Tags: ai

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Monday, June 27th, 2022

Still the Same — Real Life

Everything old is new again:

In our current “information age,” or so the story goes, we suffer in new and unique ways.

But the idea that modern life, and particularly modern technology, harms as well as helps, is deeply embedded in Western culture: In fact, the Victorians diagnosed very similar problems in their own society.

Wednesday, June 1st, 2022

Letter in Support of Responsible Fintech Policy

A well-written evisceration of cryptobollocks signed by Bruce Scheier, Tim Bray, Molly White, Cory Doctorow, and more.

If you’re a concerned US computer scientist, technologist or developer, you’ve got till June 10th to add your signature before this is submitted to congress.

Monday, May 30th, 2022

Re-evaluating technology

There’s a lot of emphasis put on decision-making: making sure you’re making the right decision; evaluating all the right factors before making a decision. But we rarely talk about revisiting decisions.

I think perhaps there’s a human tendency to treat past decisions as fixed. That’s certainly true when it comes to evaluating technology.

I’ve been guilty of this. I remember once chatting with Mark about something written in PHP—probably something I had written—and I made some remark to the effect of “I know PHP isn’t a great language…” Mark rightly called me on that. The language wasn’t great in the past but it has come on in leaps and bounds. My perception of the language, however, had not updated accordingly.

I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I’m thinking about languages, tools and frameworks that I’ve investigated in the past but haven’t revisited in a while.

Andy talks about this as the tech tool carousel:

The carousel is like one of those on a game show that shows the prizes that can be won. The tool will sit on there until I think it’s gone through enough maturing to actually be a viable tool for me, the team I’m working with and the clients I’m working for.

Crucially a carousel is circular: tools and technologies come back around for re-evaluation. It’s all too easy to treat technologies as being on a one-way conveyer belt—once they’ve past in front of your eyes and you’ve weighed them up, that’s it; you never return to re-evaluate your decision.

This doesn’t need to be a never-ending process. At some point it becomes clear that some technologies really aren’t worth returning to:

It’s a really useful strategy because some tools stay on the carousel and then I take them off because they did in fact, turn out to be useless after all.

See, for example, anything related to cryptobollocks. It’s been well over a decade and blockchains remain a solution in search of problems. As Molly White put it, it’s not still the early days:

How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains?

Back to the web (the actual un-numbered World Wide Web)…

Nolan Lawson wrote an insightful article recently about how he senses that the balance has shifted away from single page apps. I’ve been sensing the same shift in the zeitgeist. That said, both Nolan and I keep an eye on how browsers are evolving and getting better all the time. If you weren’t aware of changes over the past few years, it would be easy to still think that single page apps offer some unique advantages that in fact no longer hold true. As Nolan wrote in a follow-up post:

My main point was: if the only reason you’re using an SPA is because “it makes navigations faster,” then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that.

For another example, see this recent XKCD cartoon:

“You look around one day and realize the things you assumed were immutable constants of the universe have changed. The foundations of our reality are shifting beneath our feet. We live in a house built on sand.”

The day I discovered that Apple Maps is kind of good now

Perhaps the best example of a technology that warrants regular re-evaluation is the World Wide Web itself. Over the course of its existence it has been seemingly bettered by other more proprietary technologies.

Flash was better than the web. It had vector graphics, smooth animations, and streaming video when the web had nothing like it. But over time, the web caught up. Flash was the hare. The World Wide Web was the tortoise.

In more recent memory, the role of the hare has been played by native apps.

I remember talking to someone on the Twitter design team who was designing and building for multiple platforms. They were frustrated by the web. It just didn’t feel as fully-featured as iOS or Android. Their frustration was entirely justified …at the time. I wonder if they’ve revisited their judgement since then though.

In recent years in particular it feels like the web has come on in leaps and bounds: service workers, native JavaScript APIs, and an astonishing boost in what you can do with CSS. Most important of all, the interoperability between browsers is getting better and better. Universal support for new web standards arrives at a faster rate than ever before.

But developers remain suspicious, still prefering to trust third-party libraries over native browser features. They made a decision about those libraries in the past. They evaluated the state of browser support in the past. I wish they would re-evaluate those decisions.

Alas, inertia is a very powerful force. Sticking with a past decision—even if it’s no longer the best choice—is easier than putting in the effort to re-evaluate everything again.

What’s the phrase? “Strong opinions, weakly held.” We’re very good at the first part and pretty bad at the second.

Just the other day I was chatting with one of my colleagues about an online service that’s available on the web and also as a native app. He was showing me the native app on his phone and said it’s not a great app.

“Why don’t you add the website to your phone?” I asked.

“You know,” he said. “The website’s going to be slow.”

He hadn’t tested this. But years of dealing with crappy websites on his phone in the past had trained him to think of the web as being inherently worse than native apps (even though there was nothing this particular service was doing that required any native functionality).

It has become a truism now. Native apps are better than the web.

And you know what? Once upon a time, that would’ve been true. But it hasn’t been true for quite some time …at least from a technical perspective.

But even if the technologies in browsers have reached parity with native apps, that won’t matter unless we can convince people to revisit their previously-formed beliefs.

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

Sunday, May 29th, 2022

OutHorse Your Email

I must remember to try this out-of-office email strategy.

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022

What serif typeface would go well with Proxima Nova?

Mark Simonson goes into the details of his lovely new typeface Proxima Sera.

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

6, 97: Why scorpions?

A fascinating and inspiring meditation on aerodynamics.

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

Cautionary Tales from Cryptoland

This quote from the brilliant Molly White is about web3/blockchain/cryptobollocks but it applies to evaluating technology in general (like, say, JavaScript frameworks):

I firmly believe that companies first need to identify and research the problem they are trying to solve, and then select the right technology to do it. Those technologies may not be the latest buzzword, and they may not cause venture capitalists to come crawling out of the woodwork, but choosing technologies with that approach tends to be a lot more successful in the long run — at least, assuming the primary goal is to actually solve a problem rather than attract VC money.

Monday, April 4th, 2022

Understanding Layout Algorithms

Josh is great at explaining tricky concepts and here he’s really set himself a challenge: explaining layout modes in CSS.

Why Computers Won’t Make Themselves Smarter | The New Yorker

In this piece published a year ago, Ted Chiang pours cold water on the idea of a bootstrapping singularity.

How much can you optimize for generality? To what extent can you simultaneously optimize a system for every possible situation, including situations never encountered before? Presumably, some improvement is possible, but the idea of an intelligence explosion implies that there is essentially no limit to the extent of optimization that can be achieved. This is a very strong claim. If someone is asserting that infinite optimization for generality is possible, I’d like to see some arguments besides citing examples of optimization for specialized tasks.

Sunday, March 27th, 2022

Artifice and Intelligence

Whatever the merit of the scientific aspirations originally encompassed by the term “artificial intelligence,” it’s a phrase that now functions in the vernacular primarily to obfuscate, alienate, and glamorize.

Do “cloud” next!

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022

The Laboratorium (2d ser.) (I Do Not Think That NFT Means What You Think It…)

The bottom line is that almost everything NFT advocates want to do on a blockchain can be done more easily and efficiently without one, and the legal infrastructure needed to make NFTs work defeats the point of using a blockchain in the first place.

Sunday, March 20th, 2022

🐠 Robin Sloan: describing the emotions of life online

Obviously, no one does this, I recognize this is a very niche endeavor, but the art and craft of maintaining a homepage, with some of your writing and a page that’s about you and whatever else over time, of course always includes addition and deletion, just like a garden — you’re snipping the dead blooms. I do this a lot. I’ll see something really old on my site, and I go, “you know what, I don’t like this anymore,” and I will delete it.

But that’s care. Both adding things and deleting things. Basically the sense of looking at something and saying, “is this good? Is this right? Can I make it better? What does this need right now?” Those are all expressions of care. And I think both the relentless abandonment of stuff that doesn’t have a billion users by tech companies, and the relentless accretion of garbage on the blockchain, I think they’re both kind of the antithesis, honestly, of care.

Sunday, March 6th, 2022

Both plagues on your one house

February is a tough month at the best of times. A February during The Situation is particularly grim.

At least in December you get Christmas, whose vibes can even carry you through most of January. But by the time February rolls around, it’s all grim winteriness with no respite in sight.

In the middle of February, Jessica caught the ’rona. On the bright side, this wasn’t the worst timing: if this had happened in December, our Christmas travel plans to visit family would’ve been ruined. On the not-so-bright side, catching a novel coronavirus is no fun.

Still, the vaccines did their job. Jessica felt pretty crap for a couple of days but was on the road to recovery before too long.

Amazingly, I did not catch the ’rona. We slept in separate rooms, but still, we were spending most of our days together in the same small flat. Given the virulence of The Omicron Variant, I’m counting my blessings.

But just in case I got any ideas about having some kind of superhuman immune system, right after Jessica had COVID-19, I proceeded to get gastroenteritis. I’ll spare you the details, but let me just say it was not pretty.

Amazingly, Jessica did not catch it. I guess two years of practicing intense hand-washing pays off when a stomach bug comes a-calling.

So all in all, not a great February, even by February’s already low standards.

The one bright spot that I get to enjoy every February is my birthday, just as the month is finishing up. Last year I spent my birthday—the big five oh—in lockdown. But two years ago, right before the world shut down, I had a lovely birthday weekend in Galway. This year, as The Situation began to unwind and de-escalate, I thought it would be good to reprieve that birthday trip.

We went to Galway. We ate wonderful food at Aniar. We listened to some great trad music. We drink some pints. It was good.

But it was hard to enjoy the trip knowing what was happening elsewhere in Europe. I’d blame February for being a bastard again, but in this case the bastard is clearly Vladimar Putin. Fucker.

Just as it’s hard to switch off for a birthday break, it’s equally challenging to go back to work and continue as usual. It feels very strange to be spending the days working on stuff that clearly, in the grand scheme of things, is utterly trivial.

I take some consolation in the fact that everyone else feels this way too, and everyone is united in solidarity with Ukraine. (There are some people in my social media timelines who also feel the need to point out that other countries have been invaded and bombed too. I know it’s not their intention but there’s a strong “all lives matter” vibe to that kind of whataboutism. Hush.)

Anyway. February’s gone. It’s March. Things still feel very grim indeed. But perhaps, just perhaps, there’s a hint of Spring in the air. Winter will not last forever.

Friday, March 4th, 2022

Write plain text files | Derek Sivers

If you rely on Word, Evernote or Notion, for example, then you can’t work unless you have Word, Evernote, or Notion. You are helpless without them. You are dependent.

But if you only use plain text, you can use any program on any device, forever. It gives great flexibility and peace of mind.

Wednesday, February 16th, 2022

Web3 - creating problems where we need solutions on Vimeo

This is a great talk from Laura that clearly explains what web3 actually is. It pairs nicely with Molly White’s wb3 is going just great (speaking of which, Casey Newton interviewed Molly White about the site recently).

Thursday, February 10th, 2022

Add Responsive-Friendly Enhancements to `details` with `details-utils`—zachleat.com

This is how a web component should be designed! Zach has made a custom element that wraps around an existing HTML element, turbocharging its powers. That’s the way to think about web components—as a progressive enhancement.

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022

2.5.6

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently published an interim report on their mobile ecosystems market study. It’s well worth reading, especially the section on competition in the supply of mobile browsers:

On iOS devices, Apple bans the use of alternative browser engines – this means that Apple has a monopoly over the supply of browser engines on iOS. It also chooses not to implement – or substantially delays – a wide range of features in its browser engine. This restriction has 2 main effects:

  • limiting rival browsers’ ability to differentiate themselves from Safari on factors such as speed and functionality, meaning that Safari faces less competition from other browsers than it otherwise could do; and
  • limiting the functionality of web apps – which could be an alternative to native apps as a means for mobile device users to access online content – and thereby limits the constraint from web apps on native apps. We have not seen compelling evidence that suggests Apple’s ban on alternative browser engines is justified on security grounds.

That last sentence is a wonderful example of British understatement. Far from protecting end users from security exploits, Apple have exposed everyone on iOS to all of the security issues of Apple’s Safari browser (regardless of what brower the user thinks they are using).

The CMA are soliciting responses to their interim report:

To respond to this consultation, please email or post your submission to:

Email: mobileecosystems@cma.gov.uk

Post: 


Mobile Ecosystems Market Study
Competition and Markets Authority

25 Cabot Square

London

E14 4QZ

Please respond by no later than 5pm GMT on 7 February 2022.

I encourage you to send a response before this coming Monday. This is the email I’ve sent.

Hello,

This response is regarding competition in the supply of mobile browsers and contains no confidential information.

I read your interim report with great interest.

As a web developer and the co-founder of a digital design agency, I could cite many reasons why Apple’s moratorium on rival browser engines is bad for business. But the main reason I am writing to you is as a consumer and a user of Apple’s products.

I own two Apple computing devices: a laptop and a phone. On both devices, I can install apps from Apple’s App Store. But on my laptop I also have the option to download and install an application from elsewhere. I can’t do this on my phone. That would be fine if my needs were met by what’s available in the app store. But clause 2.5.6 of Apple’s app store policy restricts what is available to me as a consumer.

On my laptop I can download and install Mozilla’s Firefox or Google’s Chrome browsers. On my phone, I can install something called Firefox and something called Chrome. But under the hood, they are little more than skinned versions of Safari. I’m only aware of this because I’m au fait with the situation. Most of my fellow consumers have no idea that when they install the app called Firefox or the app called Chrome from the app store on their phone, they are being deceived.

It is this deception that bothers me most.

Kind regards,

Jeremy Keith

To be fair to Apple, this deception requires collusion from Mozilla, Google, Microsoft, and other browser makers. Nobody’s putting a gun to their heads and forcing them to ship skinned versions of Safari that bear only cosmetic resemblance to their actual products.

But of course it would be commercially unwise to forego the app store as a distrubution channel, even if the only features they can ship are superficial ones like bookmark syncing.

Still, imagine what would happen if Mozilla, Google, and Microsoft put their monies where their mouths are. Instead of just complaining about the unjust situation, what if they actually took the financial hit and pulled their faux-browsers from the iOS app store?

If this unjustice is as important as representatives from Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla claim it is, then righteous indignation isn’t enough. Principles without sacrifice are easy.

If nothing else, it would throw the real situation into light and clear up the misconception that there is any browser choice on iOS.

I know it’s not going to happen. I also know I’m being a hypocrite by continuing to use Apple products in spite of the blatant misuse of monopoly power on display. But still, I wanted to plant that seed. What if Microsoft, Google, and Mozilla were the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Sunday, January 16th, 2022

The computer built to last 50 years | ploum.net

A fascinating look at what it might take to create a truly sunstainable long-term computer.

It’s not still the early days

If you’re interested in so-called web3, you should definitely follow Molly White.

How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains? How many people must be scammed for all they’re worth while technologists talk about just beginning to think about building safeguards into their platforms? How long must the laymen, who are so eagerly hustled into blockchain-based projects that promise to make them millionaires, be scolded as though it is their fault when they are scammed as if they should be capable of auditing smart contracts themselves?

The more you think about it, the more “it’s early days!” begins to sound like the desperate protestations of people with too much money sunk into a pyramid scheme, hoping they can bag a few more suckers and get out with their cash before the whole thing comes crashing down.

Tuesday, January 11th, 2022

Norton

It me.

Occasionally, I wonder whether I’ve got it all wrong. Is my age, my technical unsophistication, or my fond remembrance of an internet unencumbered by commerce blinding me to the opportunities that crypto offers me? But then I read something terrible and I recant my doubts, meditate for a while and get on with my life.