The text of a fascinating talk given by Tim Berners-Lee back in 1995, at a gathering to mark the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s amazing article As We May Think. The event also drew together Ted Nelson, Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart, and Bob Kahn!
Tuesday, January 9th, 2018
Tuesday, December 5th, 2017
The fascinating history of interactive fiction from adventure game to hypertext.
The split between parsers and hyperlinks reminds me of different approaches to chatbots: free text entry vs. constrained input.
Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
Many, many years ago, Tim Berners-Lee wrote this page of answers to (genuinely) frequently asked questions he got from school kids working on reports. I absolutely love the clear straightforward language he uses to describe concepts like hypertext, packet switching, and HTTP.
Thursday, November 23rd, 2017
Practical advice from Ire on localising web pages.
Monday, November 20th, 2017
An associative trail
Every now and then, I like to revisit Vannevar Bush’s classic article from the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think in which he describes a theoretical machine called the memex.
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.
1945! Apart from its analogue rather than digital nature, it’s a remarkably prescient vision. In particular, there’s the idea of “associative trails”:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.
Many decades later, Anne Washington ponders what a legal memex might look like:
My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability.
As John Sheridan from the UK’s National Archives points out, hypertext is the perfect medium for laws:
Despite the drafter’s best efforts to create a narrative structure that tells a story through the flow of provisions, legislation is intrinsically non-linear content. It positively lends itself to a hypertext based approach. The need for legislation to escape the confines of the printed form predates the all major innovators and innovations in hypertext, from Vannevar Bush’s vision in ” As We May Think“, to Ted Nelson’s coining of the term “hypertext”, through to and Berners-Lee’s breakthrough world wide web. I like to think that Nelson’s concept of transclusion was foreshadowed several decades earlier by the textual amendment (where one Act explicitly alters – inserts, omits or amends – the text of another Act, an approach introduced to UK legislation at the beginning of the 20th century).
That’s from a piece called Deeply Intertwingled Laws. The verb “to intertwingle” was another one of Ted Nelson’s neologisms.
There’s an associative trail from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson that takes some other interesting turns…
Picture a new American naval recruit in 1945, getting ready to ship out to the pacific to fight against the Japanese. Just as the ship as leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. And so instead of fighting across the islands of the pacific, this young man finds himself in a hut on the Philippines, reading whatever is to hand. There’s a copy of The Atlantic Monthly, the one with an article called As We May Think. The sailor was Douglas Engelbart, and a few years later when he was deciding how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, that article led him to pursue the goal of augmenting human intellect. He gave the mother of all demos, featuring NLS, a working hypermedia system.
Later, thanks to Bill Atkinson, we’d get another system called Hypercard. It was advertised with the motto Freedom to Associate, in an advertising campaign that directly referenced Vannevar Bush.
And now I’m using the World Wide Web, a hypermedia system that takes in the whole planet, to create an associative trail. In this post, I’m linking (without asking anyone for permission) to six different sources, and in doing so, I’m creating a unique associative trail. And because this post has a URL (that won’t change), you are free to take it and make it part of your own associative trail on your digital memex.
Sunday, November 19th, 2017
A history of hypertext, from the memex to HyperCard.
Thursday, October 19th, 2017
Great advice for writing usable
alt attributes. This gem seems obvious in hindsight but I hadn’t considered it before:
End the alt-text with a period. This will make screen readers pause a bit after the last word in the alt-text, which creates a more pleasant reading experience for the user.
Friday, September 22nd, 2017
A great bit of web history spelunking in search of the first websites that allowed users to interact with data on a server. Applications, if you will. It’s well written, but I take issue with this:
The world wide web wasn’t supposed to be this fun. Berners-Lee imagined the internet as a place to collaborate around text, somewhere to share research data and thesis papers.
This often gets trotted out (“the web was intended for scientists sharing documents”), but it’s simply not true that Tim Berners-Lee was only thinking of his immediate use-case; he deliberately made the WWW project broad enough to allow all sorts of thitherto unforeseen uses. If he hadn’t …well, the web wouldn’t have been able to accommodate all those later developments. It’s not an accident that the web was later used for all sorts of unexpected things—that was the whole idea.
Anyway, apart from that misstep, the rest of the article is a fun piece, well worth reading.
Thursday, July 27th, 2017
A blog dedicated to documenting the letterforms on display in Berlin.
Friday, July 7th, 2017
I can’t remember the last time I was genuinely surprised, delighted, and intrigued by an online story like this.
Thursday, July 6th, 2017
Geek humour is no laughing matter, as Chris demonstrates here with his thorough dissection of that coffee mug.
CSS is weird. It’s unlike any other code, and that makes a lot of programmers uncomfortable. But used wisely it can, in fact, be awesome.
It’s not often I say this, but read the comments.
Monday, July 3rd, 2017
You are on a website. There are exits to the north, south, east and west.
Wednesday, April 19th, 2017
Designing the Patterns Day site
You can probably tell from looking at the Patterns Day website that it wasn’t made by a crack team of designers and developers—it’s something I threw together over the course of a few days. I had a lot of fun doing it.
I like designing in the browser. That’s how I ended up designing Resilient Web Design, The Session, and Huffduffer back in the day. But there’s always the initial problem of the blank page. I mean, I had content to work with (the information about the event), but I had no design direction.
My designery colleagues at Clearleft were all busy on client projects so I couldn’t ask any of them to design a website, but I thought perhaps they’d enjoy a little time-limited side exercise in producing ideas for a design direction. Initially I was thinking they could all get together for a couple of hours, lock themselves in a room, and bash out some ideas as though it were a mini hack farm. Coordinating calendars proved too tricky for that. So Jon came up with an alternative: a baton relay.
Anyway, Jon suggested something kind of like that, but instead of a file being batted back and forth between two designers, the file would passed along from designer to designer. Each designer gets one art board in a Sketch file. You get to see what the previous designers have done, leaving you to either riff on that or strike off in a new direction.
The only material I supplied was an early draft of text for the website, some photos of the first confirmed speakers, and some photos I took of repeating tiles when I was in Porto (patterns, see?). I made it clear that I wasn’t looking for pages or layouts—I was interested in colour, typography, texture and “feel.” Style tiles, yes; comps, no.
Jon kicks things off and immediately sets the tone with bright, vibrant colours. You can already see some elements that made it into the final site like the tiling background image of shapes, and the green-bordered text block. There are some interesting logo ideas in there too, some of them riffing on LEGO, others riffing on illustrations from Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language. Then there’s the typeface: Avenir Next. I like it.
Jimmy G is up next. He concentrates on the tiles idea. You can see some of the original photos from Porto in the art board, alongside his abstracted versions. I think they look great, and I tried really hard to incorporate them into the site, but I couldn’t quite get them to sit with the other design elements. Looking at them now, I still want to get them into the site …maybe I’ll tinker with the speaker portraits to get something more like what James shows here.
Ed picks up the baton and immediately iterates through a bunch of logo ideas. There’s something about the overlapping text that I like, but I’m not sure it fits for this particular site. I really like the effect of the multiple borders though. With a bit more time, I’d like to work this into the site.
Batesy is the final participant. He has some other nice ideas in there, like the really subtle tiling background that also made its way into the final site (but I’ll pass on the completely illegible text on the block of bright green). James works through two very different ideas for the logo. One of them feels a bit too busy and chaotic for me, but the other one …I like it a lot.
I immediately start thinking “Hmm …how could I make this work in a responsive way?” This is exactly the impetus I needed. At this point I start diving into CSS. Not only did I have some design direction, I’m champing at the bit to play with some of these ideas. The exercise was a success!
Feel free to poke around the Patterns Day site. And while you’re there, pick up a ticket for the event too.
Sunday, April 16th, 2017
The Internet Archive is now hosting early Macintosh software emulated right in your browser. That means you can play Adventure: the source of subsequent text adventures, natural language parsing, and chatbots.
Colossal Cave Adventure (also known as ADVENT, Colossal Cave, or Adventure) is a text adventure game, developed originally in 1976, by Will Crowther for the PDP-10 mainframe. The game was expanded upon in 1977, with help from Don Woods, and other programmers created variations on the game and ports to other systems in the following years.
In the game, the player controls a character through simple text commands to explore a cave rumored to be filled with wealth.
Domains registered with punycode names (and then given TLS certificates) are worryingly indistinguishable from their ASCII counterparts.
Can you spot the difference between the URLs https://adactio.com and https://аdаctіо.com?
Friday, March 24th, 2017
If we describe patterns also in terms of content, context, and contrast, we are able to define more precisely what a specific pattern is all about, what its role within a design system is, and how it is defined and shaped by its environment.
Monday, March 20th, 2017
There’s something very endearing about this docudrama retelling of the story of the web.
Monday, February 20th, 2017