Journal tags: writing

109

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Subscribing to newsletters

I like reading RSS feeds. I’ve written before about how my feed reader feels different to my email client:

When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.

Giles put it far better when described what using RSS feeds feels like :

To me, using RSS feeds to keep track of stuff I’m interested in is a good use of my time. It doesn’t feel like a burden, it doesn’t feel like I’m being tracked or spied on, and it doesn’t feel like I’m just another number in the ads game.

To me, it feels good. It’s a way of reading the web that better respects my time, is more likely to appeal to my interests, and isn’t trying to constantly sell me things.

That’s why I feel somewhat conflicted about email newsletters. On the one hand, people are publishing some really interesting things in newsletters. On the hand, the delivery mechanism is email, which feels burdensome. Add tracking into the mix, and they can feel downright icky.

But never fear! My feed reader came to the rescue. Many newsletter providers also provide RSS feeds. NetNewsWire—my feed reader of choice—will try to find the RSS feed that corresponds to the newsletter. Hurrah!

I get to read newsletters without being tracked, which is nice for me. But I also think it would be nice to let the authors of those newsletters know that I’m reading. So here’s a list of some of the newsletters I’m currently subscribed to in my feed reader:

The Whippet by McKinley Valentine:

A newsletter for the terminally curious.

Sentiers by Patrick Tanguay:

A carefully curated selection of articles with thoughtful commentary on technology, society, culture, and potential futures.

The Fitzwilliam:

Policy, ethics and applied rationality with an Irish slant.

The Science Of Fiction:

How science shapes stories about the future and how stories about the future shape science.

Adjacent Possible by Steven Johnson:

Exploring where good ideas come from—and how to keep them from turning against us.

Faster, Please! by James Pethokoukis:

Discovering, creating, and inventing a better world through technological innovation, economic growth, and pro-progress culture.

undefended / undefeated by Sara Hendren:

Ideas at the heart of material culture—the everyday stuff in all our lives

Today in Tabs by Rusty Foster:

Your favorite newsletter’s favorite newsletter.

Two books

I’ve mentioned before that I like to read a mixture of fiction of non-fiction. In fact, I try to alternate between the two. If I’ve just read some non-fiction, then I’ll follow it with a novel and I’ve just read some fiction, then I’ll follow it with some non-fiction.

But those categorisations can be slippery. I recently read two books that were ostensibly fiction but were strongly autobiographical and didn’t have the usual narrative structure of a novel.

Just to clarify, I’m not complaining! Quite the opposite. I enjoy the discomfort of not being able to pigeonhole a piece of writing so easily.

Also, both books were excellent.

The first one was A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s sort of about the narrator’s obsessive quest to translate the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. But it’s also about the translator’s life, which mirrors the author’s. And it’s about all life—life in its bodily, milky, bloody, crungey reality. The writing is astonishing, creating an earthy musky atmosphere. It feels vibrant and new but somehow ancient and eternal at the same time.

By contrast, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood is rooted in technology. Reading the book feels like scrolling through Twitter, complete with nervous anxiety. Again, the narrator’s life mirrors that of the author, but this time the style has more of the arch detachment of the modern networked world.

It took me a little while at first, but then I settled into the book’s cadence and vibe. Then, once I felt like I had a handle on the kind of book I was reading, it began to subtly change. I won’t reveal how, because I want you to experience that change for yourself. It’s like a slow-building sucker punch.

When I started reading No One Is Talking About This, I thought it might end up being the kind of book where I would admire the writing, but it didn’t seem like a work that invited emotional connection.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I can’t remember the last time a book had such an emotional impact on me. Maybe that’s because it so deliberately lowered my defences, but damn, when I finished reading the book, I was in pieces.

I’m still not quite sure how to classify A Ghost In The Throat or No One Is Talking About This but I don’t care. They’re both just great books.

Alt writing

I made the website for this year’s UX London by hand.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s exactly one build tool involved. I’m using Sergey to include global elements—the header and footer—something that’s still not possible in HTML.

So it’s minium viable static site generation rather than actual static files. It’s still very hands-on though and I enjoy that a lot; editing HTML and CSS directly without intermediary tools.

When I update the site, it’s usually to add a new speaker to the line-up (well, not any more now that the line up is complete). That involves marking up their bio and talk description. I also create a couple of different sized versions of their headshot to use with srcset. And of course I write an alt attribute to accompany that image.

By the way, Jake has an excellent article on writing alt text that uses the specific example of a conference site. It raises some very thought-provoking questions.

I enjoy writing alt text. I recently described how I updated my posting interface here on my own site to put a textarea for alt text front and centre for my notes with photos. Since then I’ve been enjoying the creative challenge of writing useful—but also evocative—alt text.

Some recent examples:

But when I was writing the alt text for the headshots on the UX London site, I started to feel a little disheartened. The more speakers were added to the line-up, the more I felt like I was repeating myself with the alt text. After a while they all seemed to be some variation on “This person looking at the camera, smiling” with maybe some detail on their hair or clothing.

  • Videha Sharma
    The beaming bearded face of Videha standing in front of the beautiful landscape of a riverbank.
  • Candi Williams
    Candi working on her laptop, looking at the camera with a smile.
  • Emma Parnell
    Emma smiling against a yellow background. She’s wearing glasses and has long straight hair.
  • John Bevan
    A monochrome portrait of John with a wry smile on his face, wearing a black turtleneck in the clichéd design tradition.
  • Laura Yarrow
    Laura smiling, wearing a chartreuse coloured top.
  • Adekunle Oduye
    A profile shot of Adekunle wearing a jacket and baseball cap standing outside.

The more speakers were added to the line-up, the harder I found it not to repeat myself. I wondered if this was all going to sound very same-y to anyone hearing them read aloud.

But then I realised, “Wait …these are kind of same-y images.”

By the very nature of the images—headshots of speakers—there wasn’t ever going to be that much visual variation. The experience of a sighted person looking at a page full of speakers is that after a while the images kind of blend together. So if the alt text also starts to sound a bit repetitive after a while, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A screen reader user would be getting an equivalent experience.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to have the same alt text for each image—they are all still different. But after I had that realisation I stopped being too hard on myself if I couldn’t come up with a completely new and original way to write the alt text.

And, I remind myself, writing alt text is like any other kind of writing. The more you do it, the better you get.

Bugblogging

A while back I wrote a blog post called Web Audio API weirdness on iOS. I described a bug in Mobile Safari along with a hacky fix. I finished by saying:

If you ever find yourself getting weird but inconsistent behaviour on iOS using the Web Audio API, this nasty little hack could help.

Recently Jonathan Aldrich posted a thread about the same bug. He included a link to my blog post. He also said:

Thanks so much for your post, this was a truly pernicious problem!

That warms the cockles of my heart. It’s very gratifying to know that documenting the bug (and the fix) helped someone out. Or, as I put it:

Yay for bugblogging!

Forgive the Germanic compound word, but in this case I think it fits.

Bugblogging doesn’t need to involve a solution. Just documenting a bug is a good thing to do. Recently I documented a bug with progressive web apps on iOS. Before that I documented a bug in Facebook Container for Firefox. When I documented some weird behaviour with the Web Share API in Safari on iOS, I wasn’t even sure it was a bug but Tess was pretty sure it was and filed a proper bug report.

I’ve benefited from other people bugblogging. Phil Nash wrote Service workers: beware Safari’s range request. That was exactly what I needed to solve a problem I’d been having. And then that post about Phil solving my problem helped Peter Rukavina solve a similar issue so he wrote Phil Nash and Jeremy Keith Save the Safari Video Playback Day.

Again, this warmed the cockles of my heart. Bugblogging is worth doing just for the reward of that feeling.

There’s a similar kind of blog post where, instead of writing about a bug, you write about a particular technique. In one way, this is the opposite of bugblogging because you’re writing about things working exactly as they should. But these posts have a similar feeling to bugblogging because they also result in a warm glow when someone finds them useful.

Here are some recent examples of these kinds of posts—tipblogging?—that I’ve found useful:

All three are very handy tips. Thanks, Eric! Thanks, Rich! Thanks, Stephanie!

Partnering with Google on web.dev

When the web.dev team at Google contacted Clearleft about writing a course on responsive design, our eyes lit up.

This was clearly a good fit. For one thing, Clearleft has been pioneering responsive design from day one—we helped launch some of the first responsive sites in the UK. But there was another reason why this partnership sounded good: we had the same approach to writing and sharing.

Ever since Clearleft was founded in 2005 we’ve taken on board the motto of the World Wide Web itself: let’s share what we know. As well as doing the work, we enjoy sharing how the work gets done. Whether it’s case studies, blog posts, podcasts, or conference talks, we’re always thinking about ways to contribute to the web community.

Many other great resources have contributed to our collective knowledge: A List Apart, CSS Tricks, Smashing Magazine, Mozilla Developer Network, and more recently web.dev, which has become an excellent resource for front-end developers. But they wanted to make sure that designers were also included. Una described her plan for a fifteen-part course on modern responsive design aimed at web designers.

It was ambitious. The plan included some cutting edge technology that’s just shipping in browsers now. It sounded daunting and exciting in equal measure. Mostly it sounded like far too good an opportunity for Clearleft to pass up so we jumped on it.

With my fellow Clearlefties otherwise engaged in client work, it fell to me to tap out the actual words. Fortunately I’ve had plenty of experience with my own website of moving my fingers up and down on a keyboard in attempt to get concepts out of my head and onto the screen. I familiarised myself with the house style and got to work.

I had lots of help from the Chrome developer relations team at Google. Project management (thanks, Terry!), technical editing (thanks, Adam!), and copy editing (thanks, Rachel!) were provided to me.

Working with Rachel again was a real treat—she wrote the second edition of my book, HTML5 For Web Designers. Every time she suggested a change to something I had written, I found myself slapping my forehead and saying “Of course! That’s so much better!” It felt great to have someone else be a content buddy for me.

We had a weekly video call to check in and make sure everything was on track. There was also an epic spreadsheet to track the flow of each module as they progressed from outline to first draft to second draft.

Those were just the stages when the words were in a Google doc. After that, the content moved to Github and there was a whole other process to shepherd it towards going live.

Take note of the license in that repo: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. That means that you—or anyone—is free to use and reuse all the material (as long as you include a credit). I think I might republish the fifteen articles on my site at some point.

If you’d like to peruse the outcome of this collaboration between Clearleft and Google, head on over to web.dev and learn responsive design. Then feel free to share it!

  1. Introduction
  2. Media queries
  3. Internationalization
  4. Macro layouts
  5. Micro layouts
  6. Typography
  7. Responsive images
  8. The picture element
  9. Icons
  10. Theming
  11. Accessibility
  12. Interaction
  13. User interface patterns
  14. Media features
  15. Screen configurations

Media queries with display-mode

It’s said that the best way to learn about something is to teach it. I certainly found that to be true when I was writing the web.dev course on responsive design.

I felt fairly confident about some of the topics, but I felt somewhat out of my depth when it came to some of the newer modern additions to browsers. The last few modules in particular were unexplored areas for me, with topics like screen configurations and media features. I learned a lot about those topics by writing about them.

Best of all, I got to put my new-found knowledge to use! Here’s how…

The Session is a progressive web app. If you add it to the home screen of your mobile device, then when you launch the site by tapping on its icon, it behaves just like a native app.

In the web app manifest file for The Session, the display-mode property is set to “standalone.” That means it will launch without any browser chrome: no address bar and no back button. It’s up to me to provide the functionality that the browser usually takes care of.

So I added a back button in the navigation interface. It only appears on small screens.

Do you see the assumption I made?

I figured that the back button was most necessary in the situation where the site had been added to the home screen. That only happens on mobile devices, right?

Nope. If you’re using Chrome or Edge on a desktop device, you will be actively encourged to “install” The Session. If you do that, then just as on mobile, the site will behave like a standalone native app and launch without any browser chrome.

So desktop users who install the progressive web app don’t get any back button (because in my CSS I declare that the back button in the interface should only appear on small screens).

I was alerted to this issue on The Session:

It downloaded for me but there’s a bug, Jeremy - there doesn’t seem to be a way to go back.

Luckily, this happened as I was writing the module on media features. I knew exactly how to solve this problem because now I knew about the existence of the display-mode media feature. It allows you to write media queries that match the possible values of display-mode in a web app manifest:

.goback {
  display: none;
}
@media (display-mode: standalone) {
  .goback {
    display: inline;
  }
}

Now the back button shows up if you “install” The Session, regardless of whether that’s on mobile or desktop.

Previously I made the mistake of inferring whether or not to show the back button based on screen size. But the display-mode media feature allowed me to test the actual condition I cared about: is this user navigating in standalone mode?

If I hadn’t been writing about media features, I don’t think I would’ve been able to solve the problem. It’s a really good feeling when you’ve just learned something new, and then you immediately find exactly the right use case for it!

2021 in numbers

I posted to adactio.com 968 times in 2021. sparkline

That’s considerably less than 2020 or 2019. Not sure why.

March was the busiest month with 118 posts. sparkline

I published:

Those notes include 170 photos sparkline and 162 replies. sparkline

Elsewhere in 2021 I published two seasons of the Clearleft podcast (12 episodes), and I wrote the 15 modules that comprise a course on responsive design on web.dev.

Most of my speaking engagements in 2021 were online though I did manage a little bit of travel in between COVID waves.

My travel map for the year includes one transatlantic trip: Christmas in Arizona, where I’m writing this end-of-year wrap-up before getting back on a plane to England tomorrow, Omicron willing.

Even more writing on web.dev

The final five are here! The course on responsive design I wrote for web.dev is now complete, just in time for Christmas. The five new modules are:

  1. Accessibility
  2. Interaction
  3. User interface patterns
  4. Media features
  5. Screen configurations

These five felt quite “big picture”, and often quite future-facing. I certainly learned a lot researching proposals for potential media features and foldable screens. That felt like a fitting way to close out the course, bookending it nicely with the history of responsive design in the introduction.

And with that, the full course is now online. Go forth and learn responsive design!

More writing on web.dev

Last month I wrote about writing on web.dev. At that time, the first five parts of a fourteen-part course on responsive design had been published. I’m pleased to say that the next five parts are now available. They are:

  1. Typography
  2. Responsive images
  3. The picture element
  4. Icons
  5. Theming

It wasn’t planned, but these five modules feel like they belong together. The first five modules were concerned with layout tools—media queries, flexbox, grid, and even container queries. The latest five modules are about the individual elements of design—type, colour, and images. But those elements are examined through the lens of responsiveness; responsive typography with clamp, responsive colour with prefers-color-scheme, and responsive images with picture and srcset.

The final five modules should be available later this month. In the mean time, I hope you like the first ten modules.

Writing on web.dev

Chrome Dev Summit kicked off yesterday. The opening keynote had its usual share of announcements.

There was quite a bit of talk about privacy, which sounds good in theory, but then we were told that Google would be partnering with “industry stakeholders.” That’s probably code for the kind of ad-tech sharks that have been making a concerted effort to infest W3C groups. Beware.

But once Una was on-screen, the topics shifted to the kind of design and development updates that don’t have sinister overtones.

My favourite moment was when Una said:

We’re also partnering with Jeremy Keith of Clearleft to launch Learn Responsive Design on web.dev. This is a free online course with everything you need to know about designing for the new responsive web of today.

This is what’s been keeping me busy for the past few months (and for the next month or so too). I’ve been writing fifteen pieces—or “modules”—on modern responsive web design. One third of them are available now at web.dev/learn/design:

  1. Introduction
  2. Media queries
  3. Internationalization
  4. Macro layouts
  5. Micro layouts

The rest are on their way: typography, responsive images, theming, UI patterns, and more.

I’ve been enjoying this process. It’s hard work that requires me to dive deep into the nitty-gritty details of lots of different techniques and technologies, but that can be quite rewarding. As is often said, if you truly want to understand something, teach it.

Oh, and I made one more appearance at the Chrome Dev Summit. During the “Ask Me Anything” section, quizmaster Una asked the panelists a question from me:

Given the court proceedings against AMP, why should anyone trust FLOC or any other Google initiatives ostensibly focused on privacy?

(Thanks to Jake for helping craft the question into a form that could make it past the legal department but still retain its spiciness.)

The question got a response. I wouldn’t say it got an answer. My verdict remains:

I’m not sure that Google Chrome can be considered a user agent.

The fundamental issue is that you’ve got a single company that’s the market leader in web search, the market leader in web advertising, and the market leader in web browsers. I honestly believe all three would function better—and more honestly—if they were separate entities.

Monopolies aren’t just damaging for customers. They’re damaging for the monopoly too. I’d love to see Google Chrome compete on being a great web browser without having to also balance the needs of surveillance-based advertising.

Twenty years of writing on my website

On this day twenty years ago I wrote the first entry in my online journal. In the intervening two decades I’ve written a further 2,817 entries.

I am now fifty years old, which means I’ve been blogging for two fifths of my lifetime.

My website has actually been around for longer than twenty years, but its early incarnations had no blog. That all changed when I relaunched the site on September 30th, 2001.

I wrote at the time:

I’m not quite sure what I will be saying here over the coming days, weeks, months and years.

Honestly I still feel like that.

I think it’s safe to assume an “anything goes” attitude for what I post here. Being a web developer, there’s bound to be lots of geeky, techy stuff but I also want a place where I can rant and rave about life in general.

That’s been pretty true, although I feel that maybe there’s been too much geeky stuff and not enough about everything else in my life.

I’ll try and post fairly regularly but I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep. Hopefully, I’ll be updating the journal on a daily basis.

I made no promises but I think I’ve done a pretty good job. Many’s the blogger who has let the weeds grow over their websites as they were lured by the siren song of centralised social networks. I’m glad that I’ve managed to avoid that fate. It feels good to look back on twenty years of updates posted on my own domain.

Anyway, let’s see what happens. I hope you’ll like it.

I hope you still like it.

Here are some of my handpicked highlights from the past twenty years of blogging:

  • Hyperdrive, April 20th, 2007

    Last night in San Francisco.

  • Design doing, November 11, 2007

    The opposite of design thinking.

  • Iron Man and me, December 1st, 2008

    The story of how one of my Flickr pictures came to be used in a Hollywood movie.

  • Seams, May 12th, 2014

    There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

  • Web! What is it good for?, May 28th, 2015

    Not absolutely nothing, but not absolutely everything either.

  • Split, April 10th, 2019

    Materials and tools; client and server; declarative and imperative; inclusion and privilege.

Writing the Clearleft newsletter

The Clearleft newsletter goes out every two weeks on a Thursday. You can peruse the archive to see past editions.

I think it’s a really good newsletter, but then again, I’m the one who writes it. It just kind of worked out that way. In theory, anyone at Clearleft could write an edition of the newsletter.

To make that prospect less intimidating, I put together a document for my colleagues describing how I go about creating a new edition of the newsletter. Then I thought it might be interesting for other people outside of Clearleft to get a peek at how the sausage is made.

So here’s what I wrote…

Topics

The description of the newsletter is:

A round-up of handpicked hyperlinks from Clearleft, covering design, technology, and culture.

It usually has three links (maybe four, tops) on a single topic.

The topic can be anything that’s interesting, especially if it’s related to design or technology. Every now and then the topic can be something that incorporates an item that’s specifically Clearleft-related (a case study, an event, a job opening). In general it’s not very salesy at all so people will tolerate the occasional plug.

You can use the “iiiinteresting” Slack channel to find potential topics of interest. I’ve gotten in the habit of popping potential newsletter fodder in there, and then adding related links in a thread.

Tone

Imagine you’re telling a friend about something cool you’ve just discovered. You can sound excited. Don’t worry about this looking unprofessional—it’s better to come across as enthusiastic than too robotic. You can put real feelings on display: anger, disappointment, happiness.

That said, you can also just stick to the facts and describe each link in turn, letting the content speak for itself.

If you’re expressing a feeling or an opinion, use the personal pronoun “I”. Don’t use “we” unless you’re specifically referring to Clearleft.

But most of the time, you won’t be using any pronouns at all:

So-and-so has written an article in such-and-such magazine on this-particular-topic.

You might find it useful to have connecting phrases as you move from link to link:

Speaking of some-specific-thing, this-other-person has a different viewpoint.

or

On the subject of this-particular-topic, so-and-so wrote something about this a while back.

Structure

The format of the newsletter is:

  1. An introductory sentence or short paragraph.
  2. A sentence describing the first link, ending with the title of the item in bold.
  3. A link to the item on its own separate line.
  4. An excerpt from the link, usually a sentence or two, styled as a quote.
  5. Repeat steps 2 to 4 another two times.


Take a look through the archive of previous newsletters to get a feel for it.

Subject line

Currently the newsletter is called dConstruct from Clearleft. The subject line of every edition is in the format:

dConstruct from Clearleft — Title of the edition

(Note that’s an em dash with a space on either side of it separating the name of the newsletter and the title of the edition)

I often try to come up with a pun-based title (often a punny portmanteau) but that’s not necessary. It should be nice and short though: just one or two words.

Browsers

I mentioned recently that there might be quite a difference in tone between my links and my journal here on my website:

’Sfunny, when I look back at older journal entries they’re often written out of frustration, usually when something in the dev world is bugging me. But when I look back at all the links I’ve bookmarked the vibe is much more enthusiastic, like I’m excitedly pointing at something and saying “Check this out!” I feel like sentiment analyses of those two sections of my site would yield two different results.

My journal entries have been even more specifically negative of late. I’ve been bitchin’ and moanin’ about web browsers. But at least I’m an equal-opportunities bitcher and moaner.

I wish my journal weren’t so negative, but my mithering behaviour has been been encouraged. On more than one occasion, someone I know at a browser company has taken me aside to let me know that I should blog about any complaints I might have with their browser. It sounds counterintuitive, I know. But these blog posts can give engineers some ammunition to get those issues prioritised and fixed.

So my message to you is this: if there’s something about a web browser that you’re not happy with (or, indeed, if there’s something you’re really happy with), take the time to write it down and publish it.

Publish it on your website. You could post your gripes on Twitter but whinging on Jack’s website is just pissing in the wind. And I suspect you also might put a bit more thought into a blog post on your own site.

I know it’s a cliché to say that browser makers want to hear from developers—and I’m often cynical about it myself—but they really do want to know what we think. Share your thoughts. I’ll probably end up linking to what you write.

Talking about sci-fi

I gave my sci-fi talk last week at Marc’s Stay Curious event. I really like the format of these evening events: two talks followed by joint discussion, interspersed with music from Tobi. This particular evening was especially enjoyable, with some great discussion points being raised.

Steph and I had already colluded ahead of time on how we were going to split up the talks. She would go narrow and dive into one specific subgenre, solarpunk. I would go broad and give a big picture overview of science fiction literature.

Obviously I couldn’t possibly squeeze the entire subject of sci-fi into one short talk, so all I could really do was give my own personal subjective account. Hence, the talk is called Sci-fi and Me. I’ve published the transcript, uploaded the slides and the audio, and Marc has published the video on YouTube and Vimeo. Kudos to Tina Pham for going above and beyond to deliver a supremely accurate transcript with a super-fast turnaround.

I divided the talk into three sections. The first is my own personal story of growing up in small-town Ireland and reading every sci-fi book I could get my hands on from the local library. The second part was a quick history of sci-fi publishing covering the last two hundred years. The third and final part was a run-down of ten topics that sci-fi deals with. For each topic, I gave a brief explanation, mentioned a few books and then chose one that best represents that particular topic. That was hard.

  1. Planetary romance. I mentioned the John Carter books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss, and the Riverworld saga by Philip José Farmer. I chose Dune by Frank Herbert.
  2. Space opera. I mentioned the Skylark and Lensman books by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds, and the Machineries of Empire books by Yoon Ha Lee. I chose Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
  3. Generation starships. I mentioned Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. I chose Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.
  4. Utopia. I mentioned the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. I chose The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
  5. Dystopia. I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I chose 1984 by George Orwell.
  6. Post-apocalypse. I mentioned The Drought and The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I chose Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
  7. Artificial intelligence. I mentioned Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan and Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I chose I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.
  8. First contact. I mentioned The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, Childhood’s End and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and Contact by Carl Sagan. I chose Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang.
  9. Time travel. I mentioned The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, and The Peripheral by William Gibson. I chose Kindred by Octavia Butler.
  10. Alternative history. I mentioned A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. I chose The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
  11. Cyberpunk. I mentioned Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson. I chose Neuromancer by William Gibson.

Okay, that’s eleven, not ten, but that last one is a bit of a cheat—it’s a subgenre rather than a topic. But it allowed me to segue nicely into Steph’s talk.

Here’s a list of those eleven books. I can recommend each and every one of them. Still, the problem with going with this topic-based approach was that some of my favourite sci-fi books of all time fall outside of any kind of classification system. Where would I put The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, one of my all-time favourites? How could I classify Philip K. Dick books like Ubik, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, or A Scanner Darkly? And where would I even begin to describe the books of Christopher Priest?

But despite the inevitable gaps, I’m really pleased with how the overall talk turned out. I had a lot of fun preparing it and even more fun presenting it. It made a nice change from the usual topics I talk about. Incidentally, if you’ve got a conference or a podcast and you ever want me to talk about something other than the web, I’m always happy to blather on about sci-fi.

Here’s the talk. I hope you like it.

Broad Band

I like to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is often of the science variety. Actually, so is the non-fiction.

There was a non-fiction book I had queued up for a while and I finally got around to reading. Broad Band by Claire L. Evans. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it earlier. I think I might’ve been remembering how I found Mar Hicks’s Programmed Inequality to be a bit of a slog—a fascinating topic, but written in a fairly academic style. Broad Band covers some similar ground, but wow, is the writing style in a class of its own!

This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.

It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.

I absolutely loved it. So did Cory Doctorow:

Because she is a brilliant and lyrical writer she brings these women to life, turns them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life stories, frustrations and triumphs.

Even the most celebrated women of tech history – Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper – leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I didn’t.

Yes! That!

Read it for yourself and see what you think.

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.

Which type of novelty-seeking web developer are you?

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.

Principles and the English language

I work with words. Sometimes they’re my words. Sometimes they’re words that my colleagues have written:

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 also work with web technologies, usually front-of-the-front-end stuff. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The technologies that users experience directly in web browsers.

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.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. 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.

Content buddy

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:

  1. The key to creating a compelling user experience is…
  2. understanding the relationships between these moments…
  3. digital and non-digital…
  4. and…
  5. 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.

Associative trails

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.

I have a section of my site called “notes” but the truth is that every single thing I post on here—whether it’s a link, a blog post, or anything else—is really a “note to self.”

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, adactio.com/links/tags/... or adactio.com/journal/tags/...).

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:

adactio.com/archive/onthisday

That URL is almost certainly only of interest to me. And that’s fine.

2020 in numbers

I posted to adactio.com 1442 times in 2020. sparkline

March was the busiest month with 184 posts. sparkline

This month, December, was the quietest with 68 posts. sparkline

Overall I published:

In amongst those notes are 128 photos. But the number I’m happiest with is 200. From to March 18th to October 3rd, I posted a tune a day for 200 days straight.

Elsewhere in 2020:

For obvious reasons, in 2020 I had far fewer check ins, did far less speaking and almost no travel.