Charlotte’s opening talk at the Material conference was really excellent—a great narrative at the intersection of code and creativity.
Tuesday, December 18th, 2018
Thursday, March 1st, 2018
For the shortest month of the year, February managed to pack a lot in. I was away for most of the month. I had the great honour of being asked back to speak at Webstock in New Zealand this year—they even asked me to open the show!
I had no intention of going straight to New Zealand and then turning around to get on the first flight back, so I made sure to stretch the trip out (which also helps to mitigate the inevitable jet lag). Jessica and I went to Hong Kong first, stayed there for a few nights, then went on Sydney for a while (and caught up with Charlotte while we were out there), before finally making our way to Wellington. Then, after Webstock was all wrapped up, we retraced the same route in reverse. Many flat whites, dumplings, and rays of sunshine later, we arrived back in the UK.
As well as giving the opening keynote at Webstock, I did a full-day workshop, and I also ran a workshop in Hong Kong on the way back. So technically it was a work trip, but I am extremely fortunate that I get to go on adventures like this and still get to call it work.
Saturday, October 7th, 2017
I’ve written before about how I use apps on my phone:
If I install an app on my phone, the first thing I do is switch off all notifications. That saves battery life and sanity.
The only time my phone is allowed to ask for my attention is for phone calls, SMS, or FaceTime (all rare occurrences). I initiate every other interaction—Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, the web. My phone is a tool that I control, not the other way around.
To me, this seems like a perfectly sensible thing to do. I was surprised by how others thought it was radical and extreme.
I’m always shocked when I’m out and about with someone who has their phone set up to notify them of any activity—a mention on Twitter, a comment on Instagram, or worst of all, an email. The thought of receiving a notification upon receipt of an email gives me the shivers. Allowing those kinds of notifications would feel like putting shackles on my time and attention. Instead, I think I’m applying an old-school RSS mindset to app usage: pull rather than push.
Don’t get me wrong: I use apps on my phone all the time: Twitter, Instagram, Swarm (though not email, except in direst emergency). Even without enabling notifications, I still have to fight the urge to fiddle with my phone—to check to see if anything interesting is happening. I’d like to think I’m in control of my phone usage, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. But I do know that my behaviour would be a lot, lot worse if notifications were enabled.
I was a bit horrified when Apple decided to port this notification model to the desktop. There doesn’t seem to be any way of removing the “notification tray” altogether, but I can at least go into System Preferences and make sure that absolutely nothing is allowed to pop up an alert while I’m trying to accomplish some other task.
It’s the same on iOS—you can control notifications from Settings—but there’s an added layer within the apps themselves. If you have notifications disabled, the apps encourage you to enable them. That’s fine …at first. Being told that I could and should enable notifications is a perfectly reasonable part of the onboarding process. But with some apps I’m told that I should enable notifications Every. Single. Time.
Of the apps I use, Instagram and Swarm are the worst offenders (I don’t have Facebook or Snapchat installed so I don’t know whether they’re as pushy). This behaviour seems to have worsened recently. The needling has been dialed up in recent updates to the apps. It doesn’t matter how often I dismiss the dialogue, it reappears the next time I open the app.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal, but I would appreciate some respect for my deliberate choice. It gets pretty wearying over the long haul. To use a completely inappropriate analogy, it’s like a recovering alcoholic constantly having to rebuff “friends” asking if they’re absolutely sure they don’t want a drink.
I don’t think there’s malice at work here. I think it’s just that I’m an edge-case scenario. They’ve thought about the situation where someone doesn’t have notifications enabled, and they’ve come up with a reasonable solution: encourage that person to enable notifications. After all, who wouldn’t want notifications? That question, if it’s asked at all, is only asked rhetorically.
I’m trying to do the healthy thing here (or at least the healthier thing) in being mindful of my app usage. They sure aren’t making it easy.
The model that web browsers use for notifications seems quite sensible in comparison. If you arrive on a site that asks for permission to send you notifications (without even taking you out to dinner first) then you have three options: allow, block, or dismiss. If you choose “block”, that site will never be able to ask that browser for permission to enable notifications. Ever. (Oh, how I wish I could apply that browser functionality to all those sites asking me to sign up for their newsletter!)
That must seem like the stuff of nightmares for growth-hacking disruptive startups looking to make their graphs go up and to the right, but it’s a wonderful example of truly user-centred design. In that situation, the browser truly feels like a user agent.
Monday, July 10th, 2017
I like words. I like the way they can be tethered together to produce a satisfying sentence.
Jessica likes words even more than I do (that’s why her website is called “wordridden”). She studied linguistics and she’s a translator by trade—German into English. Have a read of her post about translating Victor Klemperer to get an inkling of how much thought and care she puts into it.
Given the depth of enquiry required for a good translation, I was particularly pleased to read this remark by John Le Carré:
No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.
That’s from an article called Why we should learn German, but it’s really about why we should strive for clarity in our use of language:
Clear language — lucid, rational language — to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.
It reminds me of one of my favourite Orwell essays, Politics and the English Language:
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
But however much I agree with Le Carré’s reprise of Orwell’s call for clarity, I was brought up short by this:
Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, “Let me be very clear”, these days I reach for my revolver.
Le Carré’s text was part of a speech given in Berlin, where everyone would get the reference to the infamous Nazi quote—
Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning—and I’m sure it was meant with a sly wink. But words matter.
Words are powerful. Words can be love and comfort — and words can be weapons.
Saturday, December 10th, 2016
A fascinating piece by Eleanor on the typographic tweaking that the Wellcome team did to balance the competing needs of different users.
Wednesday, July 20th, 2016
Shamefully, I haven’t been doing one-to-ones with my front-end dev colleagues at Clearleft, but I’m planning to change that. This short list of starter questions from Lara will prove very useful indeed.
Sunday, June 26th, 2016
Thursday, December 4th, 2014
As something of a science geek, I’m a big fan of the work of the Wellcome Trust:
We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health.
I was very excited when Clearleft had the opportunity to work with them—we redesigned the Wellcome Library a while back. That was a fun responsive project, and an early use of a pattern portfolio as the deliverable.
We’ve been working with them on some other projects since then. We helped out with Mosaic, their terrific magazine site. I really enjoyed popping in to their fantastic building to chat with their talented designers.
The most recent Clearleft/Wellcome collaboration is something called Mindcraft. This started as a completely open-ended project—no one was quite sure what form the finished result would take. Over time it developed into a narrative-based series of historical events brought to life with browser technologies.
I didn’t work on this project but I loved watching it come together. The source material made for an interesting work environment.
The press release for Mindcraft describes it as “immersive” which immediately sets alarm bells ringing in expectation of big, scrolljacking pages …and to be honest, Mindcraft does have elements of that. It’s primarily intended to be visited on a large screen with a fast connection (although it’ll work on any sized-screen). But I think it manages to strike a pretty healthy balance of performance and “richness.” It certainly doesn’t feel gratuitous. The use of sound, imagery, and interaction is all in service to the story.
And boy, what a story!
Mindcraft explores a century of madness, murder and mental healing, from the arrival in Paris of Franz Anton Mesmer with his theories of ‘animal magnetism’ to the therapeutic power of hypnotism used by Freud.
I suggest you put on some headphones, make your browser window fullscreen, and start your journey.
It’s creepy, atmospheric, entertaining, and educational, all at the same time. I really like it. And I’m not just saying that because of Clearleft’s involvement. Like I said, I’m a science geek.
Tuesday, March 4th, 2014
I did some consulting with the Wellcome Trust on this new magazine-like project, and it’s great to see it go live—excellent stories of science, all published under a Creative Commons licence.
Tuesday, January 7th, 2014
The annual round-up.
Saturday, July 27th, 2013
Caterina Fake takes a heartfelt look at the history of online communities:
The internet is full of strangers, generous strangers who want to help you for no reason at all. Strangers post poetry and discographies and advice and essays and photos and art and diatribes. None of them are known to you, in the old-fashioned sense. But they give the internet its life and meaning.
Monday, July 9th, 2012
Technology - Howard Rheingold - What the WELL’s Rise and Fall Tell Us About Online Community - The Atlantic
The history of the WELL, a truly remarkable community.
Saturday, June 30th, 2012
The trailer for a documentary on flutemaker Patrick Olwell. The film should be done later this year.
Sunday, February 26th, 2012
I love these sketchnotes from my presentation at Webstock.
Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
I can’t fave this picture enough. One moment of Webstock captured by Michael B. Johnson.
Monday, February 7th, 2011
This is kind of mean, but it made me laugh. Out loud.
Tuesday, January 4th, 2011
Pitching Orwell against Huxley in an argument that is ironically shallow: it only holds up if you accept the premise that activities involving the web, television and video games are inherently “bad” and anti-social: a pathetically, narrow-minded and condescending worldview.
Monday, September 27th, 2010
A well-argued piece by Malcolm Gladwell on the relative pros and cons of weak-tie networks and strong-tie hierarchies ...although, as always, Gladwell relies on anecdotes more than data to make his point.
Sunday, September 26th, 2010
I’m standing in an art gallery, looking at a painting. There’s a lump in my throat and a slight moistness to my eyes.
I’m at a concert, listening to a song. There’s a lump in my throat and a slight moistness to my eyes.
Looking at the painting reminded me of the song.
The pictures are from the private collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. They are fitting custodians of Rockwell’s legacy. As filmmakers, they excel at creating works that are somewhat schlocky, manipulative and commercial, all while being undeniably effective. That sums up the work of Norman Rockwell.
Don’t take that as a criticism. I enjoy the transparently manipulative paintings of Rockwell as much as I enjoy the transparently manipulative films of Spielberg.
The collection on display in DC is exceptional. You would need a heart of stone not to smile at some point whilst perusing the paintings.
I’m standing in an art gallery, looking at a painting.
The painting is called Good Boy (Little Orphan at the Train). Every face in the picture tells its own story. A nun stands on a train platform, a little boy in her hands. Also on the platform, a well-to-do woman waits with some trepidation to take the boy. From the windows of the train’s carriage, more young children look on expectantly.
It’s a scene from a social experiment: the orphan trains:
The orphan trains ran between 1854 and 1929, relocating an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. At the time the orphan train movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 vagrant children were living on the streets of New York City.
They would typically arrive in a town where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. The townspeople would inspect the children and after brief interviews with the ones they wanted, take them home. After a trial period, some children became indentured servants to their host families, while most were adopted, formally or informally, as family members.
I’m at a concert, listening to a song.
I hadn’t heard of the orphan trains until I went to see Jim Roll playing a concert upstairs in The Prince Albert pub in Brighton. He spoke about his own grandfather, who was one of the orphans who travelled on a train from New York. Although he found a home with foster parents, his place in the family was never assured.
The song is called Eddie Rode The Orphan Train and it was later covered by Jason Ringenberg of Jason And The Scorchers fame.
Eddie rode the orphan train from Soho down to Arkansas and every stop along the way they promised him a rubber ball.
Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg runs from June 2nd until January 2nd at the American Art Museum.
The album Inhabiting The Ball by Jim Roll is available from Amazon.
There’s a lump in my throat and a slight moistness to my eyes.
Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008
Beautiful steampunk jewellry.