Cardigans are not entirely necessary for a show or a film to fit within the Cardigan sci-fi subgenre (although they certainly help). It’s the lack of polish in the world, it’s the absence of technological fetishism in the science fiction itself. The science or the tools or the spaceships do not sit at the heart of Cardigan sci-fi — it’s all about the people that wear the cardigans instead.
Sunday, May 29th, 2022
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?”
Sunday, October 24th, 2021
“Dune,” “Foundation,” and the Allure of Science Fiction that Thinks Long-Term — Blog of the Long Now
Comparing and contrasting two different takes on long-term thinking in sci-fi: Dune and Foundation.
In a moment of broader cultural gloominess, Dune’s perspective may resonate more with the current movie-going public. Its themes of long-term ecological destruction, terraforming, and the specter of religious extremism seem in many ways ripped out of the headlines, while Asimov’s technocratic belief in scholarly wisdom as a shining light may be less in vogue. Ultimately, though, the core appeal of these works is not in how each matches with the fashion of today, but in how they look forward through thousands of years of human futures, keeping our imagination of long-term thinking alive.
Wednesday, August 11th, 2021
This is so in-depth! Movies and TV shows from within movies and TV shows. All of them are real …I mean, they’re not real, they’re fake—that’s but the point—but they’re all from real movies and TV …ah, never mind.
Friday, February 12th, 2021
(you know my opinion of Adam Curtis’s
Monday, January 25th, 2021
The intent is for this website to be used by self-forming small groups that want to create a “watching club” (like a book club) and discuss aspects of technology history that are featured in this series.
I’m about ready to rewatch Halt And Catch Fire. Anybody want to form a watching club with me?
Saturday, November 14th, 2020
The Correct Material
I’ve been watching The Right Stuff on Disney Plus. It’s a modern remake of the ’80s film of the ’70s Tom Wolfe book of ’60s events.
It’s okay. The main challenge, as a viewer, is keeping track of which of the seven homogenous white guys is which. It’s like Merry, Pippin, Ant, Dec, and then some.
It’s kind of fun watching it after watching For All Mankind which has some of the same characters following a different counterfactual history.
The story being told is interesting enough (although Tom has pointed out that removing the Chuck Yeager angle really diminishes the narrative). But ultimately the tension is manufactured around a single event—the launch of Freedom 7—that was very much in the shadow of Gargarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight.
There are juicier stories to be told, but those stories come from Russia.
Some of these stories have been told in film. The Spacewalker told the amazing story of Alexei Leonov’s mission, though it messes with the truth about what happened with the landing and recovery—a real shame, considering that the true story is remarkable enough.
Imagine an alternative to The Right Stuff that relayed the drama of Soyuz 1—it’s got everything: friendship, rivalries, politics, tragedy…
I’d watch the heck out of that.
Thursday, November 12th, 2020
James has penned a sweeping arc from the The Mechanical Turk, Sesame Street, and Teletubbies to Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
Friday, May 8th, 2020
I’d watch this game show:
Welcome to the first installment of a new series on Typewolf, where I’ll be identifying the fonts used in popular things. The focus here is on anything you might encounter in contemporary visual culture—movie posters, TV shows, book covers, etc.
Sunday, May 3rd, 2020
What a time, as they say, to be alive. The Situation is awful in so many ways, and yet…
In this crisis, there is also opportunity—the opportunity to sit on the sofa, binge-watch television and feel good about it! I mean just think about it: when in the history of our culture has there been a time when the choice between running a marathon or going to the gym or staying at home watching TV can be resolved with such certitude? Stay at home and watch TV, of course! It’s the only morally correct choice. Protect the NHS! Save lives! Gorge on box sets!
What you end up watching doesn’t really matter. If you want to binge on Love Island or Tiger King, go for it. At this moment in time, it’s all good.
I had an ancient Apple TV device that served me well for years. At the beginning of The Situation, I decided to finally upgrade to a more modern model so I could get to more streaming services. Once I figured out how to turn off the unbelievably annoying sounds and animations, I got it set up with some subscription services. Should it be of any interest, here’s what I’ve been watching in order to save lives and protect the NHS…
Watchmen, Now TV
Superb! I suspect you’ll want to have read Alan Moore’s classic book to fully enjoy this series set in the parallel present extrapolated from that book’s ‘80s setting. Like that book, what appears to be a story about masked vigilantes is packing much, much deeper themes. I have a hunch that if Moore himself were forced to watch it, he might even offer some grudging approval.
Devs, BBC iPlayer
Ex Machina meets The Social Network in Alex Garland’s first TV show. I was reading David Deutsch while I was watching this, which felt like getting an extra bit of world-building. I think this might have worked better in the snappier context of a film, but it makes for an enjoyable saunter as a series. Style outweighs substance, but the style is strong enough to carry it.
Breeders, Now TV
Genuinely hilarious. Watch the first episode and see how many times you laugh guiltily. It gets a bit more sentimental later on, but there’s a wonderfully mean streak throughout that keeps the laughter flowing. If you are a parent of small children though, this may feel like being in a rock band watching Spinal Tap—all too real.
The Mandalorian, Disney Plus
I cannot objectively evaluate this. I absolutely love it, but that’s no surprise. It’s like it was made for me. The execution of each episode is, in my biased opinion, terrific. Read what Nat wrote about it. I agree with everything they said.
Westworld, Now TV
The third series is wrapping up soon. I’m enjoying this series immensely. It’s got a real cyberpunk sensibility; not in a stupid Altered Carbon kind of way, but in a real Gibsonian bit of noirish fun. Like Devs, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is, but it’s throroughly entertaining all the same.
Tales From The Loop, Amazon Prime
The languid pacing means this isn’t exactly a series of cliffhangers, but it will reward you for staying with it. It avoids the negativity of Black Mirror and instead maintains a more neutral viewpoint on the unexpected effects of technology. At its best, it feels like an updated take on Ray Bradbury’s stories of smalltown America (like the episode directed by Jodie Foster featuring a cameo by Shane Carruth—the time traveller’s time traveller).
Years and Years, BBC iPlayer
A near-future family and political drama by Russell T Davies. Subtlety has never been his strong point and the polemic aspects of this are far too on-the-nose to take seriously. Characters will monologue for minutes while practically waving a finger at you out of the television set. But it’s worth watching for Emma Thompson’s performance as an all-too believable populist politician. Apart from a feelgood final episode, it’s not light viewing so maybe not the best quarantine fodder.
For All Mankind, Apple TV+
An ahistorical space race that’s a lot like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut books. The initial premise—that Alexei Leonov beats Neil Armstrong to a moon landing—is interesting enough, but it really picks up from episode three. Alas, the baton isn’t really kept up for the whole series; it reverts to a more standard kind of drama from about halfway through. Still worth seeing though. It’s probably the best show on Apple TV+, but that says more about the paucity of the selection on there than it does about the quality of this series.
Avenue Five, Now TV
When it’s good, this space-based comedy is chucklesome but it kind of feels like Armando Iannucci lite.
Picard, Amazon Prime
It’s fine. Michael Chabon takes the world of Star Trek in some interesting directions, but it never feels like it’s allowed to veer too far away from the established order.
The Outsider, Now TV
A tense and creepy Stephen King adaption. I enjoyed the mystery of the first few episodes more than the later ones. Once the supernatural rules are established, it’s not quite as interesting. There are some good performances here, but the series gives off a vibe of believing it’s more important than it really is.
Better Call Saul, Netflix
The latest series (four? I’ve lost count) just wrapped up. It’s all good stuff, even knowing how some of the pieces need to slot into place for Breaking Bad.
Normal People, BBC iPlayer
I heard this was good so I went to the BBC iPlayer app and hit play. “Pretty good stuff”, I thought after watching that episode. Then I noticed that it said Episode Twelve. I had watched the final episode first. Doh! But, y’know, watching from the start, the foreknowledge of how things turn out isn’t detracting from the pleasure at all. In fact, I think you could probably watch the whole series completely out of order. It’s more of a tone poem than a plot-driven series. The characters themselves matter more than what happens to them.
Hunters, Amazon Prime
A silly 70s-set jewsploitation series with Al Pacino. The enjoyment comes from the wish fulfillment of killing nazis, which would be fine except for the way that the holocaust is used for character development. The comic-book tone of the show clashes very uncomfortably with that subject matter. The Shoah is not a plot device. This series feels like what we would get if Tarentino made television (and not in a good way).
Thursday, April 30th, 2020
The parallels between Alex Garland’s Devs and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
Monday, April 27th, 2020
Last week I wrote about the great work that Matthew did and now he’s written up his process:
Thursday, April 23rd, 2020
It’s been fascinating to see how television programmes have adapted to The Situation. It’s like there’s been a weird inversion with the YouTube asthetic. Instead of YouTubers doing their utmost to emulate the look of professional television, now everyone on professional television looks like a YouTuber.
No more lighting or audio technicians. No more studio audiences. Heck, no more studios.
There are some kinds of TV programmes that are showing the strain. A lot of comedy formats just fall flat without the usual production values. But a lot of programmes work just fine. In fact, some of them might be better. Watching Mary Beard present Front Row Late from her house is an absolute delight. It feels more direct and honest without the artiface of a television studio. It kind of makes you wonder whether expensive production costs are really necessary when what you really care about is the content.
All of this is one big belaboured metaphor for websites.
In times of crisis, informational websites sometimes offer a “lite” version. Max has even made an emergency website kit:
The site contains only the bare minimum - no webfonts, no tracking, no unnecessary images. The entire thing should fit in a single HTTP request. It’s basically just a small, ultra-lean blog focused on maximum resilience and accessibility. The Service Worker takes it a step further from there so if you’ve visited the site once, the information is still accessible even if you lose network coverage.
Eric emphasises the importance of performance in his post Get Static:
I’m thinking here of sites for places like health departments (and pretty much all government services), hospitals and clinics, utility services, food delivery and ordering, and I’m sure there are more that haven’t occurred to me. As much as you possibly can, get it down to static HTML and CSS and maybe a tiny bit of enhancing JS, and pare away every byte you can.
Tom Loosemore offers this advice to teams building new coronavirus services:
- Get a 4 year-old Android phone, and use it as your test/demo device.
- https://design-system.service.gov.uk is your friend.
- Full React isn’t your friend if it makes your service slow & inaccessible
Remember: This is for everyone.
Indeed, Gov.uk are usually a paragon of best practices in just about any situation. But they dropped the ball recently, as Matthew attests:
One sign that your website isn’t meeting the needs of all your users is when Matthew Somerville gets sufficiently grumpy about it to do a proper version himself.
It’s true enough that Matthew excels at creating lightweight, accessible versions of services that are too bloated or buggy to use. His accessible Odeon project from back in the day is legendary. And I use his slimline version of the National Rail website all the time: traintimes.org.uk—it’s a terrificly performant progressive web app.
Maybe now, with this rush to make lightweight versions of valuable services, we might stop and reflect on whether we ever really needed all those added extras in the first place.
Hope springs eternal.
Update: Matthew has written about his process in Looking at coronavirus.data.gov.uk.
Sunday, September 9th, 2018
Videos for the whole first season of James Burke’s brilliant Connections TV series.
Internet Archive and chill.
Thursday, September 6th, 2018
Chris is putting his examination of interfaces in science fiction on pause while he examines a more pressing matter for today’s political climate—an examination of depictions of fascism in science fiction:
Monday, July 2nd, 2018
Here’s a treasure trove of eighties nerd nostalgia:
In the 1980s, the BBC explored the world of computing in The Computer Literacy Project. They commissioned a home computer (the BBC Micro) and taught viewers how to program.
The Computer Literacy Project chronicled a decade of information technology and was a milestone in the history of computing in Britain, helping to inspire a generation of coders.
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
Prompted by his time at Clearleft’s AI gathering in Juvet, Chris has been delving deep into the stories we tell about artificial intelligence …and what stories are missing.
And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?
Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017
There are three parts to digital preservation: format, medium, and licensing. Film and television archives are struggling with all three.
Codecs—the software used to compress and decompress digital video files—keep changing, as do the hardware and software for playback.
As each new generation of LTO comes to market, an older generation of LTO becomes obsolete. LTO manufacturers guarantee at most two generations of backward compatibility. What that means for film archivists with perhaps tens of thousands of LTO tapes on hand is that every few years they must invest millions of dollars in the latest format of tapes and drives and then migrate all the data on their older tapes—or risk losing access to the information altogether.
Studios didn’t see any revenue potential in their past work. They made money by selling movie tickets; absent the kind of follow-on markets that exist today, long-term archiving didn’t make sense economically.
It adds up to a potential cultural disaster:
If technology companies don’t come through with a long-term solution, it’s possible that humanity could lose a generation’s worth of filmmaking, or more.
Thursday, March 30th, 2017
This is wonderful meditation on the history of older technologies that degrade in varied conditions versus newer formats that fall of a “digital cliff”, all tied in to working on the web.
When digital TV fails, it fails completely. Analog TV, to use parlance of the web, degrades gracefully. The web could be similar, if we choose to make it so. It could be “the analog” web in contrast to “the digital” platforms. Perhaps in our hurry to replicate and mirror native platforms, we’re forgetting the killer strength of the web: universal accessibility.
Monday, January 16th, 2017
Most of these dystopian scenarios are, after all, post-apocalyptic: the bad thing happened, the tension broke, and now so much less is at stake. The anxiety and ambivalence we feel toward late-stage capitalism, income inequality, political corruption, and environmental degradation—acute psychological pandemics in the here and now—are utterly dissolved. In a strange, wicked way, the aftermath feels fine.