Tags: technology

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Monday, April 4th, 2022

Why Computers Won’t Make Themselves Smarter | The New Yorker

In this piece published a year ago, Ted Chiang pours cold water on the idea of a bootstrapping singularity.

How much can you optimize for generality? To what extent can you simultaneously optimize a system for every possible situation, including situations never encountered before? Presumably, some improvement is possible, but the idea of an intelligence explosion implies that there is essentially no limit to the extent of optimization that can be achieved. This is a very strong claim. If someone is asserting that infinite optimization for generality is possible, I’d like to see some arguments besides citing examples of optimization for specialized tasks.

Sunday, March 27th, 2022

Artifice and Intelligence

Whatever the merit of the scientific aspirations originally encompassed by the term “artificial intelligence,” it’s a phrase that now functions in the vernacular primarily to obfuscate, alienate, and glamorize.

Do “cloud” next!

Sunday, March 13th, 2022

Make it boring — jlwagner.net

People are propelled by their interests, and web developers have a lot of space to be interested in all sorts of stuff. For you, it may be JavaScript ‘n Friends, or HTML and CSS. Maybe it’s all that stuff, but put aside your preferences for a moment and answer me this: what are you helping people to do? If the answer involves any remotely routine or crucial purpose, consider putting aside your personal desire for excitement. Instead, make boring things that are usable, accessible, and fast. Ours is a job done by people for people, not a glamorous rockstar gig.

Excellent advice from Jeremy who wants us to build fast, reliable, resilient websites …even if the technologies involved in doing that don’t feel exciting.

Central to that endeavor is recognizing that the browser gives you a ton of stuff for free. Relying on those freebies requires a willingness to not npm install a solution for every problem — especially those that are best solved with CSS and HTML. Those technologies may seem boring, but boring is fast. Boring is usable. Boring is resilient and fault tolerant. Boring is accessible. When we rely wholesale on JavaScript to build for the web, we’re inevitably reinventing things. At worst, our reinventions of rock-solid HTML features — such as client-side form validation  — break in unexpected ways despite our carefully written tests. At best, a flawless reimplementation of those features adds unnecessary code to applications, and depends on a technology less fault-tolerant than CSS and HTML.

Monday, February 14th, 2022

Personal Websites as Self-Portraiture | starbreaker.org

What, then, is a personal website? It is precisely that, personal. It is a new kind of self-portraiture done not with pencils, charcoal, ink, or paint. Instead it is self-portraiture done in markup language, code, prose, images, audio, and video.

Sunday, January 16th, 2022

It’s not still the early days

If you’re interested in so-called web3, you should definitely follow Molly White.

How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains? How many people must be scammed for all they’re worth while technologists talk about just beginning to think about building safeguards into their platforms? How long must the laymen, who are so eagerly hustled into blockchain-based projects that promise to make them millionaires, be scolded as though it is their fault when they are scammed as if they should be capable of auditing smart contracts themselves?

The more you think about it, the more “it’s early days!” begins to sound like the desperate protestations of people with too much money sunk into a pyramid scheme, hoping they can bag a few more suckers and get out with their cash before the whole thing comes crashing down.

Tuesday, January 11th, 2022

Chesterton’s Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Thinking - Farnam Street

Unless we know why someone made a decision, we can’t safely change it or conclude that they were wrong.

Norton

It me.

Occasionally, I wonder whether I’ve got it all wrong. Is my age, my technical unsophistication, or my fond remembrance of an internet unencumbered by commerce blinding me to the opportunities that crypto offers me? But then I read something terrible and I recant my doubts, meditate for a while and get on with my life.

Monday, January 10th, 2022

Blockchain-based systems are not what they say they are

Blockchain technologies have somehow managed to land in the worst of both worlds—decentralized but not really, immutable but not really.

A great analysis of the system of smoke and mirrors that constitutes so-called web3:

Instead of being at the mercy of the “big tech” companies like Amazon and Google that monopolize the traditional way of doing things on the web, you are now at the mercy of a few other tech companies that are rapidly monopolizing the blockchain way of doing things.

Saturday, January 8th, 2022

Moxie Marlinspike >> Blog >> My first impressions of web3

A balanced, even-handed look at actually using so-called web3 technology. It turns out that even if you leave the ethical and environmental concerns aside, the technological underpinning are, um, troublesome to say the least.

Thursday, January 6th, 2022

Today, the distant future

It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about living in the future. It’s also a bit pointless. After all, any moment after the big bang is a future when viewed from any point in time before it.

Still, it’s kind of fun when a sci-fi date rolls around. Like in 2015 when we reached the time depicted in Back To The Future 2, or in 2019 when we reached the time of Blade Runner.

In 2022 we are living in the future of web standards. Again, technically, we’re always living in the future of any past discussion of web standards, but this year is significant …in a very insignificant way.

It all goes back to 2008 and an interview with Hixie, editor of the HTML5 spec at the WHATWG at the time. In it, he mentioned the date 2022 as the milestone for having two completely interoperable implementations.

The far more important—and ambitious—date was 2012, when HTML5 was supposed to become a Candidate Recommendation, which is standards-speak for done’n’dusted.

But the mere mention of the year 2022 back in the year 2008 was too much for some people. Jeff Croft, for example, completely lost his shit (Jeff had a habit of posting angry rants and then denying that he was angry or ranty, but merely having a bit of fun).

The whole thing was a big misunderstanding and soon irrelevant: talk of 2022 was dropped from HTML5 discussions. But for a while there, it was fascinating to see web designers and developers contemplate a year that seemed ludicriously futuristic. Jeff wrote:

God knows where I’ll be in 13 years. Quite frankly, I’ll be pretty fucking disappointed in myself (and our entire industry) if I’m writing HTML in 13 years.

That always struck me as odd. If I thought like that, I’d wonder what the point would be in making anything on the web to begin with (bear in mind that both my own personal website and The Session are now entering their third decade of life).

I had a different reaction to Jeff, as I wrote in 2010:

Many web developers were disgusted that such a seemingly far-off date was even being mentioned. My reaction was the opposite. I began to pay attention to HTML5.

But Jeff was far from alone. Scott Gilbertson wrote an angry article on Webmonkey:

If you’re thinking that planning how the web will look and work 13 years from now is a little bit ridiculous, you’re not alone.

Even if your 2022 ronc-o-matic web-enabled toaster (It slices! It dices! It browses! It arouses!) does ship with Firefox v22.3, will HTML still be the dominant language of web? Given that no one can really answer that question, does it make sense to propose a standard so far in the future?

(I’m re-reading that article in the current version of Firefox: 95.0.2.)

Brian Veloso wrote on his site:

Two-thousand-twenty-two. That’s 14 years from now. Can any of us think that far? Wouldn’t our robot overlords, whether you welcome them or not, have taken over by then? Will the internet even matter then?

From the comments on Jeff’s post, there’s Corey Dutson:

2022: God knows what the Internet will look like at that point. Will we even have websites?

Dan Rubin, who has indeed successfully moved from web work to photography, wrote:

I certainly don’t intend to be doing “web work” by that time. I’m very curious to see where the web actually is in 14 years, though I can’t imagine that HTML5 will even get that far; it’ll all be obsolete before 2022.

Joshua Works made a prediction that’s worryingly close to reality:

I’ll be surprised if website-as-HTML is still the preferred method for moving around the tons of data we create, especially in the manner that could have been predicted in 2003 or even today. Hell, iPods will be over 20 years old by then and if everything’s not run as an iPhone App, then something went wrong.

Someone with the moniker Grand Caveman wrote:

In 2022 I’ll be 34, and hopefully the internet will be obsolete by then.

Perhaps the most level-headed observation came from Jonny Axelsson:

The world in 2022 will be pretty much like the world in 2009.

The world in 2009 is pretty much like 1996 which was pretty much like the world in 1983 which was pretty much like the world in 1970. Some changes are fairly sudden, others are slow, some are dramatic, others subtle, but as a whole “pretty much the same” covers it.

The Web in 2022 will not be dramatically different from the Web in 2009. It will be less hot and it will be less cool. The Web is a project, and as it succeeds it will fade out of our attention and into the background. We don’t care about things when they work.

Now that’s a sensible perspective!

So who else is looking forward to seeing what the World Wide Web is like in 2036?

I must remember to write a blog post then and link back to this one. I have no intention of trying to predict the future, but I’m willing to bet that hyperlinks will still be around in 14 years.

Speaking of long bets…

Crypto: the good, the bad and the ugly | Seldo.com

A very even-handed and level-headed assessment by Laurie, who has far more patience than me when it comes to this shit.

Washed Up - Infrequently Noted

The term “web3” is a transparent attempt to associate technologies diametrically opposed to the web with its success; an effort to launder the reputation of systems that have most effectively served as vehicles for money laundering, fraud, and the acceleration of ransomware using the good name of a system that I help maintain.

Perhaps this play to appropriate the value of the web is what it smells like: a desperate move by bag-holders to lure in a new tranche of suckers, allowing them to clear speculative positions. Or perhaps it’s honest confusion. Technically speaking, whatever it is, it isn’t the web or any iteration of it.

Wednesday, January 5th, 2022

A not so gentle intro to web3 | Koos Looijesteijn

Web3 is like a combination of pyramid schemes, scientology and Tamagotchi. There’s the fact that ultimately anything you do on blockchains costs you real money and that once you’ve paid that, you’re one of the people who need to get the next cohort of buyers onboard or lose your money. There’s believing that you’re joining a movement that’s in the know, with all kinds of interesting words and sci-fi stuff that normies just don’t understand. And there’s your portfolio, your pretty JPGs, wallets, apps and everything you spent so much time on understanding and maintaining. Good luck avoiding sunk cost fallacy there.

Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

Inertia - CSS-Tricks

Here’s a thoughtful response from Chris to my post about Svelte, Astro, and React.

morals in the machine | The Roof is on Phire

We are so excited by the idea of machines that can write, and create art, and compose music, with seemingly little regard for how many wells of creativity sit untapped because many of us spend the best hours of our days toiling away, and even more can barely fulfill basic needs for food, shelter, and water. I can’t help but wonder how rich our lives could be if we focused a little more on creating conditions that enable all humans to exercise their creativity as much as we would like robots to be able to.

Monday, November 15th, 2021

Who is web3 for? • Robin Rendle

Thoughts from Robin, prompted by the Web History podcast I’m narrating and the other Robin’s notes on web3 that I linked to:

Who is the web for? Everyone, everywhere, and not only the few with a financial stake in it. It’s still this enormously beautiful thing that has so much potential.

But web3? That’s just not it, man.

Exactly! The blinkered web3 viewpoint is a classic example of this fallacious logic (also, as Robin points out, exemplified by AMP):

  1. Something must be done!
  2. This (terrible idea) is something.
  3. Something has been done.

Friday, November 12th, 2021

Notes on Web3

I think Web3 is pro­pelled by exhaus­tion as much as by excite­ment. This isn’t appar­ent on the surface, but I believe it’s there, lurk­ing just below. If you’re 22 years old, Twit­ter has been around for about as long as you’ve known how to read. YouTube is fixed as firmly as the stars. I honestly don’t know how that feels, but I wonder if it’s claustrophobic?

There are so many astute and accurate observations in Robin’s piece that I kind of want to quote them all.

Web3 promises rewards — maybe even a kind of justice — for “users”, but Ethereum doesn’t know anything about users, only wallets. One user can control many wallets; one bot can control many wallets; Ethereum can’t tell the difference, doesn’t particularly care. Therefore, Web3’s governance tools are appropriate for decision-making processes that approximate those of an LLC, but not for anything truly democratic, which is to say, anything that respects the uniform, unearned — unearned!—value of personhood.

Monday, November 8th, 2021

Inertia

When I’ve spoken in the past about evaluating technology, I’ve mentioned two categories of tools for web development. I still don’t know quite what to call these categories. Internal and external? Developer-facing and user-facing?

The first category covers things like build tools, version control, transpilers, pre-processers, and linters. These are tools that live on your machine—or on the server—taking what you’ve written and transforming it into the raw materials of the web: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

The second category of tools are those that are made of the raw materials of the web: CSS frameworks and JavaScript libraries.

I think the criteria for evaluating these different kinds of tools should be very different.

For the first category, developer-facing tools, use whatever you want. Use whatever makes sense to you and your team. Use whatever’s effective for you.

But for the second category, user-facing tools, that attitude is harmful. If you make users download a CSS or JavaScript framework in order to benefit your workflow, then you’re making users pay a tax for your developer convenience. Instead, I firmly believe that user-facing tools should provide some direct benefit to end users.

When I’ve asked developers in the past why they’ve chosen to use a particular JavaScript framework, they’ve been able to give me plenty of good answers. But all of those answers involved the benefit to their developer workflow—efficiency, consistency, and so on. That would be absolutely fine if we were talking about the first category of tools, developer-facing tools. But those answers don’t hold up for the second category of tools, user-facing tools.

If a user-facing tool is only providing a developer benefit, is there any way to turn it into a developer-facing tool?

That’s very much the philosophy of Svelte. You can compare Svelte to other JavaScript frameworks like React and Vue but you’d be missing the most important aspect of Svelte: it is, by design, in that first category of tools—developer-facing tools:

Svelte takes a different approach from other frontend frameworks by doing as much as it can at the build step—when the code is initially compiled—rather than running client-side. In fact, if you want to get technical, Svelte isn’t really a JavaScript framework at all, as much as it is a compiler.

You install it on your machine, you write your code in Svelte, but what it spits out at the other end is HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Unlike Vue or React, you don’t ship the library to end users.

In my opinion, this is an excellent design decision.

I know there are ways of getting React to behave more like a category one tool, but it is most definitely not the default behaviour. And default behaviour really, really matters. For React, the default behaviour is to assume all the code you write—and the tool you use to write it—will be sent over the wire to end users. For Svelte, the default behaviour is the exact opposite.

I’m sure you can find a way to get Svelte to send too much JavaScript to end users, but you’d be fighting against the grain of the tool. With React, you have to fight against the grain of the tool in order to not send too much JavaScript to end users.

But much as I love Svelte’s approach, I think it’s got its work cut out for it. It faces a formidable foe: inertia.

If you’re starting a greenfield project and you’re choosing a JavaScript framework, then Svelte is very appealing indeed. But how often do you get to start a greenfield project?

React has become so ubiquitous in the front-end development community that it’s often an unquestioned default choice for every project. It feels like enterprise software at this point. No one ever got fired for choosing React. Whether it’s appropriate or not becomes almost irrelevant. In much the same way that everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook, everyone uses React because everyone uses React.

That’s one of its biggest selling points to managers. If you’ve settled on React as your framework of choice, then hiring gets a lot easier: “If you want to work here, you need to know React.”

The same logic applies from the other side. If you’re starting out in web development, and you see that so many companies have settled on using React as their framework of choice, then it’s an absolute no-brainer: “if I want to work anywhere, I need to know React.”

This then creates a positive feedback loop. Everyone knows React because everyone is hiring React developers because everyone knows React because everyone is hiring React developers because…

At no point is there time to stop and consider if there’s a tool—like Svelte, for example—that would be less harmful for end users.

This is where I think Astro might have the edge over Svelte.

Astro has the same philosophy as Svelte. It’s a developer-facing tool by default. Have a listen to Drew’s interview with Matthew Phillips:

Astro does not add any JavaScript by default. You can add your own script tags obviously and you can do anything you can do in HTML, but by default, unlike a lot of the other component-based frameworks, we don’t actually add any JavaScript for you unless you specifically tell us to. And I think that’s one thing that we really got right early.

But crucially, unlike Svelte, Astro allows you to use the same syntax as the incumbent, React. So if you’ve learned React—because that’s what you needed to learn to get a job—you don’t have to learn a new syntax in order to use Astro.

I know you probably can’t take an existing React site and convert it to Astro with the flip of a switch, but at least there’s a clear upgrade path.

Astro reminds me of Sass. Specifically, it reminds me of the .scss syntax. You could take any CSS file, rename its file extension from .css to .scss and it was automatically a valid Sass file. You could start using Sass features incrementally. You didn’t have to rewrite all your style sheets.

Sass also has a .sass syntax. If you take a CSS file and rename it with a .sass file extension, it is not going to work. You need to rewrite all your CSS to use the .sass syntax. Some people used the .sass syntax but the overwhelming majority of people used .scss

I remember talking with Hampton about this and he confirmed the proportions. It was also the reason why one of his creations, Sass, was so popular, but another of his creations, Haml, was not, comparitively speaking—Sass is a superset of CSS but Haml is not a superset of HTML; it’s a completely different syntax.

I’m not saying that Svelte is like Haml and Astro is like Sass. But I do think that Astro has inertia on its side.

Friday, November 5th, 2021

Memories of Ajax

I just finished watching The Billion Dollar Code, a German language miniseries on Netflix. It’s no Halt and Catch Fire, but it combines ’90s nostalgia, early web tech, and an opportunity for me to exercise my German comprehension.

It’s based on a true story, but with amalgamated characters. The plot, which centres around the preparation for a court case, inevitably invites comparison to The Social Network, although this time the viewpoint is from that of the underdogs trying to take on the incumbent. The incumbent is Google. The underdogs are ART+COM, artist-hackers who created the technology later used by Google Earth.

Early on, one of the characters says something about creating a one-to-one model of the whole world. That phrase struck me as familiar…

I remember being at the inaugural Future Of Web Apps conference in London back in 2006. Discussing the talks with friends afterwards, we all got a kick out of the speaker from Google, who happened to be German. His content and delivery was like a wonderfully Stranglovesque mad scientist. I’m sure I remember him saying something like “vee made a vun-to-vun model of the vurld.”

His name was Steffen Meschkat. I liveblogged the talk at the time. Turns out he was indeed on the team at ART+COM when they created Terravision, the technology later appropriated by Google (he ended up working at Google, which doesn’t make for as exciting a story as the TV show).

His 2006 talk was all about Ajax, something he was very familiar with, being on the Google Maps team. The Internet Archive even has a copy of the original audio!

It’s easy to forget now just how much hype there was around Ajax back then. It prompted me to write a book about combining Ajax and progressive enhancement.

These days, no one talks about Ajax. But that’s not because the technology went away. Quite the opposite. The technology became so ubiquituous that it no longer even needs a label.

A web developer today might ask “what’s Ajax?” in the same way that a fish might ask “what’s water?”

Thursday, November 4th, 2021

A Web Browser Built for Me • Robin Rendle

What I want instead is an anarchist web browser.

What I’d really like to see is a browser that cuts things out, that takes things away from the web. Colors, fonts, confusion. Do you need an enormous JavaScript engine under the hood to power a modern web browser? I don’t think you do. Do you need all the extensions? All the latest CSS features? Nah, mate.

Throw away everything and start again and focus intensely about what people care about when it comes to the web.