Tags: story

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Tuesday, October 5th, 2021

A History of Design Systems on the Web - The History of the Web

It’s great to see former Clearlefties like Nat, Paul and Anna rightly getting namechecked in this history of designing for the web in a systemic way. It’s a tradition that continues to this day with projects like Utopia.

Monday, September 13th, 2021

Stakeholders of styling

When I wrote about the new accent-color property in CSS, I pondered how much control a web developer should have over styling form controls:

Who are we to make that decision? Shouldn’t the user’s choice take primacy over our choices?

But then again, where do we draw the line? We’re allowed over-ride link colours. We’re allowed over-ride font choices.

Ultimately, I came down on the side of granting authors more control:

If developers don’t get a standardised way to customise native form controls, they’ll just recreate their own over-engineered versions.

This question of “who gets to decide?” used to be much more prevelant in the early days of the web. One way to think about this is that there are three stakeholders involved in the presentation of a web page:

  1. The author of the page. “Author” is spec-speak for designer or developer.
  2. The user.
  3. The browser, or user agent. A piece of software tries to balance the needs of both author and user. But, as the name implies, the user takes precedence.

These days we tend to think of web design a single-stakeholder undertaking. The author decides how something should be presented and then executes that decision using CSS.

But as Eric once said, every line of you CSS you write is a suggestion to the browser. That’s not how we think about CSS though. We think of CSS like a series of instructions rather than suggestions. Never mind respecting the user’s preferences; one of the first things we do is reset all the user agent’s styles.

In the early days of the web, more consideration was given to the idea of style suggestions rather than instructions. Heck, users could always over-ride any of your suggestions with their own user stylesheet. These days, users would need to install a browser extension to do the same thing.

The first proposal for CSS had a concept called “influence”:

h2.font.size = 20pt 40%

Here, the requested influence is reduced to 40%. If a style sheet later in the cascade also requests influence over h2.font.size, up to 60% can be granted. When the document is rendered, a weighted average of the two requests is calculated, and the final font size is determined.

I think the only remnant of “influence” left in CSS is accidental. It’s in the specificity of selectors …and the !important declaration.

I think it’s a shame that user stylesheets are no longer a thing. But I get why they were dropped from browsers. They date from a time when it was mostly nerds using the web, before “regular folks” came on board. I understand why it became a little-used feature, suitable for being dropped. But the principle of it still rankles slightly.

But in recent years there has been a slight return to the multi-stakeholder concept of styling websites. Thanks to prefers-reduced-motion and prefers-color-scheme, a responsible author can choose to bow to the wishes of the user.

I was reminded of this when I added a dark mode to my website:

Y’know, when I first heard about Apple adding dark mode to their OS—and also to CSS—I thought, “Oh, great, Apple are making shit up again!” But then I realised that, like user style sheets, this is one more reminder to designers and developers that they don’t get the last word—users do.

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021

404PageFound – Active Vintage Websites, Old Webpages, and Web 1.0

Well, this is rather lovely! A collection of websites from the early days of the web that are still online.

All the HTML pages still work today …and they work in your web browser which didn’t even exist when these websites were built.

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021

Why are hyperlinks blue?

A wonderful bit of spelunking into the annals of software interfaces by Elise Blanchard.

Monday, August 30th, 2021

Representation and what happened to women in Tech

Men specialized in hardware while software development was seen as an exciting alternative to secretarial work. In 1967, Cosmopolitan published an article titled The Computer Girls, encouraging young women to pursue careers in computer science. So the curve went up, and continued to do so up until 1984. That’s when personal computers appeared.

Marketing matters:

When Apple released the Macintosh 128K and the Commodore 64 was introduced to the market, they were presented as toys. And, as toys were gendered, they were targeted at boys. We can look at advertisements from that time and quickly find a pattern: fathers and sons, young men, even one where a man is being undressed by two women with the motto Two bytes are better than one. It’s more evident with the ads for computer games; if women appear, they do so sexualized and half-naked. Not that appealing for young girls, one could imagine.

Software Crisis 2.0 – Baldur Bjarnason

Baldur Bjarnason writes an immense treatise on the current sad state of software, grounded in the historical perspective of the past sad state of software.

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter, and Beyond | The MIT Press

A new biography of Vera Rubin by Ashley Jean Yeager. One for the wishlist!

Monday, August 9th, 2021

Turning 30 · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

I have no idea what the web will look like in another 30 years. But I am sure that we will look back at the first 30 years of the Web like we look back at the silent era in cinema today: as the formative years of a medium that was about to evolve to even higher heights.

The Web has always been about what each and every one of us contributes. And contributing is easier and more important than ever. So let’s not leave the future of the Web to big tech alone. Inclusiveness, accessibility, performance, security, usability, decentralization, openness – in almost all areas, the Web is far from done.

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021

Friday, July 30th, 2021

Paleolithic Nostalgia

Why do we long for a time when the average life span was 22 and everyone was wracked by tuberculosis?

This was the problem I had with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (and to a lesser extent with Rutger Bregman’s Humankind):

Paleolithic peoples, so the tale goes, spent most of Tuesday strolling under Baobab trees, running their hands through the long elephant grass, and breathing in the sweet dust of the open Savannah. On Wednesdays they carefully chipped away the edges of Levallois blades, swept dust out of the home cave, and snacked on freshly gathered almonds. On Thursdays they gathered into small bands – a hand-picked selection of the finest endurance runners this side of Nairobi – tracked down an elephant, and sprinted after it barefoot for nine hours until the creature – dehydrated, exhausted, and unable to sweat out the excess heat – crumpled into a violently sad face-plant in the hot, gritty sand. Our strapping, supple ancestors jogged to a halt beside it, barely out of breath, to carve up its flesh and bring home the elephant bacon. Later that evening they would break their 36 hour intermittent fast, retire to the lake, and engage in polyamorous affairs.

Thursday, July 22nd, 2021

Why Civilization Is Older Than We Thought – Palladium

When we find remains of beavers, we assume they built beaver dams, even if we don’t immediately find remnants of such dams. The beaver dams are part of what biologists would call the animal’s extended phenotype, an unavoidable necessity of the ecological niche that the beaver occupies. When we find Homo sapiens skeletons, however, we instead imagine the people naked, feasting on berries, without shelter, and without social differentiation.

Tuesday, July 20th, 2021

What would have happened if we never fixed the ozone hole?

We may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we have dodged some bullets:

In the annals of environmental history, humanity’s response to the ozone crisis stands out as a rare success story. During the 1970s and ‘80s, evidence started to mount that certain household chemicals used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and aerosol cans like hairspray were eating a giant hole in Earth’s ozone layer, which prevents harmful ultraviolet radiation from reaching the surface. Facing the terrifying prospect of a future without any atmospheric sunscreen at all, in the late 1980s nations came together to sign the Montreal Protocol, a global treaty to phase out so-called ozone-depleting substances like chlorofluorocarbons.

But if things hadn’t turned out that way—if the scientific evidence linking man-made chemicals to ozone depletion wasn’t strong enough, or if ozone deniers (yes, there were ozone deniers) successfully stymied the Montreal Protocol—the world might look very different.

What is a woman? - Prospect Magazine

An excellent thoughtful piece from Angela Saini (as always):

Popular opinion, “common sense” and the closely related priors of scientific enquiry have never been reliable guides when it comes to decoding human difference. After all, European biologists once thought it was obvious that colour-coded races were different species or breeds that had evolved separately on each continent. It was obvious to taxonomist Carl Linnaeus that monster-like and feral races of humans surely existed somewhere in the world. More recently, neuroscientists were happily insisting that women were innately less intelligent than men because they had smaller brains. A few neuroscientists still do.

History shows that many supposed “facts” about human nature were actually always cultural constructions. Race is one. Gender is another. Now, some researchers believe that sex—generally seen as determined by anatomy, including chromosomes, hormones and genitalia—may to some extent be constructed, too. Binary categories of male and female, they say, certainly don’t fully encompass all the natural variation and complexity that we see in our species.

Friday, July 9th, 2021

Centuries of Sound

An audio mix for every year of recorded sound, 1859 to the present.

Currently up to 1936.

Saturday, July 3rd, 2021

The Internet Is Rotting - The Atlantic

A terrific piece by Jonathan Zittrain on bitrot and online digital preservation:

Too much has been lost already. The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.

Saturday, June 19th, 2021

My 3 Greatest Revelations - Issue 102: Hidden Truths - Nautilus

Caleb Scharf:

Wait a minute. There is no real difference between the dataome—our externalized world of books and computers and machines and robots and cloud servers—and us. That means the dataome is a genuine alternative living system here on the planet. It’s dependent on us, but we’re dependent on it too. And for me that was nerve-wracking. You get to the point of looking at it and going, Wow, the alien world is here, and it’s right under our nose, and we’re interacting with it constantly.

I like this Long Now view of our dataome:

We are constantly exchanging information that enables us to build a library for survival on this planet. It’s proven an incredibly successful approach to survival. If I can remember what happened 1,000 years ago, that may inform me for success today.

Sunday, June 6th, 2021

Ancestors and Descendants – Eric’s Archived Thoughts

Eric looks back on 25 years of CSS and remarks on how our hacks and workarounds have fallen away over time, thank goodness.

But this isn’t just a message of nostalgia about how much harder things were back in my day. Eric also shows how CSS very nearly didn’t make it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Todd Fahrner and Tantek Çelik saved the day. If Tantek hadn’t implemented doctype switching, there’s no way that CSS would’ve been viable.

Gaming the Iron Curtain

The ZX Spectrum in a time of revolution:

Gaming the Iron Curtain offers the first book-length social history of gaming and game design in 1980s Czechoslovakia, or anywhere in the Soviet bloc. It describes how Czechoslovak hobbyists imported their computers, built DIY peripherals, and discovered games as a medium, using them not only for entertainment but also as a means of self-expression.

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Broad Band

I like to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is often of the science variety. Actually, so is the non-fiction.

There was a non-fiction book I had queued up for a while and I finally got around to reading. Broad Band by Claire L. Evans. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it earlier. I think I might’ve been remembering how I found Mar Hicks’s Programmed Inequality to be a bit of a slog—a fascinating topic, but written in a fairly academic style. Broad Band covers some similar ground, but wow, is the writing style in a class of its own!

This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.

It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.

I absolutely loved it. So did Cory Doctorow:

Because she is a brilliant and lyrical writer she brings these women to life, turns them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life stories, frustrations and triumphs.

Even the most celebrated women of tech history – Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper – leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I didn’t.

Yes! That!

Read it for yourself and see what you think.

Monday, May 24th, 2021

Doc Searls Weblog · How the cookie poisoned the Web

Lou’s idea was just for a server to remember the last state of a browser’s interaction with it. But that one move—a server putting a cookie inside every visiting browser—crossed a privacy threshold: a personal boundary that should have been clear from the start but was not.

Once that boundary was crossed, and the number and variety of cookies increased, a snowball started rolling, and whatever chance we had to protect our privacy behind that boundary, was lost.

The Doctor is incensed.

At this stage of the Web’s moral devolution, it is nearly impossible to think outside the cookie-based fecosystem.