How a writing system went from being a dream (literally) to a reality, codified in unicode.
Wednesday, June 1st, 2022
Monday, May 30th, 2022
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:
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.
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.
Tuesday, May 17th, 2022
It turns out that in 2022, for a lot of apps, the dream of write once run anywhere has finally arrived.
Every year browsers and web technologies become more capable and more powerful. Every year there are more kinds of app that you can make cross platform.
So before you start your next project, why don’t you take a look at cross platform web apps. Maybe they aren’t right for your project, but maybe, like me, you’ll discover that you can code once and run everywhere. And I think that’s amazing.
Thursday, May 12th, 2022
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.
Friday, May 6th, 2022
An opinionated blog about writing. I’ve subscribed in my feed reader.
Monday, April 25th, 2022
Thursday, April 14th, 2022
To some extent, their strengths lie in technological advances in CSS: flexbox, grid, calc, and so on. But more importantly, they share an approach. They all focus on creating the right inputs rather than trying to control every possible output. Leave the final calculations for those outputs to the browser—that’s what computers are good at.
As Andy puts it:
Be the browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.
Reflecting on Utopia’s approach, Jim Nielsen wrote:
We say CSS is “declarative”, but the more and more I write breakpoints to accommodate all the different ways a design can change across the viewport spectrum, the more I feel like I’m writing imperative code. At what quantity does a set of declarative rules begin to look like imperative instructions?
In contrast, one of the principles of Utopia is to be declarative and “describe what is to be done rather than command how to do it”. This approach declares a set of rules such that you could pick any viewport width and, using a formula, derive what the type size and spacing would be at that size.
Declarative! Maybe that’s the word I’ve been looking for to describe the commonalities between Utopia, Every Layout, and intrinsic web design.
So if declarative design is a thing, does that also mean imperative design is also a thing? And what might the tools and technologies for imperative design look like?
I think that Tailwind might be a good example of an imperative design tool. It’s only about the specific outputs. Systematic thinking is actively discouraged; instead you say exactly what you want the final pixels on the screen to be.
I’m not saying that declarative tools—like Utopia—are right and that imperative tools—like Tailwind—are wrong. As always, it depends. In this case, it depends on the mindset you have.
If you agree with this statement, you should probably use an imperative design tool:
CSS is broken and I want my tools to work around the way CSS has been designed.
But if you agree with this statement, you should probably use a declarative design tool:
CSS is awesome and I want my tools to amplify the way that CSS had been designed.
If you agree with the first statement but you then try using a declarative tool like Utopia or Every Layout, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.
Likewise if you agree with the second statement but you then try using an imperative tool like Tailwind, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.
It all depends on whether the philosophy behind the tool matches your own philosophy. If those philosophies match up, then using the tool will be productive and that tool will act as an amplifier—a bicycle for the mind. But if the philosophy of the tool doesn’t match your own philosophy, then you will be fighting the tool at every step—it will slow you down.
Knowing that this spectrum exists between declarative tools and imperative tools can help you when you’re evaluating technology. You can assess whether a web design tool is being marketed on the premise that CSS is broken or on the premise that CSS is awesome.
Again, there’s no right or wrong here. This is about matching the right tool to the right mindset.
Personally, the declarative design approach fits me like a glove. It feels like it’s in the tradition of John’s A Dao Of Web Design or Ethan’s Responsive Web Design—ways of working with the grain of the web.
Tuesday, April 12th, 2022
What gets measured gets done. You are what you measure. Measurement eliminates argument. If you work in an environment that puts store in these oft-quoted business adages then I urge you to take a moment to challenge your calculations. Let’s review our metrics to ensure they can stand up and be counted.
Monday, April 4th, 2022
Brian recounts the sordid messy history of user-agent strings.
I remember somebody once describing a user-agent string as “a reverse-chronological history of web browsers.”
Wednesday, March 30th, 2022
Targeted advertising based on online behavior doesn’t just hurt privacy. It also contributes to a range of other harms.
I very much agree with this call to action from the EFF.
Maybe we can finally get away from the ludicrious idea that behavioural advertising is the only possible form of effective advertising. It’s simply not true.
Sunday, March 27th, 2022
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!
Sunday, March 13th, 2022
Excellent advice from Jeremy who wants us to build fast, reliable, resilient websites …even if the technologies involved in doing that don’t feel exciting.
Central to that endeavor is recognizing that the browser gives you a ton of stuff for free. Relying on those freebies requires a willingness to not
Monday, March 7th, 2022
I’m glad that Heydon has answered this question once and for all.
I’m sure that’ll be the end of it now.
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.
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.
Saturday, February 19th, 2022
A fascinating four-part series by Lisa Charlotte Muth on colour in data visualisations:
Saturday, February 5th, 2022
I really hope that Betteridge’s Law doesn’t apply to this headline.
Thursday, February 3rd, 2022
This is a great combination of rigorous research and great data visualisation.
Wednesday, January 19th, 2022
Tuesday, January 11th, 2022
Unless we know why someone made a decision, we can’t safely change it or conclude that they were wrong.
Saturday, January 8th, 2022
The books I have written are created from words invented by others, filled with ideas created by others. Even the few new ideas that are new depend on older ideas to work. What I had to say would probably be said by someone else not long after me. (More probably there have already been said by someone I was not aware of.) I may be the lucky person to claim those rare new ideas, but the worth of my art primarily resides in the great accumulation of the ideas and works of thousands of writers and thinkers before me — what I call the commons. My work was born in the commons, it gets its value by being deeply connected to the commons, and after my brief stewardship of those tiny new bits, it should return to the commons as fast as possible, in as many ways as possible.