Tags: technology

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Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

[Essay] Known Unknowns | New Dark Age by James Bridle | Harper’s Magazine

A terrific cautionary look at the history of machine learning and artificial intelligence from the new laugh-a-minute book by James.

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

Artificial Intelligence for more human interfaces | Christian Heilmann

An even-handed assessment of the benefits and dangers of machine learning.

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

I dunno | Brad Frost

I think being simultaneously curious and skeptical of new technology is healthy attitude to have.

I concur.

I want to learn new things in order to keep making good websites. I also think there’s a lot of value in talking about the difficulty in learning new things.

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

Know your ARIA: ‘Hidden’ vs ‘None’ | scottohara.me

When to use aria-hidden="true", and when you might need display: none:

aria-hidden by itself is not enough to completely hide an element from all users, if that is the end goal.

When to use role="presentation" (or role="none"):

Where aria-hidden can be used to completely hide content from assistive technology, modifying an element’s role to “none” or “presentation” removes the semantics of the element, but does not hide the content from assistive technologies.

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

The Amish understand a life-changing truth about technology the rest of us don’t — Quartz

The headline is terrible but this interview is an insightful look at evaluating technology.

I remember Kevin Kelly referring to the Amish as “slow geeks”, and remarking that we could all become a little more amish-ish.

It’s not that the Amish view technology as inherently evil. No rules prohibit them from using new inventions. But they carefully consider how each one will change their culture before embracing it. And the best clue as to what will happen comes from watching their neighbors.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

The Tarot Cards Of Tech

A useful set of questions to ask on any project, shuffled and dealt to you.

They’ll not only help you foresee unintended consequences—they can also reveal opportunities for positive change.

All of the content in images. Not a single image has alternative text. If only they had asked themselves:

When you picture your user base, who is excluded? If they used your product, what would their experience be like?

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Design systems and technological disruption – The Man in Blue

Almost every technological innovation over the last 300 years has had side effects which actually increase the number of opportunities for employment. The general trend is that the easier something is to do, the more demand there is for it.

Cameron looks at the historical effects of automation and applies that to design systems. The future he sees is one of increased design democratisation and participation.

This is actually something that designers have been championing for decades – inclusive design at all levels of the company, and an increase in design thinking at all stages of product development. Now that we finally have a chance of achieving that it’s not a time to be scared. It’s a time to be celebrated.

Friday, May 18th, 2018

Frustration

I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.

I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.

My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.

That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)

I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.

But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.

There’s a principle underlying the architecture of the World Wide Web called The Rule of Least Power. It somewhat counterintuitively states that you should:

choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Perhaps, given the relative simplicity of the task I was trying to accomplish, the plumbing was over-engineered. That complexity wouldn’t matter if I could circumvent it, but without the build process, there’s no way to change the markup, CSS, or JavaScript for the site.

Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.

On that note…

Last week, Paul wrote about getting to grips with JavaScript. On the very same day, Brad wrote about his struggle to learn React.

I think it’s really, really, really great when people share their frustrations and struggles like this. It’s very reassuring for anyone else out there who’s feeling similarly frustrated who’s worried that the problem lies with them. Also, this kind of confessional feedback is absolute gold dust for anyone looking to write explanations or documentation for JavaScript or React while battling the curse of knowledge. As Paul says:

The challenge now is to remember the pain and anguish I endured, and bare that in mind when helping others find their own path through the knotted weeds of JavaScript.

What History’s Female Internet Pioneers can Teach us about Tomorrow on Vimeo

The terrific talk from Beyond Tellerrand by Claire L. Evans, author of Broad Band.

As we face issues of privacy, identity, and society in a networked world, we have much to learn from these women, who anticipated the Internet’s greatest problems, faced them, and discovered solutions we can still use today.

Broad Band – What History’s Female Internet Pioneers can Teach us about Tomorrow - Claire L. Evans - btconfDUS2018

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

Kumiho. — Ethan Marcotte

Ethan shares my reaction to Google Duplex:

Frankly, this technology was designed to deceive humans.

And he points out that the team’s priorities are very revealing:

I’ll say this: it’s telling that matters of transparency, disclosure, and trust weren’t considered important for the initial release.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

Choosing tools for scaling design

Tools and processes are intertwined. A company or a department or an individual has a way of doing things—that’s the process. They also have software to carry out the process—those are the tools.

Ideally, they should be loosely coupled. You should be able to change your tools without necessarily changing your process. So swapping out, say, one framework or library for another shouldn’t involve fundamentally changing the way you work. Likewise, trying a new way of working shouldn’t require you to use unfamiliar tools.

When it comes to scaling design within organisations, the challenges are almost always around switching processes (well, really it’s about trying to change culture, but that starts with changing processes—any sufficiently advanced process is indistinguishable from culture). All too often, though, I see people getting hung up on the tools.

We need to get more efficient in how we deliver designs …so let’s switch over to this particular design tool.

We should have a design system …so let’s get everyone using this particular JavaScript framework.

I understand this desire to shortcut the work of figuring out processes and jump straight to production solutions. For one thing, it allows you to create an easy list of requirements when it comes to recruiting talent: “Join our company—you must demonstrate experience and proficiency in this tool or that library.”

But when tools and processes become tightly coupled like this, there’s a real danger of stagnation. If a process can be defined as “the way we do things around here”, that’s not something you want to tie to any particular tool or technology. Otherwise, before you know it, you’re in the frustrating situation of using outdated tools, but you can’t swap them out for newer or better-suited technologies without disrupting everyone’s work.

This is technical debt (although it applies just as much to design). You’re paying a penalty in the present because of a decision that somebody made in the past. The problem isn’t so much with the decision itself, but with the longevity of its effects.

I think it’s important to remember what a tool is: it’s a piece of technology that enables you to work faster or better. You should enjoy using your tools, but you shouldn’t be utterly dependent on any particular one. Otherwise, the tail starts wagging the dog—you are now in service to the tool, instead of the other way around.

Treat your tools like cattle, not pets. Don’t get too attached to any one technology to the detriment of missing out on others.

Mind you, if you constantly tried every single new tool or technology out there, you’d never settle on anything—I’m pretty sure that three new JavaScript frameworks have been released since you started reading this paragraph.

The tools you choose at any particular time should be suited to what you’re trying to accomplish at that time. In other words, you’ve got to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish first (the vision), then figure out how you’re going to accomplish it (the process), and only then figure out which tools are the best fit. If you jump straight to choosing tools, you could end up trying to tighten a screw with a hammer.

Alas, I’ve seen plenty of consultants who conflate strategy with tooling. They’re brought in to solve process problems and, surprise, surprise, the solution always seems to involve purchasing the software that their company sells. I’ve been guilty of this myself: I see an organisation struggling to systemise their design patterns, and I think “Oh, they should use Fractal!” …but that’s jumping the gun. They might be better served with something simpler, or something more complex (I mean, Fractal is very, very flexible but it’s still just one option—there are plenty of other pattern library tools out there).

Once you separate out the tools from the process, there’s an added benefit. Making the right technology choice is no longer a life-or-death decision. You can suck it and see. Try out the technology and see if it works. If it’s working, great! Carry on using it. If it’s not working, that’s okay too. Try something different.

I realise I’m oversimplifying things, but I honestly believe that the real challenge is not choosing the right tools, but figuring out the right process for your team.

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

Why Silicon Valley can’t fix itself

Backlash backlash:

The nature of human nature is that it changes. It can not, therefore, serve as a stable basis for evaluating the impact of technology. Yet the assumption that it doesn’t change serves a useful purpose. Treating human nature as something static, pure and essential elevates the speaker into a position of power. Claiming to tell us who we are, they tell us how we should be.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

Thanos

I’m going to discuss Avengers: Infinity War without spoilers, unless you count the motivations of the main villain as a spoiler, in which case you should stop reading now.

The most recent book by Charles C. Mann—author of 1491 and 1493—is called The Wizard And The Prophet. It profiles two twentieth century figures with divergent belief systems: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. (Trust me, this will become relevant to the new Avengers film.)

I’ve long been fascinated by Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. It is quite possible that he is responsible for saving more lives than any other single human being in history (with the possible exception of Stanislav Petrov who may have saved the entire human race through inaction). In his book, Mann dubs Borlaug “The Wizard”—the epitome of a can-do attitude and a willingness to use technology to solve global problems.

William Vogt, by contrast, is “The Prophet.” His groundbreaking research crystalised many central tenets of the environmental movement, including the term he coined, carrying capacity—the upper limit to a population that an environment can sustain. Vogt’s stance is that there is no getting around the carrying capacity of our planet, so we need to make do with less: fewer people consuming fewer resources.

Those are the opposing belief systems. Prophets believe that carrying capacity is fixed and that if our species exceed this limit, we are doomed. Wizards believe that technology can treat carrying capacity as damage and route around it.

Vogt’s philosophy came to dominate the environmental movement for the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s something I’ve personally found very frustrating. Groups and organisations that I nominally agree with—the Green Party, Greenpeace, etc.—have anti-technology baggage that doesn’t do them any favours. The uninformed opposition to GM foods is a perfect example. The unrealistic lauding of country life over the species-saving power of cities is another.

And yet history so far has favoured the wizards. The Malthusian population bomb never exploded, partly thanks to Borlaug’s work, but also thanks to better education for women in the developing world, which had enormously positive repercussions.

Anyway, I find this framing of fundamental differences in attitude to be fascinating. Ultimately it’s a stand-off between optimism (the wizards) and pessimism (the prophets). John Faithful Hamer uses this same lens to contrast recent works by Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari. Pinker is a wizard. Harari is a prophet.

I was not expecting to be confronted with the wizards vs. prophets debate while watching Avengers: Infinity War, but there’s no getting around it—Thanos is a prophet.

Very early on, we learn that Thanos doesn’t want to destroy all life in the universe. Instead, he wants to destroy half of all life in the universe. Why? Carrying capacity. He believes the only way to save life is to reduce its number (and therefore its footprint).

Many reviews of the film have noted how the character of Thanos is strangely sympathetic. It’s no wonder! He is effectively toeing the traditional party line of the mainstream environmental movement.

There’s even a moment in the film where Thanos explains how he came to form his opinions through a tragedy in the past that he correctly predicted. “Congratulations”, says one of his heroic foes sarcastically, “You’re a prophet.”

Earlier in the film, as some of the heroes are meeting for the first time, there are gags and jokes referring to Dr. Strange’s group as “the wizards.”

I’m sure those are just coincidences.

Saturday, April 28th, 2018

An Apology for the Internet — From the People Who Built It

A hand-wringing, finger-pointing litany of hindsight, published with 11 tracking scripts attached.

  1. Start With Hippie Good Intentions …
  2. … Then mix in capitalism on steroids.
  3. The arrival of Wall Streeters didn’t help …
  4. … And we paid a high price for keeping it free.
  5. Everything was designed to be really, really addictive.
  6. At first, it worked — almost too well.
  7. No one from Silicon Valley was held accountable …
  8. … Even as social networks became dangerous and toxic.
  9. … And even as they invaded our privacy.
  10. Then came 2016.
  11. Employees are starting to revolt.
  12. To fix it, we’ll need a new business model …
  13. … And some tough regulation.
  14. Maybe nothing will change.
  15. … Unless, at the very least, some new people are in charge.

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

House of Lords - AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? - Artificial Intelligence Committee

Design fiction from the UK parliament. I mean, it’s not exactly a classic of speculative fiction, but it sure beats a white paper.

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018

You are not your tools

The technologies you use, the tools you build with, are just that: tools. Learn to use them, and learn to use them well. But always remember that those tools are there to serve you, you are not there to serve your tools.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

Think like it’s 1995; code like it’s 2035 - Grayscale

This is such a great write-up of the workshop I did in Hong Kong!

Jeremy, it was a pleasure to work with you and you are always welcome here in Hong Kong!

If you fancy having this one-day workshop at your company, get in touch.

Friday, April 6th, 2018

2001 + 50

The first ten minutes of my talk at An Event Apart Seattle consisted of me geeking about science fiction. There was a point to it …I think. But I must admit it felt quite self-indulgent to ramble to a captive audience about some of my favourite works of speculative fiction.

The meta-narrative I was driving at was around the perils of prediction (and how that’s not really what science fiction is about). This is something that Arthur C. Clarke pointed out repeatedly, most famously in Hazards of Prophecy. Ironically, I used Clarke’s meisterwork of a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick as a rare example of a predictive piece of sci-fi with a good hit rate.

When I introduced 2001: A Space Odyssey in my talk, I mentioned that it was fifty years old (making it even more of a staggering achievement, considering that humans hadn’t even reached the moon at that point). What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was fifty years old to the day. The film was released in American cinemas on April 2nd, 1968; I was giving my talk on April 2nd, 2018.

Over on Wired.com, Stephen Wolfram has written about his own personal relationship with the film. It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the typography of 2001 (see also: Typeset In The Future) right through to the nature of intelligence and our place in the universe.

When it comes to the technology depicted on-screen, he makes the same point that I was driving at in my talk—that, despite some successful extrapolations, certain real-world advances were not only unpredicted, but perhaps unpredictable. The mobile phone; the collapse of the soviet union …these are real-world events that are conspicuous by their absence in other great works of sci-fi like William Gibson’s brilliant Neuromancer.

But in his Wired piece, Wolfram also points out some acts of prediction that were so accurate that we don’t even notice them.

Also interesting in 2001 is that the Picturephone is a push-button phone, with exactly the same numeric button layout as today (though without the * and # [“octothorp”]). Push-button phones actually already existed in 1968, although they were not yet widely deployed.

To use the Picturephone in 2001, one inserts a credit card. Credit cards had existed for a while even in 1968, though they were not terribly widely used. The idea of automatically reading credit cards (say, using a magnetic stripe) had actually been developed in 1960, but it didn’t become common until the 1980s.

I’ve watched 2001 many, many, many times and I’m always looking out for details of the world-building …but it never occurred to me that push-button numeric keypads or credit cards were examples of predictive extrapolation. As time goes on, more and more of these little touches will become unnoticeable and unremarkable.

On the space shuttle (or, perhaps better, space plane) the cabin looks very much like a modern airplane—which probably isn’t surprising, because things like Boeing 737s already existed in 1968. But in a correct (at least for now) modern touch, the seat backs have TVs—controlled, of course, by a row of buttons.

Now I want to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again. If I’m really lucky, I might get to see a 70mm print in a cinema near me this year.

‘Black Mirror’ meets HGTV, and a new genre, home design horror, is born - Curbed

There was a time, circa 2009, when no home design story could do without a reference to Mad Men. There is a time, circa 2018, when no personal tech story should do without a Black Mirror reference.

Black Mirror Home. It’s all fun and games until the screaming starts.

When these products go haywire—as they inevitably do—the Black Mirror tweets won’t seem so funny, just as Mad Men curdled, eventually, from ha-ha how far we’ve come to, oh-no we haven’t come far enough.

Twenty Eighteen Preparation: Becoming an Endless Newbie - Airbag Industries

In the past, when I brushed off new advances or updates to technology and processes I preferred to stick with a simple path of “it still works fine,” but in doing so I realize now that I have l lost a lot beginning with the ability to function with current best practices in certain areas of my skill sets and the degradation a few projects, especially Airbag.