Tags: rag

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Monday, April 6th, 2020

Local-first software: You own your data, in spite of the cloud

The cloud gives us collaboration, but old-fashioned apps give us ownership. Can’t we have the best of both worlds?

We would like both the convenient cross-device access and real-time collaboration provided by cloud apps, and also the personal ownership of your own data embodied by “old-fashioned” software.

This is a very in-depth look at the mindset and the challenges involved in building truly local-first software—something that Tantek has also been thinking about.

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

Apple’s attack on service workers

Apple aren’t the best at developer relations. But, bad as their communications can be, I’m willing to cut them some slack. After all, they’re not used to talking with the developer community.

John Wilander wrote a blog post that starts with some excellent news: Full Third-Party Cookie Blocking and More. Safari is catching up to Firefox and disabling third-party cookies by default. Wonderful! I’ve had third-party cookies disabled for a few years now, and while something occassionally breaks, it’s honestly a pretty great experience all around. Denying companies the ability to track users across sites is A Good Thing.

In the same blog post, John said that client-side cookies will be capped to a seven-day lifespan, as previously announced. Just to be clear, this only applies to client-side cookies. If you’re setting a cookie on the server, using PHP or some other server-side language, it won’t be affected. So persistent logins are still doable.

Then, in an audacious example of burying the lede, towards the end of the blog post, John announces that a whole bunch of other client-side storage technologies will also be capped to seven days. Most of the technologies are APIs that, like cookies, can be used to store data: Indexed DB, Local Storage, and Session Storage (though there’s no mention of the Cache API). At the bottom of the list is this:

Service Worker registrations

Okay, let’s clear up a few things here (because they have been so poorly communicated in the blog post)…

The seven day timer refers to seven days of Safari usage, not seven calendar days (although, given how often most people use their phones, the two are probably interchangable). So if someone returns to your site within a seven day period of using Safari, the timer resets to zero, and your service worker gets a stay of execution. Lucky you.

This only applies to Safari. So if your site has been added to the home screen and your web app manifest has a value for the “display” property like “standalone” or “full screen”, the seven day timer doesn’t apply.

That piece of information was missing from the initial blog post. Since the blog post was updated to include this clarification, some people have taken this to mean that progressive web apps aren’t affected by the upcoming change. Not true. Only progressive web apps that have been added to the home screen (and that have an appropriate “display” value) will be spared. That’s a vanishingly small percentage of progressive web apps, especially on iOS. To add a site to the home screen on iOS, you need to dig and scroll through the share menu to find the right option. And you need to do this unprompted. There is no ambient badging in Safari to indicate that a site is installable. Chrome’s install banner isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

Just a reminder: a progressive web app is a website that

  • runs on HTTPS,
  • has a service worker,
  • and a web manifest.

Adding to the home screen is something you can do with a progressive web app (or any other website). It is not what defines progressive web apps.

In any case, this move to delete service workers after seven days of using Safari is very odd, and I’m struggling to find the connection to the rest of the blog post, which is about technologies that can store data.

As I understand it, with the crackdown on setting third-party cookies, trackers are moving to first-party technologies. So whereas in the past, a tracking company could tell its customers “Add this script element to your pages”, now they have to say “Add this script element and this script file to your pages.” That JavaScript file can then store a unique idenitifer on the client. This could be done with a cookie, with Local Storage, or with Indexed DB, for example. But I’m struggling to understand how a service worker script could be used in this way. I’d really like to see some examples of this actually happening.

The best explanation I can come up with for this move by Apple is that it feels like the neatest solution. That’s neat as in tidy, not as in nifty. It is definitely not a nifty solution.

If some technologies set by a specific domain are being purged after seven days, then the tidy thing to do is purge all technologies from that domain. Service workers are getting included in that dragnet.

Now, to be fair, browsers and operating systems are free to clean up storage space as they see fit. Caches, Local Storage, Indexed DB—all of those are subject to eventually getting cleaned up.

So I was curious. Wanting to give Apple the benefit of the doubt, I set about trying to find out how long service worker registrations currently last before getting deleted. Maybe this announcement of a seven day time limit would turn out to be not such a big change from current behaviour. Maybe currently service workers last for 90 days, or 60, or just 30.

Nope:

There was no time limit previously.

This is not a minor change. This is a crippling attack on service workers, a technology specifically designed to improve the user experience for return visits, whether it’s through improved performance or offline access.

I wouldn’t be so stunned had this announcement come with an accompanying feature that would allow Safari users to know when a website is a progressive web app that can be added to the home screen. But Safari continues to ignore the existence of progressive web apps. And now it will actively discourage people from using service workers.

If you’d like to give feedback on this ludicrous development, you can file a bug (down in the cellar in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”).

No doubt there will still be plenty of Apple apologists telling us why it’s good that Safari has wished service workers into the cornfield. But make no mistake. This is a terrible move by Apple.

I will say this though: given The Situation we’re all living in right now, some good ol’ fashioned Hot Drama by a browser vendor behaving badly feels almost comforting.

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Accessible HTML Elements | Amber’s Website

Amber runs through some HTML elements that help you provide semantic information—and accessibility—for your website: headings, paragraphs, lists, and more:

You may be aware that ARIA roles are often used with HTML elements. I haven’t written about them here, as it’s good to see how HTML written without ARIA can still be accessible.

Friday, February 28th, 2020

The Permanent Legacy Foundation

A non-profit that offers digital preservation services for individuals.

Permanence means no subscriptions; a one-time payment for dedicated storage that preserves your most precious memories and an institution that will be there to protect the digital legacy of all people for all time.

Fixed Headers and Jump Links? The Solution is scroll-margin-top | CSS-Tricks

I didn’t know about scroll-margin-top! I wonder if you could apply a universal rule …like, say you’ve got a fixed header that’s 2em in height, couldn’t you declare:

:target { scroll-margin-top: 2em; }

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Local First, Undo Redo, JS-Optional, Create Edit Publish - Tantek

Tantek documents the features he wants his posting interface to have.

Thursday, January 16th, 2020

Intent to Deprecate and Freeze: The User-Agent string - Google Groups

Excellent news! All the major browsers have agreed to freeze their user-agent strings, effectively making them a relic (which they kinda always were).

For many (most?) uses of UA sniffing today, a better tool for the job would be to use feature detection.

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Just enough Internet | doteveryone

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

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

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

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

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

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

Friday, September 6th, 2019

Offline listings

This is brilliant technique by Remy!

If you’ve got a custom offline page that lists previously-visited pages (like I do on my site), you don’t have to choose between localStorage or IndexedDB—you can read the metadata straight from the HTML of the cached pages instead!

This seems forehead-smackingly obvious in hindsight. I’m totally stealing this.

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

The Hiding Place: Inside the World’s First Long-Term Storage Facility for Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste - Pacific Standard

Robert McFarlane’s new book is an exploration of deep time. In this extract, he visits the Onkalo nuclear waste storage facility in Finland.

Sometimes we bury materials in order that they may be preserved for the future. Sometimes we bury materials in order to preserve the future from them.

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

Get off of Twitter | Read the Tea Leaves

You can’t criticize Twitter on Twitter. It just doesn’t work. The medium is the message.

Nolan’s plea for sanity.

Write blog posts. Use RSS. Use micro.blog. Use Mastodon. Use Pleroma. Use whatever you want, as long as it isn’t manipulating you with algorithms or selling access to your data to advertisers.

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

Drag’n’drop revisited

I got a message from a screen-reader user of The Session recently, letting me know of a problem they were having. I love getting any kind of feedback around accessibility, so this was like gold dust to me.

They pointed out that the drag’n’drop interface for rearranging the order of tunes in a set was inaccessible.

Drag and drop

Of course! I slapped my forehead. How could I have missed this?

It had been a while since I had implemented that functionality, so before even looking at the existing code, I started to think about how I could improve the situation. Maybe I could capture keystroke events from the arrow keys and announce changes via ARIA values? That sounded a bit heavy-handed though: mess with people’s native keyboard functionality at your peril.

Then I looked at the code. That was when I realised that the fix was going to be much, much easier than I thought.

I documented my process of adding the drag’n’drop functionality back in 2016. Past me had his progressive enhancement hat on:

One of the interfaces needed for this feature was a form to re-order items in a list. So I thought to myself, “what’s the simplest technology to enable this functionality?” I came up with a series of select elements within a form.

Reordering

The problem was in my feature detection:

There’s a little bit of mustard-cutting going on: does the dragula object exist, and does the browser understand querySelector? If so, the select elements are hidden and the drag’n’drop is enabled.

The logic was fine, but the execution was flawed. I was being lazy and hiding the select elements with display: none. That hides them visually, but it also hides them from screen readers. I swapped out that style declaration for one that visually hides the elements, but keeps them accessible and focusable.

It was a very quick fix. I had the odd sensation of wanting to thank Past Me for making things easy for Present Me. But I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.

I pushed the fix, told the screen-reader user who originally contacted me, and got a reply back saying that everything was working great now. Success!

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

Optimizing for outrage – A Whole Lotta Nothing

I have no doubt that showing just the top outrageous tweets leads to more engagement. If you’re constantly hitting people with outlandish news stories they’ll open the app more often and interact and post about what they think so the cycle continues.

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

WorldWideWeb coverage

Remy’s keeping a list of hyperlinks to stories covering our recent hack week at CERN.

Monday, January 28th, 2019

The 500-Year-Long Science Experiment - The Atlantic

Running an experiment for 500 years is hard enough. Then there’s the documentation…

The hard part is ensuring someone will continue doing this on schedule well into the future. The team left a USB stick with instructions, which Möller realizes is far from adequate, given how quickly digital technology becomes obsolete. They also left a hard copy, on paper. “But think about 500-year-old paper,” he says, how it would yellow and crumble. “Should we carve it in stone? Do we have to carve it in a metal plate?” But what if someone who cannot read the writing comes along and decides to take the metal plate as a cool, shiny relic, as tomb raiders once did when looting ancient tombs?

No strategy is likely to be completely foolproof 500 years later. So the team asks that researchers at each 25-year time point copy the instructions so that they remain linguistically and technologically up to date.

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

Home - Memory of Mankind

A time capsule for the long now. Laser-etched ceramic tablets in an Austrian salt mine carry memories of our civilisation in three categories: news editorials, scientific works, and personal stories.

You can contribute a personal story, your favorite poem, or newspaper articles which describe our problems, visions or our daily life.

Tokens that mark the location of the site are also being distributed across the planet.

Sunday, September 9th, 2018

Why the Future of Data Storage is (Still) Magnetic Tape - IEEE Spectrum

It turns out that a whole lot of The So-Called Cloud is relying on magnetic tape for its backups.

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

Prioritizing the Long-Tail of Performance - TimKadlec.com

Focusing on the median or average is the equivalent of walking around with a pair of blinders on. We’re limiting our perspective and, in the process, missing out on so much crucial detail. By definition, when we make improving the median or average our goal, we are focusing on optimizing for only about half of our sessions.

Tim does the numbers…

By honing in on the 90th—or 95th or similar—we ensure those weaknesses don’t get ignored. Our goal is to optimize the performance of our site for the majority of our users—not just a small subset of them.