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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.

Rotating Space Station Numbers

Ever wondered what would happen if you threw a ball inside an orbital habitat? Well, wonder no more!

You can adjust the parameters of the space station, or choose from some pre-prepared examples: an O’Neill cylinder, a Stanford torus, a Bernal sphere, Rama, a Culture orbital

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

BBC Shows and Tours - Shows - James Burke: Our Man on the Moon

I wish I were here for this (I’m going to be over in Ireland that week)—an evening with James Burke, Britain’s voice of Apollo 11.

Here is your chance to find out what went on behind the scenes as James revisits the final moments of the Apollo mission. He’ll recreate the drama, struggling to make sense of flickering images from NASA and working with the limitations of 1960s technology. We’ll hear what went wrong as well as what went right on the night! Illustrated with amazing archive material from both the BBC and NASA, this will be the story of the moon landings brought to you by the man who became a broadcasting legend.