notated.org notes on learning, design, tools, & life

Replacing 1 billion-user platforms

Manton Reece:

We do not need another social network with 1 billion users. Part of the problem is having so many users and so much power concentrated in one place. And setting out to achieve 1 billion users means it’s an ad-based platform that will inherently revisit many existing problems.

Agreed. And yet I am still bothered by the barriers of entry to alternatives, including Micro.blog. Apart from the usually-discussed technical and know-how barriers to entry (which honestly I find dubious on their own), what of social barriers? I see a lot of what faces whenever I check in on Micro.blog. How do we avoid revisiting this existing problem?

Coney Island Boardwalk

OMG I love these old postcards of the boardwalk at Coney Island.

The wood planks of the Coney Island Boardwalk were designed to accommodate two kinds of traffic: pedestrian and rolling chair. The sections with diagonal planks forming a chevron pattern were meant for foot traffic, whereas the two strips of straight planks were meant for rolling chairs.

If you ever visit New York, I really recommend the trip out to Coney Island. It’s kind of a bizarre place so close to such a huge international city. I recommend the freak show, a corn dog or two, and a stroll down the boardwalk.

If it’s nice out, take a nap on the pier. Don’t forget sunblock.

The Hidden Cost of Touchscreens

Amber Case:

When I worked in food service and in the mailroom, the uglier touchscreens were always easier to work with. They were color coded with bright, contrasting colors, making the boundaries between numbers or items very obvious. I found that the colors reduced mistakes. I’d usually tap the right items after barely even glancing at the interface. After a while, I’d only check the screen for mistakes at the end of the process, before submitting an order or printing a receipt.

Most touchscreen interfaces don’t use high contrast colors or locked, static buttons for basic functions. They bury actions under multiple buttons, and this leaves us dangerously hunting for the right button while trying to drive, or our frustrated passengers trying to help us get our phone connected via Bluetooth.

AI is Not a Community Management Strategy

Derek Powazek:

This PageRank thing, they told us, was an “algorithm.” And, for a time, algorithms were all the rage. We were living in the age of the algorithm. And in all my client meetings and project plans, every time we had a decision to make, someone would say, “the algorithm will do it.”

The algorithm never did it.

I’ll let Dionne Warwick take this one:

Gotta get off, gonna get
Out of this merry-go-round
Gotta get off, gonna get
Need to get on where I’m bound

When did I get, where did I
Why am I lost as a lamb
When will I know, where will I
How will I learn who I am

Service Design: From Insight to Implementation

Added this to my reading list last year, and have been digging into it again the past week. So far I’m finding the book to be interesting in terms of case studies, but short on practical advice. Does anyone have any other recommendations as I go down this road?

15 principles of good service design

Lou Downe:

Without professional standards we will continue to expect those around us to be able to do more than they can, and not expect enough of ourselves.

We need to understand that most people can spot a bad service, but won’t be able to tell you why it’s bad or how to fix it. This is the same with graphic design – where most people will be able to identify a bad road sign, but won’t be able to tell you that the kerning is too tight. It isn’t fair to expect them to do this, just as it isn’t fair for us to charge for our services as designers if we can’t.

Reading through these principles made me much more interested in service design.

In Defense of Design Thinking, Which Is Terrible

Khoi Vinh:

“Everyone Can Code” is an interesting idea. The implication is that there will be a lot of good code out there, but it also implies that there will be a lot of bad code too. In a world where everyone can code, not all code will be good. There will be bad code, in fact.

It’s worth noting though that engineering as a discipline, as a trade, as a profession is largely unthreatened by the idea of bad code. In fact, you could say that the prevalence of bad code has been a boon to the world of engineering. In spite of all the bad code being written out there, the discipline is thriving.

And yet when it comes to the discipline of design:

Designers want design to be an exclusive domain. They want its processes to be mysterious, and often rooted in the idiosyncrasies of mercurial creative directors and savants, because it preserves the perceived value of our craft. Put more plainly: the more difficult design is to practice, the more lucrative it is for practicing designers.

I’m with Khoi on this point:

Any embrace of design by non-designers is a good thing, and design thinking qualifies here. The reason for this is that when that happens, it means our language, the vocabulary of design, is broadening to the rest of the world.

If you ask me, this is a big part of what I’ve always loved about the web: the way it seems to support individual growth by giving so many a platform to share about what they do and how they approach their work.

Back in the 90s, I remember an explosion of writing and sharing about making web pages. It was great! I wouldn’t have learned half the things I know how to do without that impulse to share.

I think the impulse is still there, if it sometimes gets a bit overwhelming dealing with so many resources which just attempt to monetize content rather than provide genuine heart-felt writing to visitors. Just have a look at some of the math education blogosphere and you’ll see that impulse on full display.

Eloquent JavaScript, 3rd Edition

I’m so glad to see that the third edition of Marijn Haverbeke’s excellent Eloquent JavaScript is out.

He’s updated it to reflect modern JavaScript, but he wisely leaves alone topics which are subject to tumultuous change:

So it is not uncommon for the code that you find in an NPM package or that runs on a web page to have gone through multiple stages of transformation—converted from modern JavaScript to historic JavaScript, from ES module format to CommonJS, bundled, and minified. We won’t go into the details of these tools in this book, since they tend to be boring and change rapidly. Just be aware that the JavaScript code that you run is often not the code as it was written.

I hope to give this a more thorough read over the next weeks. If you haven’t read the earlier editions, now’s a great time to pick this up.

Nobody Said CSS Is Easy

Amber asked for some help with checkboxes:

In conclusion to my first two months on a big project, I now know that getting confused, spending a long time studying many different files & folders, and asking other developers for help is a right of passage to becoming a better developer.

Observable: Five-Minute Introduction

I discovered Observable, a new project from Mike Bostock just yesterday. It’s a modern web-based programming notebook for JavaScript.

I remember the first time a friend of mine showed me something he’d written in Mathematica, about 15 years ago. I had no idea what was going on. I hadn’t studied any computer science, I didn’t really understand what this tool was supposed to be doing, or why anyone would use it. There was a big gap between how impressed my friend was with what he’d been able to do with it, and my feelings at looking at it with him. (I feel like it had something to do with simulating sheep populations?)

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when I was working on the launch of a data science course and saw a Jupyter notebook in action running Python. The scales came off my eyes. This was an interactive programming environment that I had never really imagined! The possibilities for teaching were immediately obvious. You could create notebooks that showed code and results for students to tinker with, demonstrate with live examples you could update on the fly, leave blanks for students to fill in like worksheet, etc.

It was only later that I realized I was seeing a new take on a set of paradigms that I’d seen in Mathematica so many years earlier.

Observable uses the same notebook model, in a way that feels very much web-technology native. It’s web interface is nicer than Jupyter already. I’m also encouraged to see some early community on the site (although at first glance it seems heavily male-leaning). I’ll be curious to see how it grows. As far as I can tell, there’s not currently a way to download and work locally on Observable notebooks, whereas part of what I like about the Jupyter format is its portability. Observable is still young, so I hope that there is a chance this may happen in the future.

In the meantime, if I was teaching JavaScript, I would give this a serious look.

Ask Irene

As it says on the tin, “Find the perfect spot to eat & drink in Barcelona.”

Highly recommended if you’re ever in Barcelona. We only got to try a couple of these places while visiting, and will definitely try more next time we’re there.

10 Mostly Easy Steps To Become An Indie Dev

Inspiring comparison of indie game development with playing in a band.

Crying in Public

Shortly after I moved back to New York, I was let go from my job. It was the first time I ever cried in public, and I still recall more of the emotional nuances of the experience in my heart, than any of the actual details of the job. I just remember suddenly needing to get out of the building, waiting tortuously for the elevator to take me down the 40-or-whatever floors, and having nowhere to go. So I simply broke down into sobs in the street.

I felt embarrassed, like insanely embarrassed, and I was so worried that people would come up to me and ask if I was okay and it would only make it worse. But no one came up to me. I don’t think anyone even took a second look at me. And this was a busy area in mid-town, a few blocks from Grand Central.

I fell in love with New York a little bit more that day. Sometimes you need to cry, and in New York that often means crying on the street or in the subway, because life doesn’t happen in your apartment, and you don’t have a car to hide in. There’s a shared experience of this, anyone I’ve talked to who lives or lived in New York has stories like these. And the beautiful part is, that we also all know that the best way to comfort someone who is crying in public, is to leave them alone.

I love that, and I love this map, which so effortlessly conveys the experience of living in New York during your formative adult years with emojis and one-sentence stories. Thank you for this.

Fraction Frenzy

Megan Schmidt figuring out fractions with her daughter, by talking about sharing:

It’s not possible to share 10 brownies fairly with 4 friends. Can we have 5 friends?

More like this, please.

My Fellow White People, Here’s One Simple Trick You Can Do About Racism TODAY!

Captain Awkward:

So, you said something racist. Or, someone told you that you said something racist.

Or, someone you really like & admire said or did something racist, or is getting told on for saying something racist.

And now you feel uncomfortable. You feel guilty, maybe, or ashamed. Whatever it is, it’s weird and you don’t like it.

This.

People and tooling

Susan Jean Robertson:

The way we build for the web right now feels problematic in so many ways. Instead of welcoming everyone from our teams with their various skills, we create layers of complexity that shut many out.

This has been bothering me too.

See also: Aging out.

Legends of the Ancient Web

Another thought-provoking talk from Maciej Cegłowski, tracing the early history of radio from hobbyists to commercial success:

Like the Internet, radio technology was on the horizon for a long time before it arrived, and it arrived in a rudimentary form that didn’t strike anyone as a qualitatively new technology, let alone one that could upend politics.

The world that radio arrived in already had ways to communicate in real time over long distances—telegraphs and telephones. It wasn’t clear at the outset that Hertzian waves could be detected at distances much greater than a few hundred meters, let alone that they might become a practical method to transmit the human voice.

At best, they might prove a useful method for detecting lightning at a distance, or communicating with ships at sea.

The world that radio was born into had a group of telegraphy enthusiasts who ran their own little networks, the Usenet of their day. And there was also an assortment of thriving small-scale telephone networks, including rural ones where the telephone wires were run over barbed wire fencing, connecting thirty or forty farms on a circuit.

Some of these people became the first radio “hams”—amateur hobbyists.

Correspondence from Alan Kay

Socrates didn’t charge for “education” because when you are in business, the “customer starts to become right”. Whereas in education, the customer is generally “not right”. Marketeers are catering to what people want, educators are trying to deal with what they think people need (and this is often not at all what they want). Part of Montessori’s genius was to realize early that children want to get fluent in their surrounding environs and culture, and this can be really powerful if one embeds what they need in the environs and culture.

I want to believe this, but I don’t know how to escape the patriarchal implications of this line of reasoning. As soon as it’s the teacher’s job to know better what students need…

Amber Wilson on Learning

A refreshing take:

The Web is at a point where more of us need to be putting in some effort to get a broader view of the world and the people living here. The social effects of the Web are stretching further and further every day. More and more people are getting access to it. More than ever, we need to make sure it’s an accessible and secure place for everyone.

No, #MeToo Is Not a Witch Hunt

David M. Perry gets it:

This is all nonsense, but nonsense with a purpose. Powerful men, mostly white men, are not Jews in Nazi Germany, black Americans in pre-civil-rights U.S., heretics and witches before the Salem magistrates or the Inquisition, alleged Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee, or political dissidents in Soviet Russia. Losing a job, losing screen time, losing influence—these are not equivalent to the loss of life or freedom. Every time the playing field tilts a bit toward level, the powerful start to cry, “Help, I’m being repressed!”