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Monday, March 30th, 2020

Living Through The Future

You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.

Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.

On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.

But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.

When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?

At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.

Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.

For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).

In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.

I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:

Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.

The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.

Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.

I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.

I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:

The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.

Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”

Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

BBC World Service - 13 Minutes to the Moon, Season 2: The Apollo 13 story

The best podcast of last year is back for another season, this time on the Apollo 13 mission.

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

Bound in Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift

If a human civilization beyond Earth ever comes into being, this will be unprecedented in any historical context we might care to invoke—unprecedented in recorded history, unprecedented in human history, unprecedented in terrestrial history, and so on. There have been many human civilizations, but all of these civilizations have arisen and developed on the surface of Earth, so that a civilization that arises or develops away from the surface of Earth would be unprecedented and in this sense absolutely novel even if the institutional structure of a spacefaring civilization were the same as the institutional structure of every civilization that has existed on Earth. For this civilizational novelty, some human novelty is a prerequisite, and this human novelty will be expressed in the mythology that motivates and sustains a spacefaring civilization.

A deep dive into deep time:

Record-keeping technologies introduce an asymmetry into history. First language, then written language, then printed books, and so and so forth. Should human history extend as far into the deep future as it now extends into the deep past, the documentary evidence of past beliefs will be a daunting archive, but in an archive so vast there would be a superfluity of resources to trace the development of human mythologies in a way that we cannot now trace them in our past. We are today creating that archive by inventing the technologies that allow us to preserve an ever-greater proportion of our activities in a way that can be transmitted to our posterity.

Monday, December 16th, 2019

Artificial Intelligence: Threat or Menace? - Charlie’s Diary

I am not a believer in the AI singularity — the rapture of the nerds — that is, in the possibility of building a brain-in-a-box that will self-improve its own capabilities until it outstrips our ability to keep up. What CS professor and fellow SF author Vernor Vinge described as “the last invention humans will ever need to make”. But I do think we’re going to keep building more and more complicated, systems that are opaque rather than transparent, and that launder our unspoken prejudices and encode them in our social environment. As our widely-deployed neural processors get more powerful, the decisions they take will become harder and harder to question or oppose. And that’s the real threat of AI — not killer robots, but “computer says no” without recourse to appeal.

Saturday, November 30th, 2019

The Size of Space

Celestial objects ordered by size, covering a scale from one astronaut to the observable universe.

Wednesday, November 27th, 2019

Case Study: lynnandtonic.com 2019 refresh - lynnandtonic.com

Lynn gives a step-by-step walkthrough of the latest amazing redesign of her website. There’s so much joy and craft in here, with real attention to detail—I love it!

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Near miss

When I was travelling across the Atlantic ocean on the Queen Mary 2 back in August, I had the pleasure of attending a series of on-board lectures by Charles Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society.

One of those presentations was on the threat of asteroid impacts—always a fun topic! Charles mentioned Spaceguard, the group that tracks near-Earth objects.

Spaceguard is a pretty cool-sounding name for any organisation. The name comes from a work of (science) fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 book Rendezvous with Rama, Spaceguard is the name of a fictional organisation formed after a devastating asteroid impact on northen Italy—an event which is coincidentally depicted as happening on September 11th. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The impact happens on the first page of the book.

At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky.  Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens—at first in utter silence—it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.

Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged.  They were the lucky ones.

Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.

Later in the same lecture, Charles talked about the Torino scale, which is used to classify the likelihood and severity of impacts. Number 10 on the Torino scale means an impact is certain and that it will be an extinction level event.

Torino—Turin—is in northern Italy. “Wait a minute!”, I thought to myself. “Is this something that’s also named for that opening chapter of Rendezvous with Rama?”

I spoke to Charles about it afterwards, hoping that he might know. But he said, “Oh, I just assumed that a group of scientists got together in Turin when they came up with the scale.”

Being at sea, there was no way to easily verify or disprove the origin story of the Torino scale. Looking something up on the internet would have been prohibitively slow and expensive. So I had to wait until we docked in New York.

On our first morning in the city, Jessica and I popped into a bookstore. I picked up a copy of Rendezvous with Rama and re-read the details of that opening impact on northern Italy. Padua, Venice and Verona are named, but there’s no mention of Turin.

Sure enough, when I checked Wikipedia, the history and naming of the Torino scale was exactly what Charles Barclay surmised:

A revised version of the “Hazard Index” was presented at a June 1999 international conference on NEOs held in Torino (Turin), Italy. The conference participants voted to adopt the revised version, where the bestowed name “Torino Scale” recognizes the spirit of international cooperation displayed at that conference toward research efforts to understand the hazards posed by NEOs.

What I’ve learned about accessibility in SPAs

Nolan writes up what he learned making accessibiity improvements to a single page app. The two big takeways involve letting the browser do the work for you:

Here’s the best piece of accessibility advice for newbies: if something is a button, make it a <button>. If something is an input, make it an <input>. Don’t try to reinvent everything from scratch using <div>s and <span>s.

And then there are all the issues that crop up when you take over the task of handling navigations:

  • You need to manage focus yourself.
  • You need to manage scroll position yourself.

For classic server-rendered pages, most browser engines give you this functionality for free. You don’t have to code anything. But in an SPA, since you’re overriding the normal navigation behavior, you have to handle the focus yourself.

Sunday, October 20th, 2019

Own Your Content on Social Media Using the IndieWeb—zachleat.com

A terrific—and fun!—talk from Zach about site deaths, owning your own content, and the indie web.

Oh, and he really did create MySpaceBook for the talk.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

2001 A Space Odyssey, Epilogue. Featuring Frank Poole on Vimeo

This is quite a beautiful homage to Kubrick’s masterpiece.

Friday, September 13th, 2019

5G Will Definitely Make the Web Slower, Maybe | Filament Group, Inc.

The Jevons Paradox in action:

Faster networks should fix our performance problems, but so far, they have had an interesting if unintentional impact on the web. This is because historically, faster network speed has enabled developers to deliver more code to users—in particular, more JavaScript code.

And because it’s JavaScript we’re talking about:

Even if folks are on a new fast network, they’re very likely choking on the code we’re sending, rendering the potential speed improvements of 5G moot.

The longer I spend in this field, the more convinced I am that web performance is not a technical problem; it’s a people problem.

Sunday, September 1st, 2019

Why These Social Networks Failed So Badly

Ignore the clickbaity headline and have a read of Whitney Kimball’s obituaries of Friendster, MySpace, Bebo, OpenSocial, ConnectU, Tribe.net, Path, Yik Yak, Ello, Orkut, Google+, and Vine.

I’m sure your content on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is perfectly safe.

Friday, August 9th, 2019

The 2019 Design Systems Survey by Sparkbox

The good folks at Sparkbox ran a survey on design systems. Here are the results, presented in a flagrantly anti-Tufte manner.

Sunday, August 4th, 2019

The sublime Romanticism of the moon landing

The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million. It was a victory, as Armstrong immediately recognized, not of Western democratic capitalism over Soviet tyranny, or of America over the rest of the world, but for humanity. It belongs to the United States no more than Michelangelo does to Italy or Machu Picchu to Peru.

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

The Atlas of Moons

Take an interactive tour of our solar system’s many moons.

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

Mapping the Moon

A look at all the factors that went into choosing the Apollo landing sites, including this gem:

Famous amateur astronomer, Sir Patrick Moore, also produced a hand drawn map of the moon from his own observations using his homemade telescope at his home in Selsey, Sussex. These detailed pen and ink maps of the Moon’s surface were used by NASA as part of their preparations for the moon landing.

Friday, July 19th, 2019

The Guardian digital design style guide

What a lovely way to walk through the design system underpinning the Guardian website.

Bonus points for using the term “tweak points”!

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

Neil & Buzz

A delightful dialogue …on the moon!

Thursday, July 4th, 2019

Summer of Apollo

It’s July, 2019. You know what that means? The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission is this month.

I’ve already got serious moon fever, and if you’d like to join me, I have some recommendations…

Watch the Apollo 11 documentary in a cinema. The 70mm footage is stunning, the sound design is immersive, the music is superb, and there’s some neat data visualisation too. Watching a preview screening in the Duke of York’s last week was pure joy from start to finish.

Listen to 13 Minutes To The Moon, the terrific ongoing BBC podcast by Kevin Fong. It’s got all my favourite titans of NASA: Michael Collins, Margaret Hamilton, and Charlie Duke, amongst others. And it’s got music by Hans Zimmer.

Experience the website Apollo 11 In Real Time on the biggest monitor you can. It’s absolutely wonderful! From July 16th, you can experience the mission timeshifted by exactly 50 years, but if you don’t want to wait, you can dive in right now. It genuinely feels like being in Mission Control!

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

BBC World Service - 13 Minutes to the Moon

I’ve been huffduffing every episode of this terrific podcast from Kevin Fong. It features plenty of my favourite Apollo people: Mike Collins, Margaret Hamilton, and Charlie Duke.