Tags: tech

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Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

Principles and the English language

I work with words. Sometimes they’re my words. Sometimes they’re words that my colleagues have written:

One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.

I also work with web technologies, usually front-of-the-front-end stuff. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The technologies that users experience directly in web browsers.

I think a lot about design principles for the web. The two principles I keep coming back to are the robustness principle and the principle of least power.

When it comes to words, the guide that I return to again and again is George Orwell, specifically his short essay, Politics and the English Language.

Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These look a lot like design principles. Not only that, but some of them look like specific design principles. Take the robustness principle:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Be conservative in what words you send.

Then there’s the principle of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

That could be rephrased as:

Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.

Or, going in the other direction, the principle of least power could be rephrased in Orwell’s terms as:

Never use a powerful language where a simple language will do.

Oh, I like that! I like that a lot.

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021

The principle of most availability

I’ve been thinking some more about the technical experience of booking a vaccination apointment and how much joy it brought me.

I’ve written before about how I’ve got a blind spot for the web so it’s no surprise that I was praising the use of a well marked-up form, styled clearly, and unencumbered by unnecessary JavaScript. But other technologies were in play too: Short Message Service (SMS) and email.

All of those technologies are platform-agnostic.

No matter what operating system I’m using, or what email software I’ve chosen, email works. It gets more complicated when you introduce HTML email. My response to that is the same as the old joke; you know the one: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” (“Well, don’t do that.”)

No matter what operating system my phone is using, SMS works. It gets more complicated when you introduce read receipts, memoji, or other additions. See my response to HTML email.

Then there’s the web. No matter what operating system I’m using on a device that could be a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop tower, and no matter what browser I’ve chosen to use, the World Wide Web works.

I originally said:

It feels like the principle of least power in action.

But another way of rephrasing “least power” is “most availability.” Technologies that are old, simple, and boring tend to be more widely available.

I remember when software used to come packaged in boxes and displayed on shelves. The packaging always had a list on the side. It looked like the nutritional information on a food product, but this was a list of “system requirements”: operating system, graphics card, sound card, CPU. I never liked the idea of system requirements. It felt so …exclusionary. And for me, the promise of technology was liberation and freedom to act on my own terms.

Hence my soft spot for the boring and basic technologies like email, SMS, and yes, web pages. The difference with web pages is that you can choose to layer added extras on top. As long as the fundamental functionality is using universally-supported technology, you’re free to enhance with all the latest CSS and JavaScript. If any of it fails, that’s okay: it falls back to a nice solid base.

Alas, many developers don’t build with this mindset. I mean, I understand why: it means thinking about users with the most boring, least powerful technology. It’s simpler and more exciting to assume that everyone’s got a shared baseline of newer technology. But by doing that, you’re missing out on one of the web’s superpowers: that something served up at the same URL with the same underlying code can simultaneously serve people with older technology and also provide a whizz-bang experience to people with the latest and greatest technology.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the kind of communication technologies that are as universal as email, SMS, and the web.

QR codes are kind of heading in that direction, although I still have qualms because of their proprietary history. But there’s something nice and lo-fi about them. They’re like print stylesheets in reverse (and I love print stylesheets). A funky little bridge between the physical and the digital. I just wish they weren’t so opaque: you never know if scanning that QR code will actually take you to the promised resource, or if you’re about to rickroll yourself.

Telephone numbers kind of fall into the same category as SMS, but with the added option of voice. I’ve always found the prospect of doing something with, say, Twilio’s API more interesting than building something inside a walled garden like Facebook Messenger or Alexa.

I know very little about chat apps or voice apps, but I don’t think there’s a cross-platform format that works with different products, right? I imagine it’s like the situation with native apps which require a different codebase for each app store and operating system. And so there’s a constant stream of technologies that try to fulfil the dream of writing once and running everywhere: React Native, Flutter.

They’re trying to solve a very clear and obvious problem: writing the same app more than once is really wasteful. But that’s the nature of the game when it comes to runtime-specific apps. The only alternative is to either deliberately limit your audience …or apply the principle of least power/most availability.

The wastefulness of having to write the same app for multiple platforms isn’t the only thing that puts me off making native apps. The exclusivity works in two directions. There’s the exclusive nature of the runtime that requires a bespoke codebase. There’s also the exclusive nature of the app store. It feels like a return to shelves of packaged software with strict system requirements. You can’t just walk in and put your software on the shelf. That’s the shopkeeper’s job.

There is no shopkeeper for the World Wide Web.

Let’s Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science | Opinion | Communications of the ACM

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:

  1. To understand the process of discovery—not so much what was discovered, but how it was discovered.
  2. To understand the process of failure.
  3. To celebrate the contributions of many cultures.
  4. Telling historical stories is the best way to teach.
  5. To learn how to cope with life.
  6. To become more familiar with the world, and to know how science fits into the overall history of mankind.

Monday, March 29th, 2021

A Wire Across the Ocean | American Scientist

Ainissa Ramirez recounts the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, the Apollo project of its day.

Thursday, March 25th, 2021

Web Development History

Richard MacManus has started a blog all about the history of web development—this is going straight to my RSS reader!

Most internet history books, websites, podcasts, etc, are from a business perspective. What’s missing, I believe, is an internet history with a technical point of view: which products were developed, the technologies used, how the web has changed over time, developmental trends, and so on.

Simply put, I want to describe how the web actually works and how that has evolved over the past 25-30 years.

Wednesday, March 17th, 2021

Good, Better, Best: Untangling The Complex World Of Accessible Patterns — Smashing Magazine

I really like the approach that Carie takes here. Instead of pointing to specific patterns to use, she provides a framework for evaluating technology. Solutions come and go but this kind of critical thinking is a long-lasting skill.

Sunday, March 14th, 2021

Solar Protocol

This website is hosted across a network of solar powered servers and is sent to you from wherever there is the most sunshine.

Saturday, March 6th, 2021

Daring Fireball: Google’s Outsized Share of Advertising Money

Same hat!

Privacy-invasive user tracking is to Google and Facebook what carbon emissions are to fossil fuel companies — a form of highly profitable pollution that for a very long time few people in the mainstream cared about, but now, seemingly suddenly, very many care about quite a bit.

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

A History of the Web in 100 Pages - Web Directions

I’m excited by this documentary project from John! The first video installment features three historic “pages”:

  • As We May Think,
  • Information Management: A Proposal, and
  • the first web page.

Friday, February 12th, 2021

Prediction

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation becaue the profit invariably falls into two stools. If his predictions sounded at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20 or most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn.

But I couldn’t resist responding to a recent request for augery. Eric asked An Event Apart speakers for their predictions for the coming year. The responses have been gathered together and published, although it’s in the form of a PDF for some reason.

Here’s what I wrote:

This is probably more of a hope than a prediction, but 2021 could be the year that the ponzi scheme of online tracking and surveillance begins to crumble. People are beginning to realize that it’s far too intrusive, that it just doesn’t work most of the time, and that good ol’-fashioned contextual advertising would be better. Right now, it feels similar to the moment before the sub-prime mortgage bubble collapsed (a comparison made in Tim Hwang’s recent book, Subprime Attention Crisis). Back then people thought “Well, these big banks must know what they’re doing,” just as people have thought, “Well, Facebook and Google must know what they’re doing”…but that confidence is crumbling, exposing the shaky stack of cards that props up behavioral advertising. This doesn’t mean that online advertising is coming to an end—far from it. I think we might see a golden age of relevant, content-driven advertising. Laws like Europe’s GDPR will play a part. Apple’s recent changes to highlight privacy-violating apps will play a part. Most of all, I think that people will play a part. They will be increasingly aware that there’s nothing inevitable about tracking and surveillance and that the web works better when it respects people’s right to privacy. The sea change might not happen in 2021 but it feels like the water is beginning to swell.

Still, predicting the future is a mug’s game with as much scientific rigour as astrology, reading tea leaves, or haruspicy.

Much like behavioural advertising.

Thursday, February 11th, 2021

A Black Cloud of Computation

SETI—the Search for Extra Terrestrial Information processing:

What we get is a computational device surrounding the Asymptotic Giant Branch star that is roughly the size of our Solar System.

Monday, January 25th, 2021

CSS Frameworks, hype and dogmatism - Post - Piccalilli

You catch more flies with honey than Tailwind.

Monday, January 18th, 2021

React Bias

Dev perception.

The juxtaposition of The HTTP Archive’s analysis and The State of JS 2020 Survey results suggest that a disproportionately small—yet exceedingly vocal minority—of white male developers advocate strongly for React, and by extension, a development experience that favors thick client/thin server architectures which are given to poor performance in adverse conditions. Such conditions are less likely to be experienced by white male developers themselves, therefore reaffirming and reflecting their own biases in their work.

Saturday, January 16th, 2021

Carbon Dioxide Removal Primer

A Creative Commons licensed web book that you can read online.

Carbon dioxide removal at a climate-significant scale is one of the most complex endeavors we can imagine, interlocking technologies, social systems, economies, transportation systems, agricultural systems, and, of course, the political economy required to fund it. This primer aims to lower the learning curve for action by putting as many facts as possible in the hands of the people who will take on this challenge. This book can eliminate much uncertainty and fear, and, we hope, speed the process of getting real solutions into the field.

Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

Contextual ads | Dave Smyth

If behavioural ads aren’t more effective than contextual ads, what is all of that data collected for?

If websites opted for a context ads and privacy-focused analytics approach, cookie banners could become obsolete…

Saturday, December 19th, 2020

Facebook’s Attempt to Vilify Apple — Pixel Envy

See, that’s what I’m talking about;

Levy deftly conflates “advertising” and “personalized advertising”, as if there are no ways to target people planning a wedding without surveilling their web browsing behaviour. Facebook’s campaign casually ignores decades of advertising targeted based on the current webpage or video instead of who those people are because it would impact Facebook’s primary business. Most people who are reading an article about great wedding venues are probably planning a wedding, but you don’t need quite as much of the ad tech stack to make that work.

Monday, December 14th, 2020

History of the Web - YouTube

I really enjoyed this trip down memory lane with Chris:

From the Web’s inception, an ancient to contemporary history of the Web.

History of the Web

Saturday, December 12th, 2020

Kevin Kelly on Why Technology Has a Will | Palladium Magazine

Technologies are always coming out of networks that require other related ideas to have the next one. The fact that we have simultaneous independent invention as a norm works against the idea of the heroic inventor, that we’re dependent on them for inventions. These things will come when all the other pieces are ready.

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020

npm ruin dev | CSS-Tricks

Chris is gathering end-of-year thoughts from people in response to the question:

What is one thing you learned about building websites this year?

Here’s mine.

In 2020, I rediscovered the enjoyment of building a website with plain ol’ HTML, CSS, and JavaScript — no transpilin’, no compilin’, no build tools other than my hands on the keyboard.