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.
Thursday, July 22nd, 2021
Tuesday, July 20th, 2021
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.
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
An audio mix for every year of recorded sound, 1859 to the present.
Currently up to 1936.
Saturday, July 3rd, 2021
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
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
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.
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
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.
Monday, May 24th, 2021
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.
Friday, May 21st, 2021
Tuesday, April 27th, 2021
Lysenko vs. Vavilov feels like the 20th century version of Edison vs. Tesla.
Thursday, April 22nd, 2021
This video is a charming trip down to memory lane to the early days of the public internet:
It wasn’t quite the World Wide Web yet, but everybody started hearing about this thing called “the Internet” in 1993. It was being called the Information Superhighway then.
Wednesday, April 21st, 2021
The format of a Wikipedia page is used as the chilling delivery mechanism for this piece of speculative fiction. The distancing effect heightens the horror.
Monday, April 12th, 2021
Here’s the video of the talk I gave at the Web Stories conference back in February.
Tuesday, April 6th, 2021
Of the web
I’m subscribed to a lot of blogs in my RSS reader. I follow some people because what they write about is very different to what I know about. But I also follow lots of people who have similar interests and ideas to me. So I’m not exactly in an echo chamber, but I do have the reverb turned up pretty high.
Sometimes these people post thoughts that are eerily similar to what I’ve been thinking about. Ethan has been known to do this. Get out of my head, Marcotte!
But even if Ethan wasn’t some sort of telepath, he’d still be in my RSS reader. We’re friends. Lots of the people in my RSS reader are my friends. When I read their words, I can hear their voices.
Then there are the people I’ve never met. Like Desirée García, Piper Haywood, or Jim Nielsen. Never met them, don’t know them, but damn, do I enjoy reading their blogs. Last year alone, I ended up linking to Jim’s posts ten different times.
Or Baldur Bjarnason. I can’t remember when I first came across his writing, but it really, really resonates with me. I probably owe him royalties for the amount of times I’ve cited his post Over-engineering is under-engineering.
His latest post is postively Marcottian in how it exposes what’s been fermenting in my own mind. But because he writes clearly, it really helps clarify my own thinking. It’s often been said that you should write to figure out what you think, and I can absolutely relate to that. But here’s a case where somebody else’s writing really helps to solidify my own thoughts.
It starts with some existentialist stock-taking. I can relate, what with the whole five decades thing. But then it turns the existential questioning to the World Wide Web itself, or rather, the people building the web.
In a way, it’s like taking the question of the great divide (front of the front end and back of the front end), and then turning it 45 degrees to reveal an entirely hidden dimension.
In examining the nature of the web, he hits on the litmus of how you view encapsulation:
I mention this first as it’s the aspect of the web that modern web developers hate the most without even giving it a label. Single-Page-Apps and GraphQL are both efforts to eradicate the encapsulation that’s baked into the foundation of every layer of the web.
Most modern devs are trying to get rid of it but it’s one of the web’s most strategic advantages.
I hadn’t thought of this before.
By default, if you don’t go against the grain of the web, each HTTP endpoint is encapsulated from each other.
Moreover, all of this can happen really fast if you aren’t going overboard with your CSS and JS.
He finishes with a look at another of the web’s most powerful features: distribution. In between are the things that make the web webby: hypertext and flexibility (The Dao of the Web).
It’s the idea that the web isn’t a single fixed thing but a fluid multitude whose shape is dictated by its surroundings.
This resonates with me because it highlights two different ways of viewing the web.
On the one hand, you can see the web purely as a distribution channel. In the past you might have been distributing a Flash movie. These days you might be distributing a single page app. Either way, the web is there as a low-friction way of getting your creation in front of other people.
The other way of building for the web is to go with the web’s grain, embracing flexibility and playing to the strengths of the medium through progressive enhancement. This is the distinction I was getting at when I talked about something being not just on the web, but of the web.
With that mindset, Baldur then takes us through some of the technologies that he’s excited about, like SvelteKit and Hotwire. I think it’s the same mindset that got me excited about service workers. As Baldur says:
They are helping the web become better at being its own thing.
That’s my tagline right there.
Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
I don’t think I agree with Don Knuth’s argument here from a 2014 lecture, but I do like how he sets out his table:
Why do I, as a scientist, get so much out of reading the history of science? Let me count the ways:
- To understand the process of discovery—not so much what was discovered, but how it was discovered.
- To understand the process of failure.
- To celebrate the contributions of many cultures.
- Telling historical stories is the best way to teach.
- To learn how to cope with life.
- To become more familiar with the world, and to know how science fits into the overall history of mankind.
Monday, March 29th, 2021
Ainissa Ramirez recounts the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, the Apollo project of its day.
Saturday, March 27th, 2021
Black Mirror meets Henrietta Lacks in this short story by Erik Hoel who I had not heard of until today, when I came across his name here and also in a completely unrelated blog post by Peter Watts about the nature of dreams.