Tags: writing

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Sunday, December 9th, 2018

What I Learned in Six Years at GDS ◆ 24 ways

Blogging about what you are working on is is really valuable for the writer because it forces you to think logically about what you are doing in order to tell a good story.

It’s also really valuable to blog about what you’ve learned, especially if you’ve made a mistake. It makes sure you’ve learned the lesson and helps others avoid making the same mistakes.

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Mistletoe Offline

This article first appeared in 24 Ways, the online advent calendar for geeks.

It’s that time of year, when we gather together as families to celebrate the life of the greatest person in history. This man walked the Earth long before us, but he left behind words of wisdom. Those words can guide us every single day, but they are at the forefront of our minds during this special season.

I am, of course, talking about Murphy, and the golden rule he gave unto us:

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

So true! I mean, that’s why we make sure we’ve got nice 404 pages. It’s not that we want people to ever get served a File Not Found message, but we acknowledge that, despite our best efforts, it’s bound to happen sometime. Murphy’s Law, innit?

But there are some Murphyesque situations where even your lovingly crafted 404 page won’t help. What if your web server is down? What if someone is trying to reach your site but they lose their internet connection? These are all things than can—and will—go wrong.

I guess there’s nothing we can do about those particular situations, right?

Wrong!

A service worker is a Murphy-battling technology that you can inject into a visitor’s device from your website. Once it’s installed, it can intercept any requests made to your domain. If anything goes wrong with a request—as is inevitable—you can provide instructions for the browser. That’s your opportunity to turn those server outage frowns upside down. Take those network connection lemons and make network connection lemonade.

If you’ve got a custom 404 page, why not make a custom offline page too?

Get your server in order

Step one is to make …actually, wait. There’s a step before that. Step zero. Get your site running on HTTPS, if it isn’t already. You won’t be able to use a service worker unless everything’s being served over HTTPS, which makes sense when you consider the awesome power that a service worker wields.

If you’re developing locally, service workers will work fine for localhost, even without HTTPS. But for a live site, HTTPS is a must.

Make an offline page

Alright, assuming your site is being served over HTTPS, then step one is to create an offline page. Make it as serious or as quirky as is appropriate for your particular brand. If the website is for a restaurant, maybe you could put the telephone number and address of the restaurant on the custom offline page (unsolicited advice: you could also put this on the home page, you know). Here’s an example of the custom offline page for this year’s Ampersand conference.

When you’re done, publish the offline page at suitably imaginative URL, like, say /offline.html.

Pre-cache your offline page

Now create a JavaScript file called serviceworker.js. This is the script that the browser will look to when certain events are triggered. The first event to handle is what to do when the service worker is installed on the user’s device. When that happens, an event called install is fired. You can listen out for this event using addEventListener:

addEventListener('install', installEvent => {
// put your instructions here.
}); // end addEventListener

In this case, you want to make sure that your lovingly crafted custom offline page is put into a nice safe cache. You can use the Cache API to do this. You get to create as many caches as you like, and you can call them whatever you want. Here, I’m going to call the cache Johnny just so I can refer to it as JohnnyCache in the code:

addEventListener('install', installEvent => {
  installEvent.waitUntil(
    caches.open('Johnny')
    .then( JohnnyCache => {
      JohnnyCache.addAll([
       '/offline.html'
      ]); // end addAll
     }) // end open.then
  ); // end waitUntil
}); // end addEventListener

I’m betting that your lovely offline page is linking to a CSS file, maybe an image or two, and perhaps some JavaScript. You can cache all of those at this point:

addEventListener('install', installEvent => {
  installEvent.waitUntil(
    caches.open('Johnny')
    .then( JohnnyCache => {
      JohnnyCache.addAll([
       '/offline.html',
       '/path/to/stylesheet.css',
       '/path/to/javascript.js',
         '/path/to/image.jpg'
      ]); // end addAll
     }) // end open.then
  ); // end waitUntil
}); // end addEventListener

Make sure that the URLs are correct. If just one of the URLs in the list fails to resolve, none of the items in the list will be cached.

Intercept requests

The next event you want to listen for is the fetch event. This is probably the most powerful—and, let’s be honest, the creepiest—feature of a service worker. Once it has been installed, the service worker lurks on the user’s device, waiting for any requests made to your site. Every time the user requests a web page from your site, a fetch event will fire. Every time that page requests a style sheet or an image, a fetch event will fire. You can provide instructions for what should happen each time:

addEventListener('fetch', fetchEvent => {
// What happens next is up to you!
}); // end addEventListener

Let’s write a fairly conservative script with the following logic:

  • Whenever a file is requested,
  • First, try to fetch it from the network,
  • But if that doesn’t work, try to find it in the cache,
  • But if that doesn’t work, and it’s a request for a web page, show the custom offline page instead.

Here’s how that translates into JavaScript:

// Whenever a file is requested
addEventListener('fetch', fetchEvent => {
  const request = fetchEvent.request;
  fetchEvent.respondWith(
    // First, try to fetch it from the network
    fetch(request)
    .then( responseFromFetch => {
      return responseFromFetch;
    }) // end fetch.then
    // But if that doesn't work
    .catch( fetchError => {
      // try to find it in the cache
      caches.match(request)
      .then( responseFromCache => {
        if (responseFromCache) {
         return responseFromCache;
       // But if that doesn't work
       } else {
         // and it's a request for a web page
         if (request.headers.get('Accept').includes('text/html')) {
           // show the custom offline page instead
           return caches.match('/offline.html');
         } // end if
       } // end if/else
     }) // end match.then
   }) // end fetch.catch
  ); // end respondWith
}); // end addEventListener

I am fully aware that I may have done some owl-drawing there. If you need a more detailed breakdown of what’s happening at each point in the code, I’ve written a whole book for you. It’s the perfect present for Murphymas.

Hook up your service worker script

You can publish your service worker script at /serviceworker.js but you still need to tell the browser where to look for it. You can do that using JavaScript. Put this in an existing JavaScript file that you’re calling in to every page on your site, or add this in a script element at the end of every page’s HTML:

if (navigator.serviceWorker) {
  navigator.serviceWorker.register('/serviceworker.js');
}

That tells the browser to start installing the service worker, but not without first checking that the browser understands what a service worker is. When it comes to JavaScript, feature detection is your friend.

You might already have some JavaScript files in a folder like /assets/js/ and you might be tempted to put your service worker script in there too. Don’t do that. If you do, the service worker will only be able to handle requests made to for files within /assets/js/. By putting the service worker script in the root directory, you’re making sure that every request can be intercepted.

Go further!

Nicely done! You’ve made sure that if—no, when—a visitor can’t reach your website, they’ll get your hand-tailored offline page. You have temporarily defeated the forces of chaos! You have briefly fought the tide of entropy! You have made a small but ultimately futile gesture against the inevitable heat-death of the universe!

This is just the beginning. You can do more with service workers.

What if, every time you fetched a page from the network, you stored a copy of that page in a cache? Then if that person tries to reach that page later, but they’re offline, you could show them the cached version.

Or, what if instead of reaching out the network first, you checked to see if a file is in the cache first? You could serve up that cached version—which would be blazingly fast—and still fetch a fresh version from the network in the background to pop in the cache for next time. That might be a good strategy for images.

So many options! The hard part isn’t writing the code, it’s figuring out the steps you want to take. Once you’ve got those steps written out, then it’s a matter of translating them into JavaScript.

Inevitably there will be some obstacles along the way—usually it’s a misplaced curly brace or a missing parenthesis. Don’t be too hard on yourself if your code doesn’t work at first. That’s just Murphy’s Law in action.

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

Mistletoe Offline ◆ 24 ways

They let me write a 24 Ways article again. Will they never learn?

This one’s a whirlwind tour of using a service worker to provide a custom offline page, in the style of Going Offline.

By the way, just for the record, I initially rejected this article’s title out of concern that injecting a Cliff Richard song into people’s brains was cruel and unusual punishment. I was overruled.

Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

Great Leap Years - Official site of Stephen Fry

I just binge-listened to the six episodes of the first season of this podcast from Stephen Fry—it’s excellent!

It covers the history of communication from the emergence of language to the modern day. At first I was worried that it was going to rehash some of the more questionable ideas in the risible Sapiens, but it turned out to be far more like James Gleick’s The Information or Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (two of my favourite books on the history of technology).

There’s no annoying sponsorship interruptions and the whole series feels more like an audiobook than a podcast—an audiobook researched, written and read by Stephen Fry!

Essays « Object Lessons

Fax machines, pop-up books, radioactive televisions, writing boxes, microfilm readers, nuclear bomb cores, cupholders, bidets, jet engines, index cards, wiffle balls, oil barrels, lightning rods, playing cards, air conditioning, hair dryers, wheelchair ramps, handbags, diving bells, slippers, laundry chutes, sewing machines, pockets, skee-ball, safety pins, chalkboards, tote bags, holograms, hearing aids, dollhouses, billboards, airports, flash drives, cardigans, beer cans, stethoscopes, text editors, mugs, wallpaper, towel dispensers, bumber stickers, staplers, microscopes, fingerless gloves, wire hangers, toast, and more.

I’ll be in my bunk.

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

᚛ᚈᚑᚋ ᚄᚉᚑᚈᚈ᚜ and ᚛ᚑᚌᚐᚋ᚜ - YouTube

When is a space not a space?

Tom talks about ogham stones and unicode.

᚛ᚈᚑᚋ ᚄᚉᚑᚈᚈ᚜ and ᚛ᚑᚌᚐᚋ᚜

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

What do you want to do when you grow up, kid? • Robin Rendle

Publishing on the web really is quite marvellous:

…an endless thrill, a sort of everlasting, punk-rock feeling and I hope it will never really go away.

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Use the words normal people use

When you’re struggling to write something that sounds clear and sounds human (two of the essential basics of a good blog post, I’d argue), just use the words normal people would use.

John Spencer: “There’s no bullshit like design bullshit” - Design Week

If we use jargon, we reveal our insecurity. If we use pretentious language, we expose our arrogance. But if we use language that anyone can understand, people are much more likely to value what we do.

Form Design Patterns Book by Adam Silver

Oh, this will be good! Adam has been working on, thinking and writing about forms for quite a while and he has distilled that down into ten patterns. You just know that progressive enhancement will be at the heart of this book.

By the end of the book, you’ll have a close-to exhaustive list of ready-to-go components, delivered as a design system that you can fork, contribute to and use immediately on your projects. But more than that, you’ll have the mindset and rationale behind when or when not to use each solution, which is just as important as the solution itself.

Monday, September 24th, 2018

Preparing a conference talk

I gave a talk at the State Of The Browser conference in London earlier this month. It was a 25 minute spiel called The Web Is Agreement.

While I was putting the talk together, I posted some pictures of my talk preparation process. People seemed to be quite interested in that peek behind the curtain, so I thought I’d jot down the process I used.

There are two aspects to preparing a talk: the content and the presentation. I like to keep the preparation of those two parts separate. It’s kind of like writing: instead of writing and editing at the same time, it’s more productive to write any old crap first (to get it out of your head) and then go back and edit—“write drunk and edit sober”. Separating out those two mindsets allows you to concentrate on the task at hand.

So, to begin with, I’m not thinking about how I’m going to present the material at all. I’m only concerned with what I want to say.

When it comes to preparing the subject matter for a talk, step number zero is to banish your inner critic. You know who I mean. That little asshole with the sneering voice that says things like “you’re not qualified to talk about this” or “everything has already been said.” Find a way to realise that this demon is a) speaking from inside your head and b) not real. Maybe try drawing your inner critic. Ridiculous? Yes. Yes, it is.

Alright, time to start. There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank slidedeck, except maybe a blank Photoshop file, or a blank word processing document. In each of those cases, I find that starting with software is rarely a good idea. Paper is your friend.

I get a piece of A3 paper and start scribbling out a mind map. “Mind map” is a somewhat grandiose term for what is effectively a lo-fi crazy wall.

Mind mapping.
Step 1

The idea here is to get everything out of my head. Don’t self-censor. At this stage, there are no bad ideas. This is a “yes, and…” exercise, not a “no, but…” exercise. Divergent, not convergent.

Not everything will make it into the final talk. That’s okay. In fact, I often find that there’s one thing that I’m really attached to, that I’m certain will be in the talk, that doesn’t make the cut. Kill your darlings.

I used to do this mind-mapping step by opening a text file and dumping my thoughts into it. I told myself that they were in no particular order, but because a text file reads left to right and top to bottom, they are in an order, whether I intended it or not. By using a big sheet of paper, I can genuinely get things down in a disconnected way (and later, I can literally start drawing connections).

For this particular talk, I knew that the subject matter would be something to do with web standards. I brain-dumped every vague thought I had about standards in general.

The next step is what I call chunking. I start to group related ideas together. Then I give a label to each of these chunks. Personally, I like to use a post-it note per chunk. I put one word or phrase on the post-it note, but it could just as easily be a doodle. The important thing is that you know what the word or doodle represents. Each chunk should represent a self-contained little topic that you might talk about for 3 to 5 minutes.

Chunking.
Step 2

At this point, I can start thinking about the structure of the talk: “Should I start with this topic? Or should I put that in the middle?” The cost of changing my mind is minimal—I’m just moving post-it notes around.

With topics broken down into chunks like this, I can flesh out each one. The nice thing about this is that I’ve taken one big overwhelming task—prepare a presentation!—and I’ve broken it down into smaller, more manageable tasks. I can take a random post-it note and set myself, say, ten or fifteen minutes to jot down an explanation of it.

The explanation could just be bullet points. For this particular talk, I decided to write full sentences.

Expanding.
Step 3

Even though, in this case, I was writing out my thoughts word for word, I still kept the topics in separate files. That way, I can still move things around easily.

Crafting the narrative structure of a talk is the part I find most challenging …but it’s also the most rewarding. By having the content chunked up like this, I can experiment with different structures. I like to try out different narrative techniques from books and films, like say, flashback: find the most exciting part of the talk; start with that, and then give the backstory that led up to it. That’s just one example. There are many possible narrative stuctures.

What I definitely don’t do is enact the advice that everyone is given for their college presentations:

  1. say what you’re going to say,
  2. say it, and
  3. recap what you’ve said.

To me, that’s the equivalent of showing an audience the trailer for a film right before watching the film …and then reading a review of the film right after watching it. Just play the film! Give the audience some credit—assume the audience has no knowledge but infinite intelligence.

Oh, and there’s one easy solution to cracking the narrative problem: make a list. If you’ve got 7 chunks, you can always give a talk on “Seven things about whatever” …but it’s a bit of a cop-out. I mean, most films have a three-act structure, but they don’t start the film by telling the audience that, and they don’t point out when one act finishes and another begins. I think it’s much more satisfying—albeit more challenging—to find a way to segue from chunk to chunk.

Finding the narrative thread is tricky work, but at least, by this point, it’s its own separate task: if I had tried to figure out the narrative thread at the start of the process, or even when I was chunking things out, it would’ve been overwhelming. Now it’s just the next task in my to-do list.

I suppose, at this point, I might as well make some slides.

Slides.
Step 4

I’m not trying to be dismissive of slides—I think having nice slides is a very good thing. But I do think that they can become the “busy work” of preparing a presentation. If I start on the slides too soon, I find they’ll take up all my time. I think it’s far more important to devote time to the content and structure of the talk. The slides should illustrate the talk …but the slides are not the talk.

If you don’t think of the slides as being subservient to the talk, there’s a danger that you’ll end up with a slidedeck that’s more for the speaker’s benefit than the audience’s.

It’s all too easy to use the slides as a defence mechanism. You’re in a room full of people looking towards you. It’s perfectly reasonable for your brain to scream, “Don’t look at me! Look at the slides!” But taken too far, that can be interpreted as “Don’t listen to me!”

For this particular talk, there were moments when I wanted to make sure the audience was focused on some key point I was making. I decided that having no slide at all was the best way of driving home my point.

But slidedeck style is quite a personal thing, so use whatever works for you.

It’s a similar story with presentation style. Apart from some general good advice—like, speak clearly—the way you present should be as unique as you are. I have just one piece of advice, and it’s this: read Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan—it’s really, really good!

(I had to apologise to Lara last time I saw her, because I really wanted her to sign my copy of her book …but I didn’t have it, because it’s easily the book I’ve loaned out to other people the most.)

I did a good few run-throughs of my talk. There were a few sentences that sounded fine written down, but were really clumsy to say out loud. It reminded me of what Harrison Ford told George Lucas during the filming of Star Wars: “You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it.”

I gave a final run-through at work to some of my Clearleft colleagues. To be honest, I find that more nerve-wracking than speaking on a stage in front of a big room full of strangers. I think it’s something to do with the presentation of self.

Finally, the day of the conference rolled around, and I was feeling pretty comfortable with my material. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. You can read The Web Is Agreement, and you can look at the slides, but as with any conference talk, you kinda had to be there.

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

The power of self-publishing - HankChizlJaw

This is something I struggle to articulate to friends who are suffering because they feel tied to silos like Facebook and Twitter:

What self-publishing does is provide me a choice, which makes me feel good. I feel like I can step away from platforms at will and I don’t feel as shackled as I have done previously.

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

Several people are writing

Anne Gibson writes:

It sounds easy to make writing a habit, but like every other habit that doesn’t involve addictive substances like nicotine or dopamine it’s hard to start and easy to quit.

Alice Bartlett writes:

Anyway, here we are, on my blog, or in your RSS reader. I think I’ll do weaknotes. Some collections of notes. Sometimes. Not very well written probably. Generally written with the urgency of someone who is waiting for a baby wake up.

Patrick Rhone writes:

Bottom line; please place any idea worth more than 280 characters and the value Twitter places on them (which is zero) on a blog that you own and/or can easily take your important/valuable/life-changing ideas with you and make them easy for others to read and share.

Sara Soueidan writes:

What you write might help someone understand a concept that you may think has been covered enough before. We each have our own unique perspectives and writing styles. One writing style might be more approachable to some, and can therefore help and benefit a large (or even small) number of people in ways you might not expect.

Just write.

Even if only one person learns something from your article, you’ll feel great, and that you’ve contributed — even if just a little bit — to this amazing community that we’re all constantly learning from. And if no one reads your article, then that’s also okay. That voice telling you that people are just sitting somewhere watching our every step and judging us based on the popularity of our writing is a big fat pathetic attention-needing liar.

Laura Kalbag writes:

The web can be used to find common connections with folks you find interesting, and who don’t make you feel like so much of a weirdo. It’d be nice to be able to do this in a safe space that is not being surveilled.

Owning your own content, and publishing to a space you own can break through some of these barriers. Sharing your own weird scraps on your own site makes you easier to find by like-minded folks.

Brendan Dawes writes:

At times I think “will anyone reads this, does anyone care?”, but I always publish it anyway — and that’s for two reasons. First it’s a place for me to find stuff I may have forgotten how to do. Secondly, whilst some of this stuff is seemingly super-niche, if one person finds it helpful out there on the web, then that’s good enough for me. After all I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read similar posts that have helped me out.

Robin Rendle writes:

My advice after learning from so many helpful people this weekend is this: if you’re thinking of writing something that explains a weird thing you struggled with on the Internet, do it! Don’t worry about the views and likes and Internet hugs. If you’ve struggled with figuring out this thing then be sure to jot it down, even if it’s unedited and it uses too many commas and you don’t like the tone of it.

Khoi Vinh writes:

Maybe you feel more comfortable writing in short, concise bullets than at protracted, grandiose length. Or maybe you feel more at ease with sarcasm and dry wit than with sober, exhaustive argumentation. Or perhaps you prefer to knock out a solitary first draft and never look back rather than polishing and tweaking endlessly. Whatever the approach, if you can do the work to find a genuine passion for writing, what a powerful tool you’ll have.

Amber Wilson writes:

I want to finally begin writing about psychology. A friend of mine shared his opinion that writing about this is probably best left to experts. I tried to tell him I think that people should write about whatever they want. He argued that whatever he could write about psychology has probably already been written about a thousand times. I told him that I’m going to be writer number 1001, and I’m going to write something great that nobody has written before.

Austin Kleon writes:

Maybe I’m weird, but it just feels good. It feels good to reclaim my turf. It feels good to have a spot to think out loud in public where people aren’t spitting and shitting all over the place.

Tim Kadlec writes:

I write to understand and remember. Sometimes that will be interesting to others, often it won’t be.

But it’s going to happen. Here, on my own site.

You write…

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Weaknotes 1

I really like Alice’s updates.

I think I’ll do weaknotes. Some collections of notes. Sometimes. Not very well written probably. Generally written with the urgency of someone who is waiting for a baby wake up.

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

Daring Fireball: Medium Deprecates Custom Domains Service

I know many people love Medium’s editing interface, but I just can’t believe that so many writers and publications have turned toward a single centralized commercial entity as a proposed solution to what ails the publishing industry. There is tremendous strength in independence and decentralization.

Sunday, September 2nd, 2018

Sapiens

I finally got around to reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s one of those books that I kept hearing about from smart people whose opinions I respect. But I have to say, my reaction to the book reminded me of when I read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:

It was an exasperating read.

At first, I found the book to be a rollicking good read. It told the sweep of history in an engaging way, backed up with footnotes and references to prime sources. But then the author transitions from relaying facts to taking flights of fancy without making any distinction between the two (the only “tell” is that the references dry up).

Just as Matt Ridley had personal bugbears that interrupted the flow of The Rational Optimist, Yuval Noah Harari has fixated on some ideas that make a mess of the narrative arc of Sapiens. In particular, he believes that the agricultural revolution was, as he describes it, “history’s biggest fraud.” In the absence of any recorded evidence for this, he instead provides idyllic descriptions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that have as much foundation in reality as the paleo diet.

When the book avoids that particular historical conspiracy theory, it fares better. But even then, the author seems to think he’s providing genuinely new insights into matters of religion, economics, and purpose, when in fact, he’s repeating the kind of “college thoughts” that have been voiced by anyone who’s ever smoked a spliff.

I know I’m making it sound terrible, and it’s not terrible. It’s just …generally not that great. And when it is great, it only makes the other parts all the more frustrating. There’s a really good book in Sapiens, but unfortunately it’s interspersed with some pretty bad editorialising. I have to agree with Galen Strawson’s review:

Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism.

Towards the end of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari casts his eye on our present-day world and starts to speculate on the future. This is the point when I almost gave myself an injury with the amount of eye-rolling I was doing. His ideas on technology, computers, and even science fiction are embarrassingly childish and incomplete. And the bad news is that his subsequent books—Home Deus and 21 Lessons For The 21st Century—are entirely speculations about humanity and technology. I won’t be touching those with all the ten foot barge poles in the world.

In short, although there is much to enjoy in Sapiens, particularly in the first few chapters, I can’t recommend it.

If you’re looking for a really good book on the fascinating history of our species, read A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford . That’s one I can recommend without reservation.

Your “thread” should have been a blog post…

I’m telling you this stuff is often too important and worthy to be owned by an algorithm and lost in the stream.

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

Going Offline by Jeremy Keith – a post by Marc Thiele

This is such a lovely, lovely review from Marc!

Jeremy’s way of writing certainly helps, as a specialised or technical book on a topic like Service Workers, could certainly be one, that bores you to death with dry written explanations. But Jeremy has a friendly, fresh and entertaining way of writing books. Sometimes I caught myself with a grin on my face…

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

Just write.

What you write might help someone understand a concept that you may think has been covered enough before. We each have our own unique perspectives and writing styles.

Yes! This!!

That voice telling you that people are just sitting somewhere watching our every step and judging us based on the popularity of our writing is a big fat pathetic attention-needing liar.

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

The SHE Is Series | SHE Is Ire Aderinokun

I started writing for myself. The writing was helpful for me and luckily it was helpful for other people as well. But even if you’re the only one that reads your blog it is still helpful as a way to learn.