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Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

Reflections on software performance - Made of Bugs

I’ve really come to appreciate that performance isn’t just some property of a tool independent from its functionality or its feature set. Performance — in particular, being notably fast — is a feature in and of its own right, which fundamentally alters how a tool is used and perceived.

This is a fascinating look into how performance has knock-on effects beyond the obvious:

It’s probably fairly intuitive that users prefer faster software, and will have a better experience performing a given task if the tools are faster rather than slower.

What is perhaps less apparent is that having faster tools changes how users use a tool or perform a task.

This observation is particularly salient for web developers:

We have become accustomed to casually giving up factors of two or ten or more with our choices of tools and libraries, without asking if the benefits are worth it.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

This is Not my Beautiful House: Examining the Desktop Metaphor, 1980-1995 | continent.

From Xerox PARC to the World Wide Web:

The internet did not use a visual spatial metaphor. Despite being accessed through and often encompassed by the desktop environment, the internet felt well and truly placeless (or perhaps everywhere). Hyperlinks were wormholes through the spatial metaphor, allowing a user to skip laterally across directories stored on disparate servers, as well as horizontally, deep into a file system without having to access the intermediate steps. Multiple windows could be open to the same website at once, shattering the illusion of a “single file” that functioned as a piece of paper that only one person could hold. The icons that a user could arrange on the desktop didn’t have a parallel in online space at all.

Friday, January 3rd, 2020

Blade Runner Sketchbook (PDF)

I was sad to hear of the passing of Syd Mead last week. Here’s a sketchbook of his remarkable work for Blade Runner.

Thursday, January 2nd, 2020

The Rise Of Skywalker

If you haven’t seen The Rise Of Skywalker, avert your gaze for I shall be revealing spoilers here…

I wrote about what I thought of The Force Awakens. I wrote about what I thought of The Last Jedi. It was inevitable that I was also going to write about what I think of The Rise Of Skywalker. If nothing else, I really enjoy going back and reading those older posts and reminding myself of my feelings at the time.

I went to a midnight screening with Jessica after we had both spent the evening playing Irish music at our local session. I was asking a lot of my bladder.

I have to admit that my first reaction was …ambivalent. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either.

Now, if that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s pretty much what I said about Rogue One and The Last Jedi:

Maybe I just find it hard to really get into the flow when I’m seeing a new Star Wars film for the very first time.

This time there were very specific things that I could point to and say “I don’t like it!” For a start, there’s the return of Palpatine.

I think the Emperor has always been one of the dullest characters in Star Wars. Even in Return Of The Jedi, he just comes across as a paper-thin one-dimensional villain who’s evil just because he’s evil. That works great when he’s behind the scenes manipulating events, but it makes for dull on-screen shenanigans, in my opinion. The pantomime nature of Emperor Palpatine seems more Harry Potter than Star Wars to me.

When I heard the Emperor was returning, my expectations sank. To be fair though, I think it was a very good move not to make the return of Palpatine a surprise. I had months—ever since the release of the first teaser trailer—to come to terms with it. Putting it in the opening crawl and the first scene says, “Look, he’s back. Don’t ask how, just live with it.” That’s fair enough.

So in the end, the thing that I thought would bug me—the return of Palpatine—didn’t trouble me much. But what really bugged me was the unravelling of one of my favourite innovations in The Last Jedi regarding Rey’s provenance. I wrote at the time:

I had resigned myself to the inevitable reveal that would tie her heritage into an existing lineage. What an absolute joy, then, that The Force is finally returned into everyone’s hands!

What bothered me wasn’t so much that The Rise Of Skywalker undoes this, but that the undoing is so uneccessary. The plot would have worked just as well without the revelation that Rey is a Palpatine. If that revelation were crucial to the story, I would go with it, but it just felt like making A Big Reveal for the sake of making A Big Reveal. It felt …cheap.

I have to say, that’s how I responded to a lot of the kitchen sink elements in this film when I first saw it. It was trying really, really hard to please, and yet many of the decisions felt somewhat lazy to me. There were times when it felt like a checklist.

In a way, there was a checklist, or at least a brief. JJ Abrams has spoken about how this film needed to not just wrap up one trilogy, but all nine films. But did it though? I think I would’ve been happier if it had kept its scope within the bounds of these new sequels.

That’s been a recurring theme for me with all three of these films. I think they work best when they’re about the new characters. I’m totally invested in them. Leaning on nostalgia and the cultural memory of the previous films and their characters just isn’t needed. I would’ve been fine if Luke, Han, and Leia never showed up on screen in this trilogy—that’s how much I’m sold on Rey, Finn, and Poe.

But I get it. The brief here is to tie everything together. And as JJ Abrams has said, there was no way he was going to please everyone. But it’s strange that he would attempt to please the most toxic people clamouring for change. I’m talking about the racists and misogynists that were upset by The Last Jedi. The sidelining of Rose Tico in The Rise Of Skywalker sure reads a lot like a victory for them. Frankly, that’s the one aspect of this film that I’m always going to find disappointing.

Because it turns out that a lot of the other things that I was initially disappointed by evaporated upon second viewing.

Now, I totally get that a film needs to work for a first viewing. But if any category of film needs to stand up to repeat viewing, it’s a Star Wars film. In the case of The Rise Of Skywalker, I think that repeat viewing might have been prioritised. And I’m okay with that.

Take the ridiculously frenetic pace of the multiple maguffin-led plotlines. On first viewing, it felt rushed and messy. I got the feeling that the double-time pacing was there to brush over any inconsistencies that would reveal themselves if the film were to pause even for a minute to catch its breath.

But that wasn’t the case. On second viewing, things clicked together much more tightly. It felt much more like a well-oiled—if somewhat frenetic—machine rather than a cobbled-together Heath Robinson contraption that might collapse at any moment.

My personal experience of viewing the film for the second time was a lot of fun. I was with my friend Sammy, who is not yet a teenager. His enjoyment was infectious.

At the end, after we see Rey choose her new family name, Sammy said “I knew she was going to say Skywalker!”

“I guess that explains the title”, I said. “The Rise Of Skywalker.”

“Or”, said Sammy, “it could be talking about Ben Solo.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

When I first saw The Rise Of Skywalker, I was disappointed by all the ways it was walking back the audacious decisions made in The Last Jedi, particularly Rey’s parentage and the genetic component to The Force. But on second viewing, I noticed the ways that this film built on the previous one. Finn’s blossoming sensitivity keeps the democratisation of The Force on the table. And the mind-melding connection between Rey and Kylo Ren that started in The Last Jedi is crucial for the plot of The Rise Of Skywalker.

Once I was able to get over the decisions I didn’t agree with, I was able to judge the film on its own merits. And you know what? It’s really good!

On the technical level, it was always bound to be good, but I mean on an emotional level too. If I go with it, then I’m rewarded with a rollercoaster ride of emotions. There were moments when I welled up (they mostly involved Chewbacca: Chewie’s reaction to Leia’s death; Chewie getting the medal …the only moment that might have topped those was Han Solo’s “I know”).

So just in case there’s any doubt—given all the criticisms I’ve enumerated—let me clear: I like this film. I very much look forward to seeing it again (and again).

But I do think there’s some truth to what Eric says here:

A friend’s review of “The Rise of Skywalker”, which also serves as a perfect summary of JJ Abrams’ career: “A very well-executed lack of creativity.”

I think I might substitute the word “personality” for “creativity”. However you feel about The Last Jedi, there’s no denying that it embodies the vision of one person:

I think the reason why The Last Jedi works so well is that Rian Johnson makes no concessions to my childhood, or anyone else’s. This is his film. Of all the millions of us who were transported by this universe as children, only he gets to put his story onto the screen and into the saga. There are two ways to react to this. You can quite correctly exclaim “That’s not how I would do it!”, or you can go with it …even if that means letting go of some deeply-held feelings about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened if it were our story.

JJ Abrams, on the other hand, has done his utmost to please us. I admire that, but I feel it comes at a price. The storytelling isn’t safe exactly, but it’s far from personal.

The result is that The Rise Of Skywalker is supremely entertaining—especially on repeat viewing—and it has a big heart. I just wish it had more guts.

Friday, November 22nd, 2019

Fit on a Floppy

Here’s a nice little test for the file size of your web pages—could they fit on a floppy disk?

The Session fits comfortably and adactio.com just about scrapes by.

Thursday, October 24th, 2019

Design muscles

Look. Observe. See.

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019

Fantastic pop-up from @mestiza.filipina at @hollertap: ox tongue with pickle and banana ketchup!

Fantastic pop-up from @mestiza.filipina at @hollertap: ox tongue with pickle and banana ketchup!

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

What Does it Mean to Be “Full Stack”? | CSS-Tricks

I’m not trying to convince anyone they aren’t a full-stack developer or don’t deserve that particular merit badge — just that the web is a big place with divergent needs and ever-morphing stacks that all require different sets of skills.

Thursday, April 4th, 2019

UX Workshop | Trys Mudford

I’m so, so happy that Trys has joined us at Clearleft!

Here, he recounts his first day, which just happened to coincide with an introductory UX workshop that went really well.

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

Intro to Font Metrics

Font metrics help the computer determine things like the default spacing between lines, how high or low sub and super scripts should go, and how to align two differently sized pieces of text next to each other.

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

Apollo Presskit Directory

Ah, what a wonderful treasure trove this is! PDF scans of Apollo era press kits from a range of American companies.

Categories include:

  • Official NASA
  • Earth
  • Launch
  • Lunar Module
  • Moon
  • Astronauts
  • Reveal

There’s something so fascinating about the mundane details of Isolation/Quarantine Foods for Apollo 11 Astronauts from Stouffer’s.

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Hello, Goodbye - Browser Extension

A handy browser extension for Chrome and Firefox:

“Hello, Goodbye” blocks every chat or helpdesk pop up in your browser.

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

The “Backendification” of Frontend Development – Hacker Noon

Are many of the modern frontend tools and practices just technical debt in disguise?

Ooh, good question!

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

The Great Divide | CSS-Tricks

An excellent thorough analysis by Chris of the growing divide between front-end developers and …er, other front-end developers?

The divide is between people who self-identify as a (or have the job title of) front-end developer, yet have divergent skill sets.

On one side, an army of developers whose interests, responsibilities, and skill sets are heavily revolved around JavaScript.

On the other, an army of developers whose interests, responsibilities, and skill sets are focused on other areas of the front end, like HTML, CSS, design, interaction, patterns, accessibility, etc.

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

Stop Learning Frameworks – Lifehacks for Developers by Eduards Sizovs

It’s a terribly clickbaity (and negatively phrased) title, but if you turn it around, there’s some good advcie in here for deciding where to focus when it comes to dev technology:

  • Programming languages are different, but design smells are alike.
  • Frameworks are different, but the same design patterns shine through.
  • Developers are different, but rules of dealing with people are uniform.

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Big ol’ Ball o’ JavaScript | Brad Frost

Backend logic? JavaScript. Styles? We do that in JavaScript now. Markup? JavaScript. Anything else? JavaScript.

Historically, different languages suggested different roles. “This language does style.” “This language does structure.” But now it’s “This JavaScript does style.” “This JavaScript does structure.” “This JavaScript does database queries.”

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

Front-end development is not a problem to be solved | CSS-Tricks

The sentiment is that front-end development is a problem to be solved: “if we just have the right tools and frameworks, then we might never have to write another line of HTML or CSS ever again!” And oh boy what a dream that would be, right?

Well, no, actually. I certainly don’t think that front-end development is a problem at all.

What Robin said.

I reckon HTML and CSS deserve better than to be processed, compiled, and spat out into the browser, whether that’s through some build process, app export, or gigantic framework library of stuff that we half understand. HTML and CSS are two languages that deserve our care and attention to detail. Writing them is a skill.

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Designing With Code

How mucking about in HTML and CSS can lead to some happy accidents.

‘Sfunny, people often mention the constraints and limitations of “designing in the browser”, but don’t recognise that every tool—including Sketch and Photoshop—comes with constraints and limitations. It’s just that those are constraints and limitations that we’ve internalised; we no longer even realise they’re there.

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

Magic Paintbox – Illuminated – Medium

What we get from the pattern library is time and freedom to be creative. I’ve seen people claim pattern libraries are the death of creativity and innovation in design. For us, it’s the opposite of that.