to implement standard X.
Jeremy: But surely all browsers are engaged in a permanent pissing contest?
Bruce: I wish …the idea is that instead of you can only use your bank website on IE, or whatever, which was stupid because every website should work everywhere, that’s going away now, but the pissing contest, who can implement feature X fastest, is interesting for about nineteen seconds, but the good thing is that once the browsers aren’t competing to implement proprietary nonsense, they’ll be competing upon ease of use and features for the punter, and that’s good for everybody.
Jeremy: You must be pretty happy with the situation now, just the fact people even talk about content strategy?
Relly: We’re allowed in the room, it’s really great! But I’ll say kind of how I finished my talk. I feel we’re on a knife-edge here in terms of content. It’s up to you guys to start letting us in and inviting us to conferences and giving us space to talk so that you can meet us and we can meet you and form partnerships, because I think only by forming those partnerships and having content involved is this web thing ever going to take off. Up until now it’s just been playing around, but if we’re really going to make it a mode of communication and a historical record and a thing of value, that’s the direction to go.
Jeremy: So it’s time for us to grow up?
Relly: Yes, I think so.
Jeremy: Time for the web to grow up.
Douglas; you’re an optimistic, happy kind of guy?
Douglas: Absolutely. The worst of times are way behind us, and ended about the time that Netscape failed. Things have been getting progressively better since then. Enhancing, if you will. So things aren’t as good as they should be and there’s going to be a lot of pain and misery going forward, but that is our lot in life. But overall yes, it’s all getting better.
Jeremy: And it will always be thus. There will always be some browser that’s lagging behind…
Douglas: Yes. Part of the dilemma about the web is because it is open, it’s always going to be lagging in some way, and it’s always going to be tough to get everything to move together. This community suffers more than anybody else around that. But even so, I think it’s a good place to be.
Jeremy: Good. That’s a positive declaration from everybody.
Bruce: Can I make a tangential announcement by the way, talking of better browsers and better user experience.
Jeremy: You’re not going to plug Opera?
Bruce: No, no. We’re hiring. There’s three Opera guys walking around in Opera T-shirts and we’re looking for some bad-ass User Experience people to help make the actual browser better, as well as Web Developers. So if you’re interested…
Jeremy: Well if you’re allowed to do a blatant job plug, then I’m also going to say that Clearleft is hiring. We want a User Experience person.
Bruce: We pay more!
Jeremy: We have cookies and cupcakes!
We’re hiring a User Experience person, whatever that may be, and a Project Manager. If you know any good Project Managers, send them our way.
But I believe it is now time for booze and music. Ian Lloyd is going to be spinning the decks. Is that what you say?
Relly: We had this discussion. It’s all buttons. He’s going to be buttoning the deck.
Jeremy: Okay. Ian Lloyd will be buttoning the decks. We’re going to have a DJ; we’re going to have booze outside.
But I would like you to please join me in thanking the panellists; Brian Suda, Bruce Lawson, Relly Annett-Baker, Douglas Crockford.