Feb 22, 2015

Notes on How the Web Works & Native vs. Web

Now that class is over, I finally have some time to look over what my students have been posting this past month. Melbity has some great notes from a lecture I gave.

These technology-oriented topics are always a challenge for me to address with design students because there is a very real question as to the extent to which designers should be familiar with the underlying technology that their work gets built in, even whether they should be able to build out designs themselves.

My medium of choice is clearly the web, although I have a great deal of respect for designers who work with other media. To me, there isn’t a large gap between designing for the web and designing for native apps, since they both tend to be screen-based and interactive.

At any rate, I was happy with how my approach went this time, and I’m glad Melbity was there to take notes.

Feb 2, 2015

Midnight Breakfast Issue 7

Rebecca Rubenstein, in her introduction to the issue:

Maybe it’s because I fundamentally believe books have the power to alter us, to shape us, and yes, to even save our lives. Maybe it’s because I know the ways in which words can affect us—the ways sentences and stories can crawl inside of us and live there forever. While bookselling may not be known for its urgency—we’re not EMTs and no one is going to jail if they leave a bookstore empty-handed—a recommendation is still a gift. A book passing from one hand to another is not just an action; it’s an invitation to experience something transformative.

Brilliant work, as always.

Feb 1, 2015

Jan Middendorp on tools for designers

From LettError, a way of looking at the question that I see less frequently:

Artisans of the past — the predecessors of our designers’ guild — were rarely satisfied with tools as they found them in the shop. They always had the tendency to personalize their tools, to appropriate them by honing them, converting them or expanding them. The more specialized the work, the greater the demand for customized or individually made instruments. For instance, letter-cutters in the past thought up methods of working faster and more meticulously, and to that end they designed not only new fonts, but also counterpunches and other new tools. It must be possible to do something similar with software. After all, programming graphic programs is much too important to leave to programmers.

Earlier today I was reading Duckspeak Vs Smalltalk: The Decline of the Xerox PARC Philosophy at Apple Computers by J.V. Toups1. This bit seems relevant:

The designers of Smalltalk (Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls, and Adele Goldberg principally, and others), given the resources and freedom of Xerox PARC, worked actively to reverse this trend. Whereas a hodgepodge of cultural and technical realities constrained the way most other programming languages looked and felt, both Smalltalk the language and the system were written from the ground up to be so easy that a child could use them (hence the name). It was much more ambitious than just that, however. Kay saw Xerox PARC as being on the vanguard of a real revolution in human/computer interaction. In “The Early History of Smalltalk,” Alan Kay writes of this “Xerox PARC” vision of personal computing:

… the user interface would have to become a learning environment along the lines of Montessori and Bruner; and [the] needs for large scope, reduction in complexity, and end-user literacy would require that data and control structures be done away with in favor of a more biological scheme of protected universal cells interacting only through messages that could mimic desired behavior.

… we were actually trying for a for a qualitative paradigm shift in belief structures — a new Kuhnian paradigm in the same spirit as the invention of the printing press…

Python for (typo)graphic designers

Joancarles Casasín and Gustavo Ferreira:

Software is developed mainly by engineers, not by designers. This makes the designer constrained by the engineers’ thoughts and ideas, not by his/her own. Programming gives the designer more control over his/her tools, and therefore over the design process. It allows one to follow the own workflow and think beyond the resources included in the software.

Probably you don’t need to know how to program to be a better designer. But it might help. And it won’t hurt, for sure.

“And it won’t hurt, for sure.”

I’m not so sure. And I think I know why these kinds of arguments back and forth about design and programming ring a bit of a bell and seem honestly somewhat tired.

I design mostly for the web, and I know its languages reasonably well. But I’m afraid that I will always find my own eye for design and taste informed by things like “build quality” and my design ideas strengthened and stunted by my knowledge of the possibilities of the medium. There’s a tradeoff: I know intimately what can be done and so am more likely to push the medium based on my own understanding of its limitations. I also always have the feeling that my creative instincts may be cut short by that same understanding.

The back and forth sounds old because it reminds me of questions like:

  1. Do musicians need to be able to read music to be great musicians?
  2. What is the role of technique in the work of a great painter?
  3. When composing dance, do we need a set of already-established movements, or should we create new vocabularies?
  4. Should we first learn and master the rules so that we may later break them? Or should we commence with open minds and experimental hearts, discovering and rediscovering as we go?

The Newsroom’s Crazy-Making Campus-Rape Episode

Emily Nussbaum at her best:1

Look, “The Newsroom” was never going to be my favorite series, but I didn’t expect it to make my head blow off, all over again, after all these years of peaceful hate-watching. Don’s right, of course: a public debate about an alleged rape would be a nightmare. Anonymous accusations are risky and sometimes women lie about rape (Hell, people lie about everything). But on a show dedicated to fantasy journalism, Sorkin’s stand-in doesn’t lobby for more incisive coverage of sexual violence or for a responsible way to tell graphic stories without getting off on the horrible details or for innovative investigations that could pressure a corrupt, ass-covering system to do better. Instead, he argues that the idealistic thing to do is not to believe her story.

  1. I had to stop watching “The Newsroom” at the beginning of the second season, which is rare for me. I’m glad she hung on long enough to deliver this gem. 

Design doing

Speaking of Jeremy Keith, this piece from 2007 recaps an earlier round of “Should designers know code?”

Perhaps the question will just remain for people to continuously rediscover.

The Long Web

Jeremy Keith still does a great job articulating the need for progressive enhancement. As a bonus, he plays some traditional Irish music in the first 10 minutes—kudos on that.

Jan 31, 2015

Input (the typeface)

Input, from David Jonathan Ross at Font Bureau, also deserves a shout-out. I haven’t played with it much yet, but it breaks with convention and offers up a font intended for code that isn’t mono-spaced (fixed-width). It also comes in a variety of widths and weights, and has a serif companion style.

Perhaps most impressive of all, it is free for personal coding use, and custom builds can be made to suit your preferred styles of characters like zeros and curly braces.

From Ross’s personal site:

Input came out of a conversation I had with some of my colleagues on this very topic. My boss, David Berlow asked: “Are monospaced fonts really the only solution for presenting computer code in a world with so much type technology?” Input was my response.

Cooper Hewitt (the typeface)

Loving this open-licensed typeface designed by Chester Jenkins. Looks great, and has a wonderful number of weights. I should probably come up with something to do with it sometime.

Jan 11, 2015

Parable of the Polygons

Mentioned in the previous post, but well worth its own link.

All it takes is a change in the perception of what an acceptable environment looks like. So, fellow shapes, remember it’s not about triangles vs squares, it’s about deciding what we want the world to look like, and settling for no less.

Also looks like Nicky Case has a campaign going to do more of these.

Making annoying rainbows and other color cycles in Javascript

Jim Bumgardner has a nice little tutorial on writing code to cycle through colors. It’s a good read to be sure, but I also wanted to link to it because of how I got to it.

First I was revisiting Frank Chimero’s transcript of his talk What Screens Want1, which simultaneously thinking about changes I might make to a site I’m working on right now.

In the talk, Frank talks about how designing for screens can be like designing for what he calls “flux”:

So what does all of this mean? I think the grain of screens has been there since the beginning. It’s not tied to an aesthetic. Screens don’t care what the horses look like. They just want them to move. They want the horses to change.

Designing for screens is managing that change. To put a finer head on it, the grain of screens is something I call flux

Flux is the capacity for change.

Yes, this could be animation, because that’s what I’ve been talking about up until now, but I think it’s a lot more, too. Flux is a generous definition. It encompasses many of the things we take for granted in the digital realm: structural changes, like customization, responsiveness, and variability.

The site which serves as the transcript for the talk, acts as a showcase for this very idea in a rather subtle way: certain portions of the text have a muted background color which, if you pay close attention to it, is changing slowly over time. I didn’t notice this the first time I read through the essay, which I think adds another level of interest to the effect.

This time though, I decided to peak under the hood to get a better idea of what exactly was going on, when I came across a file named fade.js, which begins:

“`js // This JS code comes from Charlie Loyd [ @vruba ], who wrote a wonderful little // missive here: http://basecase.org/2012/11/diadem/ // He’s given me permission to pilfer his codes. Thank you, Charlie.


// Hi. This is not really production-quality code, just something I // patched together for an experimental essay. But if you have // questions, I’d be happy to answer them. “`

Further down, another interesting comment:

js // This is an adaptation of the rainbow function described at // http://basecase.org/env/on-rainbows (K is for @skimbrel, my // buddy who had the central insight that sines work for this). // We lighten and desaturate it a little.

Charlie Lloyd’s ‘missive’ is called Perhaps it is broken, the cover of your diadem […], darkness collar […]?, and indeed looks interesting, but I will have to give it a read later. The background for that essay has a similar slow-morphing color as Chimero’s.

In his post On rainbows, linked to in the second comment, Lloyd provides further interesting context:

(Halfway through writing this I double-checked that the techniques it shows were actually new – and, trying different search terms, found that Jim Bumgardner, a Processing expert, had already explained them perfectly well. With his encouragement I’m publishing this anyway.)

And that’s what led me to the piece I decided to link to above.

I absolutely love reading stuff like this. It’s nerdy in all the ways I like, touching on color theory and basic programming, and illustrated with visual examples of the output.2 And when I came across Bumgardner’s post, I got all excited about this story of how I came across it, and how the web I love is still out there: the one with all the thoughtful independent moving parts, the one where people are free to write what they want and make it available to anyone, where people leave breadcrumbs back to where their ideas come from.

But along the way, I got to thinking what was kicking around my head: that this was evidence of “the web I love” — as I was calling it in my head. And I don’t know why but that thought as it accumulated invited another darker thought, one about comfort and familiarity and safety. And it occurred to me that this idea of mine, of “the web I love” had more to do with comfort and familiarity and safety that I might have let on to myself at first. What did it mean that these writers were all white and male like me? I don’t want to presume anything about anyone, and I certainly don’t want to claim that these thoughts haven’t occurred to any of them, but it strikes me that we all fit a certain kind of profile, with earlier access to more of the tools of computing and the internet, and more leisure time at an earlier age which we could use to pursue our interests, and a physiological makeup that was always culturally considered compatible with obsessive study and possibly some quirky asocial tendencies.

I have more thinking to do on all of this, which I’ll leave for another day. But my trail of surfing ultimately led me to the Parable of the Polygons3, which I had never seen before and is simply awesome. Which got me relatively safely back to my good feelings about the web that I love. Give it a read-through, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

  1. It’s a great read, highly recommended. 

  2. Perhaps my favorite example of this type of post is Mike Bostock’s explanation of the Fisher-Yates Shuffle. Then again, there’s always Bret Victor’s Learnable Programming diatribe. 

  3. I had never heard of Nicky Case, but I absolutely love the work of Vi Hart

Jan 2, 2015

“Better” is the enemy of “good”

I’m really glad that this page is still available online. Andy Ihnatko:

Trust me, I know of which I speak. “Why haven’t you finished moving the redesigned site to its new servers” you ask? Because Voltaire died about a thousand years before he could tell me the above bit of wisdom and as a result, I had to pick it up on the streets.

Practical Example: Website design, specifically, taking a largish personal site and eliminating the unweildy and unworkable design you hate, transmogrifying and updating it, and putting it on a new server.

How about I create the pages in BBEdit, like I did years ago when I began Andy Ihnatko’s Colossal Waste Of Bandwidth? Great idea. But hey, now there are great visual content-design tools out there. Why not re-do it all in PageMill? Done.

But boy, now that GoLive is out, I think I’d be better off with a package that offers full-blown site management features. Well, I redid it once…what’s the harm in re-doing it again? I’ll be actually saving time in the long run.

Oh, yeah, Dreamweaver.

As best I can tell, this dates back to at least 2000.

And here I sit, having just jumped out of my browser to edit this entry in BBEdit.

Video Games & Making Math More Like Things Students Like

Great new talk from Dan Meyer looking at what we can learn from video games. Lessons learned:

  1. Video games get to the point.
  2. The real world is overrated.
  3. Video games have an open middle.
  4. The middle grows more challenging and more interesting at the same time.
  5. Instruction is visual, embedded in practice, and only as needed.
  6. Video games lower the cost of failure.

As usual, Dan takes something that could go in a really simplistic direction and breathes a lot of life into it.

I’d also say it’s worth taking a look at this presentation as a model for lecturing and presenting ideas persuasively. He brings in his in-laws in a great way as testers of the games he investigates, using video and humor to great effect. He also has quick ways to involve the audience by having them make guesses at big numbers before he shows them on the slides, or tackle a quick mental math problem and share their strategy with a neighbor.

Definitely worth a watch.

Jan 1, 2015

Of One’s Own

I wrote this yesterday for the Midnight Breakfast newsletter.

This past year, I have been simply blown away by the massive amount of quality work that Audrey Watters has published in the neighborhood of “ed-tech”.

If you don’t pay much attention to ed-tech, I think I can roughly sum up by describing it as a growing trend toward integrating more and more technology into the classroom. Sometimes it’s getting iPads into schools, sometimes launching new Facebook-like software platforms to track students and their progress, sometimes teachers sharing strategies with each other for better uses of video in their classrooms, sometimes working to incorporate more code into curriculum, sometimes building more standards across schools in America, sometimes “flipping” classrooms so that instruction happens in videos and teachers run practice workshops instead of introducing new content, sometimes transmitting lectures from big-name colleges and universities to far-flung corners of the country and globe, sometimes opening up internet access in parts of the world that haven’t had it, and so on. As you can imagine, it is a wide-ranging and complex area, touching on all of our complicated values around educating the next generation(s) as well as ourselves, and the role technology can or should play which forces a lot of questions about the role of technology in our own lives and work.

There are a lot of publications on the web dedicated to these concerns, not the least of which may be The Chronicle of Higher Education, which I expect many of you reading this will be familiar with. But I think Audrey Watters is the kind of person we need looking at education and technology critically, and she has done that fiercely and personally all year long, giving talks and writing at her site Hack Education.

With that, I want to endorse her picks for the end of the year:

Despite the mythology of “disruptive innovation,” the most innovative initiatives in education technology aren’t coming from startups. They aren’t incubated in Silicon Valley. They don’t emerge from the tech industry. In fact, many of the ed-tech startup ideas that are developed there are at best laughable, at worst horrifying.

What I like instead: the Digital Public Library of America, Reclaim Hosting, A Domain of One’s Own, P2PU, and Lumen Learning, for example.

The trend that she identifies each of these as more or less a part of is usually called The Indie Web, and it’s something that’s been kicking around for a bit and is near and dear to my own heart.

At Midnight Breakfast, we are trying to build something independent and as universally accessible as possible – both qualities that I think speak to the good of the web. We are also trying to make something beautiful, with great writing and great illustrations and photography, something that you can enjoy reading in the evening or on the weekend, or when you have some spare time at work.

We’ve had 20 years now with the web as an ever more present part of our lives, 20 years to see how the web affects publishing. Existing print newspapers and magazines have had to find ways to adapt, first by unbundling their archives and making them searchable and shareable on the web, and now by trying to find ways to keep their best work well-funded in a less-than-ideal scenario with ever-diminishing rates for ad-sales and drives for increased page views leading to “listicle”-style consumer-friendly content and eminently shareable “linkbait” headlines. I don’t even want to get into what’s been going on with books and e-readers and Amazon and bookstores and the iPad and Hachette, and whatever else. Suffice it to say that it’s been interesting.

But there’s also always been another strand in the growth of the web, an independent spirit fighting to build new things and bring them to new audiences, giving voice to people who might not have otherwise had a platform. My favorite early experiments were sites like Fray.com and Suck.com, and later The Morning News, still later The Bygone Bureau. And there were the independent personal sites and blogs, like Jason Kottke’s kottke.org and later Mandy Brown’s A Working Library. This part of the web feels to me, to this very day, like the “real” web – and I know how snobby or immature that must sound. But that part of the web is important not for its technology, but for its humanity. It’s the web that does like to share, but likes to have control over how things are shared, for things to be shared with individuals and real human beings, not centralized, owned, and sold to the highest bidder by 20-somthings in Silicon Valley. A lot of smart people have worked to build that part of the web, and I honestly still think it is strong, even if there are changes still needed. That spirit is important.

And I think it’s that spirit that Audrey Watters thinks is needed to have great voice in education, and I think it’s the spirit that Midnight Breakfast and so many other publications are trying to bring to the literary community.

I’ll let her take it from here:

I repeat this often: one of the most important initiatives in education technology is the University of Mary Washington’s Domain of One’s Own. The Domain of One’s Own gives students and faculty their own Web domain – not simply a bit of Web space at the university’s dot-edu, but their own domain. UMW facilitates the purchase of the domain; it helps with installation of WordPress (and other open source software); it offers support – technical and instructional; it hosts the site until graduation. And then, contrary to what happens with the LMS, the domain and its content is the student’s to take.

Maybe it sounds small, and maybe everyone is tired of hearing from people in the tech industry like me who seem to have opinions on how everyone else can do things better, but if I’m going to leave our readers with any seed for the new year, it’s this: Get yourself a domain name of your very own and tinker with it a bit just so you can have your own public space that you control that isn’t owned by someone else. Maybe it won’t take, and maybe hardly anyone will ever look there but you. But sometimes we need our own spaces.


Intriguing concept from Loren Burton:

For the past three years, I’ve used GitHub for hosting code projects, discovering bleeding edge tech, and collaborating with an engineering team. And it has been simply wonderful. In fact, it’s hard to imagine coding without GitHub. I rely on GitHub every single day.

However, despite how crucial GitHub is to the developer toolbox, I’m constantly wondering why the platform is limited to just code. It’s not a stretch to imagine the usefulness of a similar platform for non-developers - authors, teachers, students - though as much as I search, I can’t seem to find one. So I’m building it myself. I’m building a GitHub for everyone else.

I’ve been watching prose.io for a while now, and if you’re familiar with that project, Penflip will look familiar. I haven’t gotten to try it out yet, but I find the collaborative features very intriguing, reminiscent of Editorially.

We still need better tools, I’m glad people are still working to make them.

Dec 22, 2014

Marfa Journal

I’m posting this purely for the fact that it’s a fascinating website1, designed by Andrew McCarthy, who apparently also just helped finish up the redesign for the Django website.

There is something to this approach to design, perhaps an exploration of the medium itself, fascinating to see still going on even as the web has entered its third decade.

I may try to drum up some more examples later, but I’m starting to get excited that some new aesthetics are finally emerging, harkening back to some of my favorite elements of web design from the 90s. Maybe connected to the whole “Indie Web”2 thing?

At any rate, I’m hoping that the web finds ways to differentiate itself from the current aesthetics of iOS and Google’s efforts with Material Design. Don’t get me wrong—those aesthetics are both perfectly mature, well-adapted to their platforms and devices, and neutral enough that they adapt to a reasonably wide variety of applications.

But where platforms supporting graphical user interfaces (like Windows and Mac OS) prefer and benefit from a certain amount of uniformity3, the web has always struck as a home for greater levels of expression and experimentation. I have never heard of a “personal app”—but countless people around the world have a personal website.

  1. I have no idea about the magazine, and I know of Marfa itself only by reputation. 

  2. I really like Audrey Watters’ recent take on the potential of the Indie Web. Also worth a look: Jack Cheng’s The Slow Web 

  3. In 2011, Gruber made the case that iOS had cracked open a trend toward greater individuality in app design:

    There’s a conservative/liberal sort of fork in UI design, in the sense of traditional/non-traditional. The conservatives see non-standard custom UI elements as wrong. Liberals see an app built using nothing other than standard system UI elements as boring, old-fashioned, stodgy.

    At this point, nearly 4 years later, it feels more so to me that there is simply a new uniformity in mobile apps, as the experimentation stage died down. It’s that experimentation stage, though, that I feel is coming back to the web, for some reason. 

Ayn Rand Reviews Children’s Movies

Mallory Ortberg:

“The Muppets Take Manhattan”

This movie was a disappointment. The Muppets do not take Manhattan at all. They merely visit it. —No stars.

The whole thing is genius, but at that point I lost it. And she had me all the way through to the end.

I’m gonna count this as my holiday treat.

Dec 7, 2014

The Internet With A Human Face

Maciej Cegłowski, worth a reread if you’ve already had the pleasure:

Recently, Quora raised $80 million in new funding at a $900 million valuation. Their stated reason for taking the money was to postpone having to think about revenue.

Quora walked in to an investor meeting, stated these facts as plainly as I have, and walked out with a check for eighty million dollars.

That’s the power of investor storytime.

Let me be clear: I don’t begrudge Quora this money. Anything that removes dollars from of the pockets of venture capitalists is something I favor.

But investor storytime is a cancer on our industry.

Because to make it work, to keep the edifice of promises from tumbling down, companies have to constantly find ways to make advertising more invasive and ubiquitous.

Investor storytime only works if you can argue that advertising in the future is going to be effective and lucrative in ways it just isn’t today. If the investors stop believing this, the money will dry up.

And that’s the motor destroying our online privacy. Investor storytime is why you’ll see facial detection at store shelves and checkout counters. Investor storytime is why garbage cans in London are talking to your cell phone, to find out who you are. (You’d think that a smartphone would have more self-respect than to talk to a random garbage can, but you’re wrong).

We’re addicted to ‘big data’ not because it’s effective now, but because we need it to tell better stories.

Nov 28, 2014

A Brief History of Graphics in Video Games

I especially enjoy Parts One and Two, but unfortunately from there it feels a little biased toward fairly violent games, with no real discussion of the shift. It feels pretty conspicuous. I mean, what year is this?

How To Scroll

Mike Bostock:

Scroll-based interaction is incredibly popular for interactive storytelling. There are many compelling reasons for this, yet scrolling is surprisingly nuanced and easy to break. So here are five rules for employing scrolling effectively.

I am personally a bit skeptical about these kinds of features. They generally strike me as more style than substance. These are definitely excellent technical notes on avoiding common pitfalls, with so-called “scroll-jacking,”1 but I haven’t yet seen one of these where I felt like the medium was truly appropriate to the story.

I think back to Allen Tan’s piece last year in Stet, Attention, rhythm & weight:

Yet for all the excitement, I can’t help but wish for more thoughtful discussion, both conceptually and practically. Often, I hear people refer to these designs as “intuitive” and “immersive,” but I find those words maddeningly vague. We — designers, developers, readers, writers, publishers — think we know what they mean in the abstract, but when we stoop down to the details, we end up disagreeing with each other on what the problems are and how they can be solved.

And without a common language for describing what works and what doesn’t, our work isn’t being pushed or explored further. I see example after example appearing online, that people have clearly spent time and thought into making, which cover the same ground and also share the same mistakes.

Experimentation is great if you’re learning. If you’re not, it’s just expensive.

Bostock is extremely well-skilled, and his work is invaluable. I also know that we need the kind of experimentation that is going on at the New York Times.2 It must still be early days; we have much to learn.3

  1. I especially agree with Bostock in his second point, that it is preferable to attach events and animations to the browser’s standard scrolling behavior, rather than hijack it completely, as in the case of Apple’s Mac Pro brochure. Visually quite pleasing, but the interaction feels jarring. 

  2. For what it’s worth, both Mike Bostock and Allen Tan are designers at the Times

  3. All this makes me ponder Roger Ebert’s contention that “Video games can never be art.” 

Nov 26, 2014

RFC 2397 - The “data” URL scheme

I’ve still been having way too much fun playing around with my self-editing data URL “page”, and wound up finding the original proposal for data URLs from the IETF dated August 1998:

Some applications that use URLs also have a need to embed (small) media type data directly inline. This document defines a new URL scheme that would work like ‘immediate addressing’. The URLs are of the form:


The <mediatype> is an Internet media type specification (with optional parameters.) The appearance of “;base64” means that the data is encoded as base64. Without “;base64”, the data (as a sequence of octets) is represented using ASCII encoding for octets inside the range of safe URL characters and using the standard %xx hex encoding of URLs for octets outside that range. If <mediatype> is omitted, it defaults to text/plain;charset=US-ASCII. As a shorthand, “text/plain” can be omitted but the charset parameter supplied.

And apparently the idea goes back even further:

This idea was originally proposed August 1995. Some versions of the data URL scheme have been used in the definition of VRML, and a version has appeared as part of a proposal for embedded data in HTML. Various changes have been made, based on requests, to elide the media type, pack the indication of the base64 encoding more tightly, and eliminate “quoted printable” as an encoding since it would not easily yield valid URLs without additional %xx encoding, which itself is sufficient. The “data” URL scheme is in use in VRML, new applications of HTML, and various commercial products. It is being used for object parameters in Java and ActiveX applications.

I kind of love looking at older documents like this about the inner workings of the web. I primarily see them used for inlining images, as outlined by Chris Coyier, but the idea of encoding an entire page is just somehow still tripping me out.

Maybe it’ll pass.

Unhosted Web Apps

I stumbled upon this today, as a group that Duck Duck Go1 had given money to. Much of this is either over my head or simply too much work, but these are clearly people who are taking the idea of owning their own space on the web very seriously.2

If you’ve got a little bit of facility with the console in your browser, I recommend taking the 10-15 minutes just to try out An unhosted editor, in which you’ll sort of bootstrap your own in-browser code editor. It’s a little bit trippy, to be honest.

I was especially intrigued by the notion of encoding an entire web app in a data url. For instance, here’s a link to an initial version of the app.3

However intriguing and incredible all this is, I think the site and the ongoing project serve as pretty clear reminders that there is a tradeoff between ownership over something and the amount of work that is required. Their idea is to interact with Facebook and Twitter over their APIs through a “puppet” account, which again is fascinating. But clearly an amount of work that most people can’t be expected to undertake, even if they knew how.

That’s, I think, the potentially ugly opposing force. Many of these open source projects and indie web types of things are actually much less accessible to the majority of people, and so can be problematic in a different sort of way than the centralized and controlled platforms. I tend to think that it’s the kind of work that can eventually be made more accessible over time, as everything needs to start somewhere. But when our big changes finally happen from small seeds, we end up with a new elite in charge made up entirely of people who had the resources, leisure time, and privilege, to create the new world that we’re all living in.4

  1. Duck Duck Go is a search engine that I tried off and on for the past few years, which I now use full time, especially thanks to their recent integration in Safari and iOS. Highly recommended if you’ve never looked into it. 

  2. Clearly, this is something that’s really on my mind

  3. And here’s a fun little version I did up in which you can quickly make changes to the page itself and “Save” them back to the data url. 

  4. Mandy’s essay on the so-called meritocracy, “You keep using that word” is definitely worth a read. 

Nov 25, 2014

Week 13: Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See

Extraordinary bravery from José Vilson:

“Today, ladies and gentlemen, you’ll notice that there’s an objective and a Do Now in front of you, but I need to say this: if anyone wants to talk about what happened last night, whether now or one-on-one, I’m available to do this.” They didn’t seem to understand. “After last night’s lack of indictment of Darren Wilson and the murder of Michael Brown, maybe you have something to say or get off your chest, and if so, I’ve dedicated this time right now for you to say your piece.”

With that, I opened the floor with little moderation from me. Students asked what happened, and I presented what facts I knew.  Students felt angered and hurt by the typical timeline of things: cop shoots child of color and the cop gets away with it. One student asked for my personal opinion, and I couldn’t help but tell them as carefully as I could how outraged I was, and why it matters that I would do this.

They’re so used to their lives not mattering in the eyes of authorities.

Go read the whole thing.

Practical Advice on Interface Design

Erik D. Kennedy offers up 7 Rules for Creating Gorgeous UI (Part 1) & Part 2. Good and practical advice throughout, but I especially like this from the Introduction:

If you went to art school or consider yourself a UI designer already, you will likely find this guide some combination of a.) boring, b.) wrong, and c.) irritating. That’s fine. All your criticisms are right. Close the tab, move along.

I immediately went from reading with a grain of salt to disarming and digging in. Well done.

The methods for laying text over an image strike me as especially useful.

“American Homeowner”

I’m on my break between classes right now, so I’ve been feeling especially reflective, leading me to get this site back up again, catch up some on my reading, lose my train of thought on a couple of other projects, and of course start re-watching all of Boston Legal.

If you haven’t seen it, Boston Legal is a really fun and usually gripping show, somewhere between farce and melodrama. William Shatner plays the head honcho lawyer at a Boston firm, and in one episode his character Denny Crane opts to represent a man who equipped his home with a security system that electrocuted a prospective invader to the point that he became paralyzed from the waist down. The show is too inane to get into all of the details, but the case winds up being tried in the media, and Denny taints the jury pool by working with a marketing firm to brand the man as an “American homeowner”— a phrase subsequently on the lips of every member up for selection to the jury. So they settle.

I’m not a homeowner myself, although I have been having some landlord troubles lately which have gotten thinking quite a bit about what it means to have a safe space to call a home, whether owned or not. As is so often the case on Boston Legal, the show starts us off feeling indignant about the very idea of someone rigging their home to electrocute an intruder, seeps us even further in that indignation by making the man clearly racist and small-minded, and then hits us with a montage of prospective jury members who we can relate to: “I’m a renter, but I still consider myself an American homeowner;” “If it were me, I’d have done the same thing.”

Why am I even thinking about this? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about safety and safe spaces when it comes to the internet lately, mostly from reading about other people’s experiences with online attacks through some of the web’s more prominent current “social” platforms, like Twitter and Tumblr. The evidence is too exhaustive to detail, but here’s a bit from a recent talk given by Audrey Watters:

I started to make a list of all the women I know who’ve experienced online harassment in the last year or so. Adria. Sarah. Another Sarah. A different Sarah. Brianna. Shanley. Suey. Tressie. Julie. Another Julie. Rose. Ariel. Anita. Kathy. Zoe. Amanda. Ashe. Catherine. Felicia. Mikki. Mia. Molly. Lauren. Jenn. A different Jen. Jessica. Jessie. Jess. Caroline. Katie. Sadie. Bridget. Alyssa. Lyndy. Rebecca. Roxane. I could go on, but I have to stop. I should be clear: for many of these women, this harassment has moved offline as well. They’ve been doxxed, for example — that is where your address and phone number and other identifiable information are posted online in forums like 4chan for the specific purpose to offline harassment.

I mean, it’s just crazy and sad, really, how common it is for women in particular to be harassed online.

So I’ve been asking myself, where are the safe spaces? Where can we make homes that protect ourselves against this kind of abuse?

Well, Mandy has been trying an interesting approach to this with her newsletter1, which has been a fantastic read. I know many other people have been experimenting with email newsletters as well, but Mandy’s sticks out as being motivated by a desire to carve out a safer space to share ideas in.

I think in some ways it comes down to control versus access: a newsletter offers a way to give potentially anyone access to what you have to say, but offers control over how readers can respond—by email. Readers who abuse their ability to write back can be blocked, even removed from the list, all out of the public eye. When the content is in an email and not on the web, there’s not the same kind of public record to link to.

For me, for now, I am privileged enough to feel safe to stick to the web, as I am here. But I don’t like giving up as much control as posting my own thoughts to someplace like Facebook or Twitter or even Tumblr would entail. I control the conversation here, and anyone else can set up their own little homestead on the web to respond if they like.

We’ll see how this goes.

  1. You can sign up in the footer of the A Working Library website. 

Nov 21, 2014

The Skeptic’s Horoscope

I really should just read these on a daily basis:

Today is a good day for romance. Or travel. Or jelly doughnuts. In other words, it’s pretty much like every day.

Putting Thought Into Things

Oliver Reichenstein:

What happens when we create an interface: one mind builds a way for other minds to interact with a thing. To lay the foundation of human-machine interaction you need to put thought into things and that requires that you put things into thought. This is why most interfaces suck, and most interfaces will continue to suck. No model, method, or tool will change that. Thinking is painful.

And there is no best practice, no tip or technique to sort thoughts, to build knowledge systems, and to structure human interaction except for a curious, conscious, vivid mind, guided by a strong will, that resists the temptation to fall back onto fast-thought stereotypes.

This is one of the things I find to be the most difficult about teaching. It’s one thing to try to convey a reasonably identifiable skill to someone else: show them how you do it, explain what’s going on as you work, let them try, give them feedback, have them continue to practice.1

And there is no best practice, no tip or technique to sort thoughts, to build knowledge systems, and to structure human interaction except for a curious, conscious, vivid mind, guided by a strong will, that resists the temptation to fall back onto fast-thought stereotypes. How do we go about teaching those things?

  1. Yes, I realize even this is a simplification, and I certainly don’t mean to belittle the work of teaching skills. But there’s often a higher level of understanding that I hope my students work toward. Which leads to my first guess on this issue: start with the basic and the relatable to make a foundation, then question those basics and so build complexity from there. 

Piles of Ideas

Jason Santa Maria on sketching:

I want a big sprawling mass of ugly ideas because it helps get past the most obvious ones, and improves the chance for something really interesting to reveal itself.

Nov 20, 2014

Horror Vacui

Lukas Mathis on our impulse to fill emptiness:

This is something I hear a lot. People tend to dislike empty space. It’s wasted! Can we put some kind of widget in there?

Letters in Wonderhand

Beautiful work by Martina Flor in crafting a systematic and flexible lettering font without losing all of the human touch:

My aim was to create a type system that could accommodate handwriting. Therefore, I began by looking for rules or constants within handwriting’s plethora of variations. First, I defined those parameters of handwriting that I could use to create a type system.

The results are really lovely.

Your App Is Good And You Should Feel Good

William Van Hecke:

So much of a design role is in how much other people believe that you know what you’re talking about. You can’t quantify what makes someone a good designer. And this unquantifiability can cause tension. Passing is a sociology term for whether the way that you identify yourself matches with how other people see you.

Nobody Passes by Mattilda is a pretty intense compilation on the concept of passing, specifically focused on gender.

Here’s my dear friend Nikki talking about identity. “People don’t react to who you are, they react to who they perceive you to be.”

Incidentally, I really like this style of presenting a talk online, with slides beside notes. Van Hecke calls out Maciej Cegłowski’s The Internet With A Human Face, which uses the same style. I also like Jonathan Corum’s use of the style for his talks on information and data visualization, such as The Weight of Rain. I enjoy reading these much more than trying to flip through a deck, and I think I might even prefer it to a video of a talk.

Why Is American Teaching So Bad?

Jonathan Zimmerman:

During the buildup to the Iraq invasion in 2003, an Indiana teacher lost her job for telling her class (in response to a student question) that she had driven by an antiwar rally and honked her horn in support. A few years later, an Ohio teacher was dismissed for asking her students to select and read one of the American Library Association’s one hundred most commonly banned books. Most of Green’s examples of great classroom instruction come from math, where teachers are free to pursue a problem wherever it leads. Try doing that in social studies or English, and you might find yourself looking for a new line of work.

Garret Keizer is an English teacher, and a great one at that. In 2010, after a fourteen-year hiatus from the classroom, Keizer returned to the same rural Vermont high school where he had started his teaching career thirty years earlier. He soon put up in his classroom a poster about banned books of the kind that got the Ohio teacher fired. Keizer has more freedom to explore ideas than many other communities allow. But he is hamstrung anyway, not by book-burning censors but by the mind-numbing “accountability” regime that arose in the years following his first period as a teacher. As Goldstein and Green explain, No Child Left Behind and its spin-offs are premised on the grim notion that teachers will work harder—and better—if we can somehow pinpoint their performance and connect it to rewards and punishments.

Nov 16, 2014

Convivial Tools in an Age of Surveillance

Another must-read from Audrey Watters:

In Papert’s vision, and in Kay’s as well, “the child programs the computer, and in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intense contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building.” But as Papert wrote in his 1980 book Mindstorms, “In most contemporary educational situations where children come into contact with computers the computer is used to put children through their paces, to provide exercises of an appropriate level of difficulty, to provide feedback, and to dispense information. The computer programming the child.”

The computer programming the child.

The computer isn’t some self-aware agent here, of course. This is the textbook industry programming the child. This is the testing industry programming the child. This is the technology industry, the education technology industry programming the child.

Despite Kay and Papert’s visions for self-directed exploration — powerful ideas and powerful machines and powerful networks — ed-tech hasn’t really changed much in schools. Instead, you might argue, it’s reinforcing more traditional powerful forces, powerful markets, powerful ideologies. Education technology is used to prop up traditional school practices, ostensibly to make them more efficient (whatever that means). Drill and kill. Flash cards. Just with push notifications and better graphics. Now in your pocket and not just on your desk.

Nov 2, 2014

Substitution (…and Continued Fractions)

Sam Shah, with a great mechanism for substituting an expression with an equivalent variable: use a note card with the expression on one side and the variable on the other.

I emphasized that that card itself represented the value of that fraction. The front and back are both different ways to express the same (unknown) quantity we were looking for.


THAT FLIP IS THE COOLEST THING EVER FOR A MATH TEACHER. That flip was the single thing that made me want to blog about this.

Love it.

Nov 1, 2014

Thinking about the math education blogosphere

I’ve never really been a blogger, despite trying my hand at it on various occasions over the years, but I have been very interested to see the recent crop of new attention to blogging in what I think of as the “meta” blogosphere.

All of these folks are compelling to me in various ways, although I don’t read every word that each of them writes. They all fall in the camp that is meta-focused on the web itself—folks who work on and depend on the web for their livelihoods, who contribute to its well-being, have a strong vested-interest in various foundational aspects of the web, and who correspondingly tend to have strong opinions about how things are going.

I even think all of this is incredibly important to worry about, but it’s not exactly a club that I want to be a part of.

No, I want to be part of the club of math education bloggers. (Even though I can’t because I don’t teach math.)

Years ago, a friend recommended to me Dan Meyer’s TED Talk, Math class needs a makeover. It’s a great and short presentation, where Dan makes a compelling argument about being less helpful and giving students more room to pave their own path to a solution to a problem rather than spelling out the steps. When was the last time you encountered a problem worth solving, where the process for solving it was all completely laid out for you anyway?

Dan, it turned out, has a blog. And over the years, he’s grown in popularity, and through his site I’ve started keeping up with more and more bloggers in this math & education community—folks like Audrey Watters and Michael Pershan and José Vilson. Meanwhile, my career has taken its own turn from focusing my time primarily on making websites to teaching people how to make websites.

And this is really the point isn’t it? I mean, I want to protect the health of the web as much as the next nerd, but to be honest, I’m not sure I ever really see a lot of new thoughts in the “Let’s talk about the web and publishing and technology” circles beyond what I recall from the days of Webmonkey, or A List Apart. Focus on the content, the web is for sharing, writing and linking are the native building blocks of the medium, we all should probably figure out how to write and how to make type work.

Let me be clear: I’m glad that folks are still making those points, and I’m sure that I will continue to try to hammer those things home myself, especially given that I’m now in a role where I’m regularly shepherding new folks toward working increasingly with the web as their means of making ends meet. If I have anything to add to the conversation from the past 15 years, it’s that currency matters and the idea of a stream or a river feels pretty apt when it comes to the web. In other words, the web is living, and it matters that the important pieces are revisited and freshened up for folks who are coming to these ways of thinking about the web now. (Maybe they’ve been doing something more interesting with their lives for the past 15 years.)

But I also want things that are new to me, that I feel like I can engage in. Streams I can jump into and splash around, where people aren’t focused on the nature of water or how it’s flowing.

I want to jump in with the people who are looking for the fish, and are still excited every time they catch another.

Sep 19, 2014

I’m confused.

I want to admit something that I wish more people would admit: I’m confused.

I like to think that I know what I’m talking about, and I believe I put a great deal of thought and care into what I do, but neither of those things keep me from being confused. I don’t have a good idea about what the web is really for, where new technologies are going, whatever on earth is going on with the “tech industry,” or anything of that nature.

And yet I teach. I teach design now, and taught web development in the past. Sometimes I feel confused about why I should be teaching when I myself am so confused about the industry my own students are hoping to become better acquainted with.

But. That is probably why I teach. Because I’m confused and want to continue to work toward a greater understanding, and also because I’m willing to admit my confusion, and hopefully let my students in a little more as a result.

All that said, what I’m always advocating for in class is increasing the clarity of ideas. Maybe I’m talking to myself above all.

Sep 16, 2014

Writing in Public

I’ve been reading more and more musings about the possibly lost “old” web, mostly from people I admire such as Mandy, Jason, and Erin. Young as they are, I feel as they are the generation before me in terms of web time, so when they sputter about what’s going on, for some reason it affects me.

The good news is that there’s also seemed to be a bit of a resurgence of folks attempting to blog more again, to bring back some of the open dialog that was part and parcel to the kind of web that I recall fondly.

I may still continue to try again, but certainly don’t promise anything at all. I do find it amusing that I’m typing these words on an iPad, using the Wordpress app. After all these long years, it does warm my heart a bit that there is this thriving and striving platform at my fingertips, free and wild, but willing to meet me whenever the technology of the day has taken me. This looks nothing like my first version of Wordpress, not by a long shot.

But still, it comforts.

Jul 11, 2013

A New Attempt

I haven’t done anything remotely close to blogging in years, and truth be told, I’m pretty sure it’s because I always want to blog but am just bad at it.

This time, I’m gonna just go with it, warts and all. I’ll write and publish when the mood strikes, and about whatever.

I’m hoping that at this point I may have accrued enough experiences that I actually have something to write about. Whether it will be at all worth reading is a wholly different matter. I guess we’ll have to see.

Nov 28, 2009

“SuperFreakonomics” and Climate Change

Elizabeth Kolbert brings on the snark, and it’s delicious.

Nov 26, 2009

Everybody Loves A Smart Aleck

I enjoy Amelie Gillette’s snark from time to time, and this one didn’t disappoint. The whole situation with the television industry begs the question, “Who’s in charge around here?”


George Packer on the shift in Obama’s support:

The most disappointed people I meet are under thirty, the generation that made the Obama campaign a movement in its early primary months. They spent their entire adult lives under the worst President of our lifetime, they loved Obama because he was new and inspiring, and they felt that replacing the former with the latter would be a national deliverance. They weren’t wrong about that, but the ebbing of grassroots energy once the Obama campaign turned to governing suggests that some of his most enthusiastic backers saw the election as an end in itself. The Obama movement was unlike other social movements because it began and ended with a person, not an issue. And it was unlike ordinary political coalitions because it didn’t have the organizational muscle of voting blocs. The difficulty in sustaining its intensity through the inevitable ups and downs of governing shows the vulnerability in this model of twenty-first-century, Internet-based politics.

Andrew Sullivan in response:

This is an ocean liner that was boarded by a bunch of insurgents in a dinghy. You can’t captain the liner the way you did the dinghy. But if you wonder if the liner has changed direction, look at the apoplexy of the old regime. They’re not fools. And they know they’re losing.

Nov 23, 2009

Incognito Browsing

I’ve been finally getting a chance to play around with Chromium the open source branch of the Google Chrome project, and have been really impressed so far. My favorite tidbit is this part of the notice when you open an “Incognito Window”:

Going incognito doesn’t affect the behavior of other people, servers, or software. Be wary of:

  • Websites that collect or share information about you
  • Internet service providers or employers that track the pages you visit
  • Malicious software that tracks your keystrokes in exchange for free smileys
  • Surveillance by secret agents
  • People standing behind you

Nov 9, 2009

So, it has been about a year since I decided to leave Sarah Lawrence without a plan or an idea of what the future might bring. I wish I could say that I understand the story of my past year, or that I could turn it into some kind of anecdote for others out there who are struggling to find their way in life.

But I don’t think I can yet. What I do know is that somehow things have improved. Every day isn’t a chore right now, and I’m not consistently scared about what I’m doing or where my life is headed. I’ve been trying to work hard, but I wish I knew more specifically what parts of the effort I have been putting out have helped me to feel like I have re-entered the world around me.

Sure, I’m still usually at home, and I have a hard time going out and meeting new people. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I’m allowed a certain amount of misanthropy and melancholy, without those things I probably wouldn’t be who I am, honestly.

However, I’m now regularly doing things and effectively taking care of myself day after day. That I have arrived here after only a year is no small feat, and I’m grateful for all the help from all the people in my life that I’ve had along the way. It’s cheesy and cliche, but I don’t express my appreciation enough, and I hope you know how much you mean to me. (You all know who you are.)

I don’t expect this to find its way to many people I don’t know, but to anyone who might be listening who is experiencing stumbling blocks that you don’t understand in your life, I hope you can find the heart to reach out to the people who love you (you’ll know them by the fact that they’ll return your phone calls) and ask them for anything that you need, even if you don’t know what that is.

Nov 7, 2009

David Pogue: Cleaning Up the Clutter Online

I believe I agree with the sentiment here regarding ads, especially on pages that are intended for reading.

As for Readability, I wish that it were an unnecessary tool. It is a much more difficult project to try to educate writers and designers and readers about typographic treatment on the web. It is more work for the standards makers and browser builders to devise, agree on, and implement ways for type to be treated far more intelligently on the web. But it’s worth it, because even though there are rules and guidelines to making texts more readable, writing will never be one-design-fits-all.

So, David Pogue, I know you’re listening. Take on this cause! If people are responding to you so well on Twitter, point them in the direction of something by Mandy Brown. The best way to tackle the readability of the web isn’t by trying to automatically reformat it (although it’s a good stop-gap). No! We need to raise awareness to push the community of people who write for and publish online to take the extra care to make words readable.

Thank you for your help. :)

Nov 4, 2009

WebKit’s Web Inspector Updates

These guys really are doing fantastic work building and refining tools that are helping to turn the web into a first-class platform.

Nov 2, 2009

Monsters and the Moral Imagination

I’m a little late on posting this, but it’s still worth a read. Stephen T. Asma wrote a great little piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about our relationship to the idea of monsters and makes the case that even in a liberal world of moral relativism, the idea of the monster is a useful — and accurate — construct. Good stuff touching a lot of ground.

Oct 30, 2009

It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.

Colin Nissan:

Check out my shellacked decorative vegetables, assholes. Guess what season it is—fucking fall. There’s a nip in the air and my house is full of mutant fucking squash.

Someone’s been watching too much Sunny.

Oct 13, 2009

Derek Powazek on “Spammers, Evildoers, and Opportunists”

His thoughts on so-called Search Engine Optimization are spot on. The crux:

Remember this: It’s not your job to create content for Google. It’s their job to find the best of the web for their results. Your audience is your readers, not Google’s algorithm.

It sounds obvious, but there are still too many people contributing to the web who believe that its inner workings are magical. Success on the web, to my mind, is far more predictable than in publishing, politics, movies, etc. The only way to compete on the web is through quality.

Oct 5, 2009

Jessica Hische Typography

Well these are beautiful.

(via Khoi Vinh)

Oct 4, 2009

Love Makes You Creative, Sex Not So Much

Andrew Sullivan in rare form:

I recall one marathon twelve-hour session of passion many years ago now. It was only afterwards that I realized I had barely had a single trace of an analytic thought for the longest period I could then remember. I was never happier. As I finally collapsed into my lover’s arms with the final orgasm that drained every last drop of desire or need from my body and soul, I understood for the first time why the French call coming “le petit mort”. It can be the emptying of self entirely. Which is why sex is so close at times to the presence of the divine, and reflects and incarnates God in ways few other things can so easily. We are more animal and more divine in sex than in any other activity.

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