A personal website ain’t got no wrong words.
Friday, April 23rd, 2021
Wednesday, April 21st, 2021
The format of a Wikipedia page is used as the chilling delivery mechanism for this piece of speculative fiction. The distancing effect heightens the horror.
Tuesday, April 6th, 2021
Of the web
I’m subscribed to a lot of blogs in my RSS reader. I follow some people because what they write about is very different to what I know about. But I also follow lots of people who have similar interests and ideas to me. So I’m not exactly in an echo chamber, but I do have the reverb turned up pretty high.
Sometimes these people post thoughts that are eerily similar to what I’ve been thinking about. Ethan has been known to do this. Get out of my head, Marcotte!
But even if Ethan wasn’t some sort of telepath, he’d still be in my RSS reader. We’re friends. Lots of the people in my RSS reader are my friends. When I read their words, I can hear their voices.
Then there are the people I’ve never met. Like Desirée García, Piper Haywood, or Jim Nielsen. Never met them, don’t know them, but damn, do I enjoy reading their blogs. Last year alone, I ended up linking to Jim’s posts ten different times.
Or Baldur Bjarnason. I can’t remember when I first came across his writing, but it really, really resonates with me. I probably owe him royalties for the amount of times I’ve cited his post Over-engineering is under-engineering.
His latest post is postively Marcottian in how it exposes what’s been fermenting in my own mind. But because he writes clearly, it really helps clarify my own thinking. It’s often been said that you should write to figure out what you think, and I can absolutely relate to that. But here’s a case where somebody else’s writing really helps to solidify my own thoughts.
It starts with some existentialist stock-taking. I can relate, what with the whole five decades thing. But then it turns the existential questioning to the World Wide Web itself, or rather, the people building the web.
In a way, it’s like taking the question of the great divide (front of the front end and back of the front end), and then turning it 45 degrees to reveal an entirely hidden dimension.
In examining the nature of the web, he hits on the litmus of how you view encapsulation:
I mention this first as it’s the aspect of the web that modern web developers hate the most without even giving it a label. Single-Page-Apps and GraphQL are both efforts to eradicate the encapsulation that’s baked into the foundation of every layer of the web.
Most modern devs are trying to get rid of it but it’s one of the web’s most strategic advantages.
I hadn’t thought of this before.
By default, if you don’t go against the grain of the web, each HTTP endpoint is encapsulated from each other.
Moreover, all of this can happen really fast if you aren’t going overboard with your CSS and JS.
He finishes with a look at another of the web’s most powerful features: distribution. In between are the things that make the web webby: hypertext and flexibility (The Dao of the Web).
It’s the idea that the web isn’t a single fixed thing but a fluid multitude whose shape is dictated by its surroundings.
This resonates with me because it highlights two different ways of viewing the web.
On the one hand, you can see the web purely as a distribution channel. In the past you might have been distributing a Flash movie. These days you might be distributing a single page app. Either way, the web is there as a low-friction way of getting your creation in front of other people.
The other way of building for the web is to go with the web’s grain, embracing flexibility and playing to the strengths of the medium through progressive enhancement. This is the distinction I was getting at when I talked about something being not just on the web, but of the web.
With that mindset, Baldur then takes us through some of the technologies that he’s excited about, like SvelteKit and Hotwire. I think it’s the same mindset that got me excited about service workers. As Baldur says:
They are helping the web become better at being its own thing.
That’s my tagline right there.
It’s heavy on computer science, but this is a fascinating endeavour. It’s a work-in-progress book that not only describes how browsers work, but invites you to code along too. At the end, you get a minimum viable web browser (and more knowledge than you ever wanted about how browsers work).
As a black box, the browser is either magical or frustrating (depending on whether it is working correctly or not!). But that also make a browser a pretty unusual piece of software, with unique challenges, interesting algorithms, and clever optimizations. Browsers are worth studying for the pure pleasure of it.
See how the sausage is made and make your own sausage!
This old article from Chris is evergreen. There’s been some recent discussion of calling these words “downplayers”, which I kind of like. Whatever they are, try not to use them in documentation.
Saturday, April 3rd, 2021
Principles and the English language
One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.
I think a lot about design principles for the web. The two principles I keep coming back to are the robustness principle and the principle of least power.
When it comes to words, the guide that I return to again and again is George Orwell, specifically his short essay, Politics and the English Language.
Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These look a lot like design principles. Not only that, but some of them look like specific design principles. Take the robustness principle:
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Be conservative in what words you send.
Then there’s the principle of least power:
Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
That could be rephrased as:
Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.
Or, going in the other direction, the principle of least power could be rephrased in Orwell’s terms as:
Never use a powerful language where a simple language will do.
Oh, I like that! I like that a lot.
Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
I don’t think I agree with Don Knuth’s argument here from a 2014 lecture, but I do like how he sets out his table:
Why do I, as a scientist, get so much out of reading the history of science? Let me count the ways:
- To understand the process of discovery—not so much what was discovered, but how it was discovered.
- To understand the process of failure.
- To celebrate the contributions of many cultures.
- Telling historical stories is the best way to teach.
- To learn how to cope with life.
- To become more familiar with the world, and to know how science fits into the overall history of mankind.
Sunday, March 28th, 2021
Sunday, March 21st, 2021
A slot machine for speculation. Enter a topic and get a near-future scenario on that topic generated automatically.
Monday, March 15th, 2021
I really enjoyed this 20 minute chat with Eric and Rachel all about web standards, browsers, HTML and CSS.
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021
One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.
Sometimes a colleague will send a link to a Google Doc where they’ve written an article. I can then go through it and suggest changes. Using the “suggest” mode rather than the “edit” mode in Google Docs means that they can accept or reject each suggestion later.
But what works better—and is far more fun—is if we arrange to have a video call while we both have the Google Doc open in our browsers. That way, instead of just getting the suggestions, we can talk through the reasoning behind each one. It feels more like teaching them to fish instead of giving them a grammatically correct fish.
Some of the suggestions are very minor; punctuation, capitalisation, stuff like that. Where it gets really interesting is trying to figure out and explain why some sentence constructions feel better than others.
A fairly straightforward example is long sentences. Not all long sentences are bad, but the longer a sentence gets, the more it runs the risk of overwhelming the reader. So if there’s an opportunity to split one long sentence into two shorter sentences, I’ll usually recommend that.
Here’s an example from Chris’s post, Delivering training remotely – the same yet different. The original sentence read:
I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions on product design and research techniques with the design team at Duck Duck Go.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But maybe this is a little easier to digest:
I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions with the design team at Duck Duck Go. We covered product design and research techniques.
Perhaps this is kind of like the single responsibility principle in programming. Whereas the initial version was one sentence that conveyed two pieces of information (who the training was with and what the training covered), the final version has a separate sentence for each piece of information.
I wouldn’t take that idea too far though. Otherwise you’d end up with something quite stilted and robotic.
Speaking of sounding robotic, I’ve noticed that people sometimes avoid using contractions when they’re writing online: “there is” instead of “there’s” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” Avoiding contractions seems to be more professional, but actually it makes the writing a bit too formal. There’s a danger of sounding like a legal contract. Or a Vulcan.
Sometimes a long sentence can’t be broken down into shorter sentences. In that case, I watch out for how much cognitive load the sentence is doling out to the reader.
Here’s an example from Maite’s post, How to engage the right people when recruiting in house for research. One sentence initially read:
The relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide have a great impact on the quality of the insights that you get.
The verb comes quite late there. As a reader, until I get to “have a great impact”, I have to keep track of everything up to that point. Here’s a rephrased version:
The quality of the insights that you get depends on the relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide.
Okay, there are two changes there. First of all, the verb is now “depends on” instead of “have a great impact on.” I think that’s a bit clearer. Secondly, the verb comes sooner. Now I only have to keep track of the words up until “depends on”. After that, I can flush my memory buffer.
Here’s another changed sentence from the same article. The initial sentence read:
You will have to communicate at different times and for different reasons with your research participants.
I suggested changing that to:
You will have to communicate with your research participants at different times and for different reasons.
To be honest, I find it hard to explain why that second version flows better. I think it’s related to the idea of reducing dependencies. The subject “your research participants” is dependent on the verb “to communicate with.” So it makes more sense to keep them together instead of putting a subclause between them. The subclause can go afterwards instead: “at different times and for different reasons.”
Here’s one final example from Katie’s post, Service Designers don’t design services, we all do. One sentence initially read:
Understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments is key to creating a compelling user experience.
That sentence could be broken into shorter sentences, but it might lose some impact. Still, it can be rephrased so the reader doesn’t have to do as much work. As it stands, until the reader gets to “is key to creating”, they have to keep track of everything before that. It’s like the feeling of copying and pasting. If you copy something to the clipboard, you want to paste it as soon as possible. The longer you have to hold onto it, the more uncomfortable it feels.
So here’s the reworked version:
The key to creating a compelling user experience is understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments.
As a reader, I can digest and discard each of these pieces in turn:
- The key to creating a compelling user experience is…
- understanding the relationships between these moments…
- digital and non-digital…
- designing across and between these moments.
Maybe I should’ve suggested “between these digital and non-digital moments” instead of “between these moments, digital and non-digital”. But then I worry that I’m intruding on the author’s style too much. With the finished sentence, it still feels like a rousing rallying cry in Katie’s voice, but slightly adjusted to flow a little easier.
I must say, I really, really enjoy being a content buddy. I know the word “editor” would be the usual descriptor, but I like how unintimidating “content buddy” sounds.
I am almost certainly a terrible content buddy to myself. Just as I ignore my own advice about preparing conference talks, I’m sure I go against my own editorial advice every time I blurt out a blog post here. But there’s one piece I’ve given to others that I try to stick to: write like you speak.
Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021
A very affecting short story by Ben. I look forward to reading more of these.
There’s a voice inside your head that prevents you from sharing ideas—punch it in the face. - Airbag Industries
Violence is never the answer, unless you’re dealing with nazis or your inner critic.
The excuses—or, I’m sorry, reasons—I hear folks say they can’t write include: I’m not very good at writing (you can’t improve if you don’t write often), my website isn’t finished (classic, and also guilty so shut up), and I don’t know what to write about, there’s nothing new for me to add (oh boy).
Sunday, February 28th, 2021
My work shouldn’t be presented in the Smithsonian behind glass or anything, I’m just pointing at this enormous flaw in the architecture of the web itself: you’re renting servers and renting URLs. Nothing is permanent because on the web we don’t really own any space, we’re just borrowing land temporarily.
Saturday, February 13th, 2021
Matt wrote recently about how different writers keep notes:
I’m also reminded of how writers I love and respect maintain their own reservoirs of knowledge, complete with migratory paths down from the mountains.
When it comes to retrieving information from this online memex of mine, I use tags. I’ve got search forms on my site, but usually I’ll go to the address bar in my browser instead and think “now, what would past me have tagged that with…” as I type
adactio.com/tags/... (or, if I want to be more specific,
It’s very satisfying to use my website as a back-up brain like this. I can get stuff out of my head and squirreled away, but still have it available for quick recall when I want it. It’s especially satisfying when I’m talking to someone else and something they say reminds me of something relevant, and I can go “Oh, let me send you this link…” as I retrieve the tagged item in question.
But I don’t think about other people when I’m adding something to my website. My audience is myself.
I know there’s lots of advice out there about considering your audience when you write, but when it comes to my personal site, I’d find that crippling. It would be one more admonishment from the inner critic whispering “no one’s interested in that”, “you have nothing new to add to this topic”, and “you’re not quailified to write about this.” If I’m writing for myself, then it’s easier to have fewer inhibitions. By treating everything as a scrappy note-to-self, I can avoid agonising about quality control …although I still spend far too long trying to come up with titles for posts.
I’ve noticed—and other bloggers have corroborated this—there’s no correlation whatsover between the amount of time you put into something and how much it’s going to resonate with people. You might spend days putting together a thoroughly-researched article only to have it met with tumbleweeds when you finally publish it. Or you might bash something out late at night after a few beers only to find it on the front page of various aggregators the next morning.
If someone else gets some value from a quick blog post that I dash off here, that’s always a pleasant surprise. It’s a bonus. But it’s not my reason for writing. My website is primarily a tool and a library for myself. It just happens to also be public.
I’m pretty sure that nobody but me uses the tags I add to my links and blog posts, and that’s fine with me. It’s very much a folksonomy.
Likewise, there’s a feature I added to my blog posts recently that is probably only of interest to me. Under each blog post, there’s a heading saying “Previously on this day” followed by links to any blog posts published on the same date in previous years. I find it absolutely fascinating to spelunk down those hyperlink potholes, but I’m sure for anyone else it’s about as interesting as a slideshow of holiday photos.
Matt took this further by adding an “on this day” URL to his site. What a great idea! I’ve now done the same here:
That URL is almost certainly only of interest to me. And that’s fine.
Thursday, January 28th, 2021
Good advice for writing:
- Think about what your readers might already know
- Write shorter sentences, with simpler words
- Constantly think about audiences
- Communicate with purpose
- Clear communication helps teams solve problems
Tuesday, January 19th, 2021
Our footpaths converged around the same 5-10 platforms, each with its own particular manner of communication. I have learned, unintentionally, to code switch every time I craft a new post. It’s exhausting, trying to keep track of all those unspoken rules shaped by years of use.
But I don’t have rules like that on my blog. I turned off stats. There are no comments. No likes.
Saturday, January 16th, 2021
A Creative Commons licensed web book that you can read online.
Carbon dioxide removal at a climate-significant scale is one of the most complex endeavors we can imagine, interlocking technologies, social systems, economies, transportation systems, agricultural systems, and, of course, the political economy required to fund it. This primer aims to lower the learning curve for action by putting as many facts as possible in the hands of the people who will take on this challenge. This book can eliminate much uncertainty and fear, and, we hope, speed the process of getting real solutions into the field.
Monday, January 4th, 2021
A rant from Robin. I share his frustration and agree with his observations.
I wonder how we can get the best of both worlds here: the ease of publishing newsletters, with all the beauty and archivability of websites.