Blogging with semantic insertions and deletions

When I write a blog post, it generally becomes a static thing: its content always usually stays the same for the rest of its life (which is, in my case, pretty much forever). But sometimes, I go back and make an amendment. When I make minor changes that don’t affect the overall meaning of the work, like fixing spelling mistakes and repointing broken links, I just edit the page, but for more-significant changes I try to make it clear what’s changed and how.

An insertion and a deletion on a 2007 blog post announcing Troma Night plans.
This blog post from 2007, for example, was amended after its publication with the insertion of content at the top and the deletion of content within.

Historically, I’d usually marked up deletions with the HTML <strike>/<s> elements (or other visually-similar approaches) and insertions by clearly stating that a change had been made (usually accompanied by the date and/or time of the change), but this isn’t a good example of semantic code. It also introduces an ambiguity when it clashes with the times I use <s> for comedic effect in the Web equivalent of the old caret-notation joke:

Be nice to this fool^H^H^H^Hgentleman, he's visiting from corporate HQ.

Better, then, to use the <ins> and <del> elements, which were designed for exactly this purpose and even accept attributes to specify the date/time of the modification and to cite a resource that explains the change, e.g. <ins datetime="2019-05-03T09:00:00+00:00" cite="https://alices-blog.example.com/2019/05/03/speaking.html">The last speaker slot has now been filled; thanks Alice</ins>. I’ve worked to retroactively add such semantic markup to my historical posts where possible, but it’ll be an easier task going forwards.

Of course, no browser I’m aware of supports these attributes, which is a pity because the metadata they hold may well have value to a reader. In order to expose them I’ve added a little bit of CSS that looks a little like this, which makes their details (where available) visible as a sort-of tooltip when hovering over or tapping on an affected area. Give it a go with the edits at the top of this post!

ins[datetime], del[datetime] {
  position: relative;
}

ins[datetime]::before, del[datetime]::before {
  position: absolute;
  top: -24px;
  font-size: 12px;
  color: #fff;
  border-radius: 4px;
  padding: 2px 6px;
  opacity: 0;
  transition: opacity 0.25s;
  hyphens: none;                    /* suppresses sitewide line break hyphenation rules */
  white-space: nowrap;              /* suppresses extraneous line breaks in Chrome      */
}

ins[datetime]:hover::before, del[datetime]:hover::before {
  opacity: 0.75;
}

ins[datetime]::before {
  content: 'inserted ' attr(datetime) ' ' attr(cite);
  background: #050;                 /* insertions are white-on-green                    */
}

del[datetime]::before {
  content: 'deleted ' attr(datetime) ' ' attr(cite);
  background: #500;                 /* deletions are white-on-red                       */
}
CSS facilitating the display of <ins>/<del> datetimes and citations on hover or touch.

I’m aware that the intended use-case of <ins>/<del> is change management, and that the expectation is that the “final” version of a document wouldn’t be expected to show all of the changes that had been made to it. Such a thing could be simulated, I suppose, by appropriately hiding and styling the <ins>/<del> blocks on the client-side, and that’s something I might look into in future, but in practice my edits are typically small and rare enough that nobody would feel inconvenienced by their inclusion/highlighting: after all, nobody’s complained so far and I’ve been doing exactly that, albeit in a non-semantic way, for many years!

I’m also slightly conscious that my approach to the “tooltip” might cause it to obstruct interactivity with something directly above an insertion or deletion: e.g. making a hyperlink inaccessible. I’ve tested with a variety of browsers and devices and it doesn’t seem to happen (my line height works in my favour) but it’s something I’ll need to be mindful of if I change my typographic design significantly in the future.

A final observation: I love the CSS attr() function, and I’ve been using it (and counter()) for all kinds of interesting things lately, but it annoys me that I can only use it in a content: statement. It’d be amazingly valuable to be able to treat integer-like attribute values as integers and combine it with a calc() in order to facilitate more-dynamic styling of arbitrary sets of HTML elements. Maybe one day…

For the time being, I’m happy enough with my new insertion/deletion markers. If you’d like to see them in use in their natural environment, see the final paragraph of my 2012 review of The Signal and The Noise.

What can board game strategy tell us about the future of the car wash?

I’m increasingly convinced that Friedemann Friese‘s 2009 board game Power Grid: Factory Manager (BoardGameGeek) presents gamers with a highly-digestible model of the energy economy in a capitalist society. In Factory Manager, players aim to financially-optimise a factory over time, growing production and delivery capacity through upgrades in workflow, space, energy, and staff efficiency. An essential driving factor in the game is that energy costs will rise sharply throughout. Although it’s not always clear in advance when or by how much, this increase in the cost of energy is always at the forefront of the savvy player’s mind as it’s one of the biggest factors that will ultimately impact their profit.

Power grid's energy cost tracker
8 $money per $unit of electricity I use? That’s a rip off! Or a great deal! I don’t know!

Given that players aim to optimise for turnover towards the end of the game (and as a secondary goal, for the tie-breaker: at a specific point five rounds after the game begins) and not for business sustainability, the game perhaps-accidentally reasonably-well represents the idea of “flipping” a business for a profit. Like many business-themed games, it favours capitalism… which makes sense – money is an obvious and quantifiable way to keep score in a board game! – but it still bears repeating.

There’s one further mechanic in Factory Manager that needs to be understood: a player’s ability to control the order in which they take their turn and their capacity to participate in the equipment auctions that take place at the start of each round is determined by their manpower-efficiency in the previous round. That is: a player who operates a highly-automated factory running on a skeleton staff benefits from being in the strongest position for determining turn order and auctions in their next turn.

Empty Factory Manager staff room
My staff room is empty. How about yours?

The combination of these rules leads to an interesting twist: in the final turn – when energy costs are at their highest and there’s no benefit to holding-back staff to monopolise the auction phase in the nonexistent subsequent turn – it often makes most sense strategically to play what I call the “sweatshop strategy”. The player switches off the automated production lines to save on the electricity bill, drags in all the seasonal workers they can muster, dusts off the old manpower-inefficient machines mouldering in the basement, and gets their army of workers cranking out widgets!

With indefinitely-increasing energy prices and functionally-flat staff costs, the rules of the game would always eventually reach the point at which it is most cost-effective to switch to slave cheap labour rather than robots. but Factory Manager‘s fixed-duration means that this point often comes for all players in many games at the same predictable point: a tipping point at which the free market backslides from automation to human labour to keep itself alive.

There are parallels in the real world. Earlier this month, Tim Watkins wrote:

Abandoned automatic car wash

The demise of the automated car wash may seem trivial next to these former triumphs of homo technologicus but it sits on the same continuum. It is just one of a gathering list of technologies that we used to be able to use, but can no longer express (through market or state spending) a purpose for. More worrying, however, is the direction in which we are willingly going in our collective decision to move from complexity to simplicity. The demise of the automated car wash has not followed a return to the practice of people washing their own cars (or paying the neighbours’ kid to do it). Instead we have more or less happily accepted serfdom (the use of debt and blackmail to force people to work) and slavery (the use of physical harm) as a reasonable means of keeping the cost of cleaning cars to a minimum (similar practices are also keeping the cost of food down in the UK). This, too, is precisely what is expected when the surplus energy available to us declines.

I love Factory Manager, but after reading Watkins’ article, it’ll probably feel a little different to play it, now. It’s like that moment when, while reading the rules, I first poured out the pieces of Puerto Rico. Looking through them, I thought for a moment about what the “colonist” pieces – little brown wooden circles brought to players’ plantations on ships in a volume commensurate with the commercial demand for manpower – represented. And that realisation adds an extra message to the game.

Beneath its (fabulous) gameplay, Factory Manager carries a deeper meaning encouraging the possibility of a discussion about capitalism, environmentalism, energy, and sustainability. And as our society falters in its ability to fulfil the techno-utopian dream, that’s perhaps a discussion we need to be having.

Sorry to Bother You
Seriously, this film is awesome.

But for now, go watch Sorry to Bother You, where you’ll find further parallels… and at least you’ll get to laugh as you do so.

Edge Blink and Progressive Web Apps

As I’ve previously mentioned (sadly), Microsoft Edge is to drop its own rendering engine EdgeHTML and replace it with Blink, Google’s one (more of my and others related sadness here, here, here, and here). Earlier this month, Microsoft made available the first prerelease versions of the browser, and I gave it a go.

Edge Canary 75.0.131.0 dev
At a glance, it looks exactly like you’d expect a Microsoft reskin of Chrome to look, right down to the harmonised version numbers.

All of the Chrome-like features you’d expect are there, including support for Chrome plugins, but Microsoft have also clearly worked to try to integrate as much as possible of the important features that they felt were distinct to Edge in there, too. For example, Edge Blink supports SmartScreen filtering and uses Microsoft accounts for sync, and Incognito is of course rebranded InPrivate.

But what really interested me was the approach that Edge Dev has taken with Progressive Web Apps.

Installing NonStopHammerTi.me as a standalone PWA in Edge
NonStopHammerTi.me might not be the best PWA in the world, but it’s the best one linked from this blog post.

Edge Dev may go further than any other mainstream browser in its efforts to make Progressive Web Apps visible to the user, putting a plus sign (and sometimes an extended install prompt) right in the address bar, rather than burying it deep in a menu. Once installed, Edge PWAs “just work” in exactly the way that PWAs ought to, providing a simple and powerful user experience. Unlike some browsers, which make installing PWAs on mobile devices far easier than on desktops, presumably in a misguided belief in the importance of mobile “app culture”, it doesn’t discriminate against desktop users. It’s a slick and simple user experience all over.

NonStopHammerTi.me running as a standalone PWA in Edge Dev.
Once installed, Edge immediately runs your new app (closing the tab it formerly occupied) and adds shortcut icons.

Feature support is stronger than it is for Progressive Web Apps delivered as standalone apps via the Windows Store, too, with the engine not falling over at the first sign of a modal dialog for example. Hopefully (as I support one of these hybrid apps!) these too will begin to be handled properly when Edge Dev eventually achieves mainstream availability.

Edge provides an option to open a page in its sites' associated PWA, if installed.
If you’ve got the “app” version installed, Edge provides a menu option to switch to that from any page on the conventional site (and cookies/state is retained across both).

But perhaps most-impressive is Edge Dev’s respect for the importance of URLs. If, having installed the progressive “app” version of a site you subsequently revisit any address within its scope, you can switch to the app version via a link in the menu. I’d rather have seen a nudge in the address bar, where the user might expect to see such things (based on that being where the original install icon was), but this is still a great feature… especially given that cookies and other state maintainers are shared between the browser, meaning that performing such a switch in a properly-made application will result in the user carrying on from almost exactly where they left off.

An Edge PWA showing its "Copy URL" feature.
Unlike virtually every other PWA engine, Edge Dev’s provides a “Copy URL” feature even to apps without address bars, which is a killer feature for sharability.

Similarly, and also uncommonly forward-thinking, Progressive Web Apps installed as standalone applications from Edge Dev enjoy a “copy URL” option in their menu, even if the app runs without an address bar (e.g. as a result of a "display": "standalone" directive in the manifest.json). This is a huge boost to sharability and is enormously (and unusually) respectful of the fact that addresses are the Web’s killer feature!  Furthermore, it respects the users’ choice to operate their “apps” in whatever way suits them best: in a browser (even a competing browser!), on their mobile device, or wherever. Well done, Microsoft!

I’m still very sad overall that Edge is becoming part of the Chromium family of browsers. But if the silver lining is that we get a pioneering and powerful new Progressive Web App engine then it can’t be all bad, can it?

The Four-Handed Condom

Content warning: rape.

You’ve probably seen the news about people taking a technological look at the issue of consent, lately. One thing that’s been getting a lot of attention is the Tulipán Placer Consentido, an Argentinian condom which comes in a packet that requires the cooperation of two pairs of hands to open it.

Four hands opening a Placer Consentido packet
I’ve seen simpler escape room puzzles.

Naturally, the Internet’s been all over this shit, pointing out how actually you can probably open it with just two hands [YouTube], how it’s inaccessible [YouTube] to people with a variety of disabilities, and how it misses the point by implying that once the condom is on, consent is irrevocable. A significant number of its critics try to make their claims more-sensational by describing the Placer Consentido as “a real product”, which is a bit of an exaggeration: it was a seemingly one-off promotional giveaway by its creators: it doesn’t look to be appearing on their store pages.

Hands moving to the magic pressure points on a condom packet.
Move your fingers just a bit lower. No… up a bit. Yes! Right there! That’s the spot!

One fundamental flaw with the concept that nobody seems to have pointed out (unless perhaps in Spanish), is that – even assuming the clever packaging works perfectly – all that you can actually consent to with such a device is the use of a condom. Given that rape can be and often is committed coercively rather than physically – e.g. through fear, blackmail, or obligation rather than by force – consent to use of a condom by one of the parties shouldn’t be conflated with consent to a sexual act: it may just be preferable to it without, if that seems to be the alternative.

Indeed, all of these technical “solutions” to rape seem to focus on the wrong part of the process. Making sure that an agreement is established isn’t a hard problem, algorithmically-speaking (digital signatures with split-key cryptography has given us perhaps the strongest possible solution to the problem for forty years now)! The hard problem here is in getting people to think about what rape is and to act appropriately to one another. Y’know: it’s a people problem, not a technology problem! (Unshocker.)

"It's a no", from the advertisment.
“If it’s not a yes, it’s a no.” If you ignore the product, the ad itself is on-message.

But even though they’re perhaps functionally-useless, I’m still glad that people are making these product prototypes. As the news coverage kicked off by the #MeToo movement wanes, its valuable to keep that wave of news going: the issues faced by the victims of sexual assault and rape haven’t gone away! Products like these may well be pointless in the real world, but they’re a vehicle to keep talking about consent and its importance. Keeping the issue in the limelight is helpful, because it forces people to continually re-evaluate their position on sex and consent, which makes for a healthy and progressive society.

So I’m looking forward to whatever stupid thing we come up with next. Bring it on, innovators! Just don’t take your invention too seriously: you’re not going to “fix” rape with it, but at least you can keep us talking about it.

Non Stop Hammer Ti.me

You know how sometimes I make a thing and, in hindsight, it doesn’t make much sense? And at best, all it can be said to do is to make the Internet more fun and weird?

Hammer Logo

I give you: NonStopHammerTi.me.

Things that make it awesome:

  • Well, the obvious.
  • Vanilla Javascript.
  • CSS animations timed to every-other-beat.
  • Using an SVG stroke-dasharray as a progress bar.
  • Progressively-enhanced; in the worst case you just get to download the audio.
  • PWA-enhanced; install it to your mobile!
  • Open source!
  • Decentralised (available via the peer-web at dat://nonstophammerti.me/ / dat://0a4a8a..00/)
  • Accessible to screen readers, keyboard navigators, partially-sighted users, just about anybody.
  • Compatible with digital signage at my workplace…
Digital signage showing NonStopHammerTi.me
My office aren’t sick of this… yet.

That is all.

Dead Dad Day

I’m not sure that I process death in the same way that “normal” people do. I blame my family.

WhatsApp chat: Sarah Huntley says "Happy dead dad day x" and Doreen Huntley replies "Shouldn't it be 'sad dead dad day'"?
My sisters and I have wished one another a “Happy Dead Dad Day” every 19 February since his death.

When my grandmother died in 2006 I was just in the process of packing up the car with Claire to try to get up to visit her before the inevitable happened. I received the phone call to advise me that she’d passed, and – ten emotional minutes later – Claire told me that she’d “never seen anybody go through the five stages of grief as fast as that before”. Apparently I was a textbook example of the Kübler-Ross model, only at speed. Perhaps I should volunteer to stand in front of introductory psychology classes and feel things, or something.

My sister explains what Dead Dad Day means to her, and I explain what it means to me: a celebration of the relationship we each got to have with our father.
I guess there isn’t actually a market for Happy Dead Dad Day greetings cards?

Since my dad’s death seven years ago, I’ve marked Dead Dad Day every 19 February a way that’s definitely “mine”: with a pint or three of Guinness (which my dad enjoyed… except if there were a cheaper Irish stout on draught because he never quite shook off his working-class roots) and some outdoors and ideally a hill, although Oxfordshire makes the latter a little difficult. On the second anniversary of my dad’s death, I commemorated his love of setting out and checking the map later by making my first geohashing expedition: it seemed appropriate that even without him, I could make a journey without either of us being sure of either the route… or the destination.

Dan and his dad have breakfast in the garden.
Eating cornflakes together in the garden was a tradition of my dad and I’s since at least 23 years before this photo was taken.

As I implied at his funeral, I’ve always been far more-interested in celebrating life than mourning death (that might be why I’m not always the best at supporting those in grief). I’m not saying that it isn’t sad that he went before his time: it is. What’s worst, I think, is when I remember how close-but-not-quite he came to getting to meet his grandchildren… who’d have doubtless called him “Grandpeter”.

We all get to live, and we’re all going to die, and I’d honestly be delighted if I thought that people might remember me with the same kind of smile (and just occasionally tear) that finds my face every Dead Dad Day.

Logitech MX Master 2S

I’m a big believer in the idea that the hardware I lay my hands on all day, every day, needs to be the best for its purpose. On my primary desktop, I type on a Das Keyboard 4 Professional (with Cherry MX brown switches) because it looks, feels, and sounds spectacular. I use the Mac edition of the keyboard because it, coupled with a few tweaks, gives me the best combination of features and compatibility across all of the Windows, MacOS, and Linux (and occasionally other operating systems) I control with it. These things matter.

F13, Lower Brightness, and Raise Brightness keys on Dan's keyboard
I don’t know what you think these buttons do, but if you’re using my keyboard, you’re probably wrong. Also, they need a clean. I swear they don’t look this grimy when I’m not doing macro-photography.

I also care about the mouse I use. Mice are, for the most part, for the Web and for gaming and not for use in most other applications (that’s what keyboard shortcuts are for!) but nonetheless I spend plenty of time holding one and so I want the tool that feels right to me. That’s why I was delighted when, in replacing my four year-old Logitech MX1000 in 2010 with my first Logitech Performance MX, I felt able to declare it the best mouse in the world. My Performance MX lived for about four years, too – that seems to be how long a mouse can stand the kind of use that I give it – before it started to fail and I opted to replace it with an identical make and model. I’d found “my” mouse, and I was sticking with it. It’s a great shape (if you’ve got larger hands), is full of features including highly-configurable buttons, vertical and horizontal scrolling (or whatever you want to map them to), and a cool “flywheel” mouse wheel that can be locked to regular operation or unlocked for controlled high-speed scrolling at the touch of a button: with practice, you can even use it as a speed control by gently depressing the switch like it was a brake pedal. Couple all of that with incredible accuracy on virtually any surface, long battery life, and charging “while you use” and you’ve a recipe for success, in my mind.

My second Performance MX stopped properly charging its battery this week, and it turns out that they don’t make them any more, so I bought its successor, the Logitech MX Master 2S.

(New) Logitech MX Master 2S and (old) Logitech Performance MX
On the left, the (new) Logitech MX Master 2S. On the right, my (old) Logitech Performance MX.

The MX Master 2S is… different… from its predecessor. Mostly in good ways, sometimes less-good. Here’s the important differences:

  • Matte coating: only the buttons are made of smooth plastic; the body of the mouse is now a slightly coarser plastic: you’ll see in the photo above how much less light it reflects. It feels like it would dissipate heat less-well.
  • Horizontal wheel replaces rocker wheel: instead of the Performance MX’s “rocker” scroll wheel that can be pushed sideways for horizontal scroll, the MX Master 2S adds a dedicated horizontal scroll (or whatever you reconfigure it to) wheel in the thumb well. This is a welcome change: the rocker wheel in both my Performance MXes became less-effective over time and in older mice could even “jam on”, blocking the middle-click function. This seems like a far more-logical design.
  • New back/forward button shape: to accommodate the horizontal wheel, the “back” and “forward” buttons in the thumb well have been made smaller and pushed closer together. This is the single biggest failing of the MX Master 2S: it’s clearly a mouse designed for larger hands, and yet these new buttons are slightly, but noticeably, harder to accurately trigger with a large thumb! It’s tolerable, but slightly annoying.
  • Bluetooth support: one of my biggest gripes about the Performance MX was its dependence on Unifying, Logitech’s proprietary wireless protocol. The MX Master 2S supports Unifying but also supports Bluetooth, giving you the best of both worlds.
  • Digital flywheel: the most-noticable change when using the mouse is the new flywheel and braking mechanism, which is comparable to the change in contemporary cars from a mechanical to a digital handbrake. The flywheel “lock” switch is now digital, turning on or off the brake in a single stroke and so depriving you of the satisfaction of using it to gradually “slow down” a long spin-scroll through an enormous log or source code file. But in exchange comes an awesome feature called SmartShift, which dynamically turns on or off the brake (y’know, like an automatic handbrake!) depending on the speed with which you throw the wheel. That’s clever and intuitive and “just works” far better than I’d have imagined: I can choose to scroll slowly or quickly, with or without the traditional ratchet “clicks” of a wheel mouse, with nothing more than the way I flick my finger (and all fully-configurable, of course). And I’ve still got the button to manually “toggle” the brake if I need it. It took some getting used to, but this change is actually really cool! (I’m yet to get used to the sound of the digital brake kicking in automatically, but that’s true of my car too).
  • Basic KVM/multi-computing capability: with a button on the underside to toggle between different paired Unifying/Bluetooth transceivers and software support for seamless edge-of-desktop multi-computer operation, Logitech are clearly trying to target folks who, like me, routinely run multiple computers simultaneously from a single keyboard and mouse. But it’s a pointless addition in my case because I’ve been quite happy using Synergy to do this for the last 7+ years, which does it better. Still, it’s a harmless “bonus” feature and it might be of value to others, I suppose.

All in all, the MX Master 2S isn’t such an innovative leap forward over the Performance MX as the Performance MX was over the MX1000, but it’s still great that this spectacular series of heavyweight workhouse feature-rich mice continues to innovate and, for the most part, improve upon the formula. This mouse isn’t cheap, and it isn’t for everybody, but if you’re a big-handed power user with a need to fine-tune all your hands-on hardware to get it just right, it’s definitely worth a look.

Modern CSS on DanQ.me

The current iteration of my blog diverges from an architectural principle common to most of previous versions of the last 20 years. While each previous change in design and layout was intended to provide a single monolithic upgrade, this version tries to provide me with a platform for continuous ongoing experimentation and change.

Debug console on DanQ.me showing Dan's head and a speech bubble.
Earlier this year I added experimental console art, for example. Click through for more details.

I’ve been trying to make better use of my blog as a vehicle for experimenting with web technologies, as I used to with personal sites back in the 1990s and early 2000s; to see a vanity site like this one as a living playground rather than something that – like most of the sites I’m paid to work on – something whose design is, for the most part, static for long periods of time.

"Blog" dropdown menu on DanQ.me.
The “popular” flag and associated background colour in the “Blog” top-level menu became permanent after a period of A/B testing. Thanks, unwitting testers!

Among the things I’ve added prior to the initial launch of this version of the design are gracefully-degrading grids, reduced-motion support, and dark-mode support – three CSS features of increasing levels of “cutting edge”-ness but each of which is capable of being implemented in a way that does not break the site’s compatibility. This site’s pages are readable using (simulations of) ancient rendering engines or even in completely text-based browsers, and that’s just great.

Here’s how I’ve implemented those three features:

Gracefully-degrading grids

Grid of recent notes and shares on DanQ.me
I’m not entirely happy with the design of these boxes, but that’s a job for another day.

The grid of recent notes, shares, checkins and videos on my homepage is powered by the display: grid; CSS directive. The number of columns varies by screen width from six on the widest screens down to three or just one on increasingly small screens. Crucially, grid-auto-flow: dense; is used to ensure an even left-to-right filling of the available space even if one of the “larger” blocks (with grid-column: span 2; grid-row: span 2;) is forced for space reasons to run onto the next line. This means that content might occasionally be displayed in a different order from that in which it is written in the HTML (which is reverse order of publication), but in exchange the items are flush with both sides.

Grid sample showing impact of dense flow.
The large “5 Feb” item in this illustration should, reverse-chronologically, appear before the “3 Feb” item, but there isn’t room for it on the previous line. grid-auto-flow: dense; means that the “3 Feb” item is allowed to bubble-up and fill the gap, appearing out-of-order but flush with the edge.

Not all web browsers support display: grid; and while that’s often only one of design and not of readability because these browsers will fall back to usually-very-safe default display modes like block and inline, as appropriate, sometimes there are bigger problems. In Internet Explorer 11, for example, I found (with thanks to @_ignatg) a problem with my directives specifying the size of these cells (which are actually <li> elements because, well, semantics matter). Because it understood the directives that ought to impact the sizing of the list items but not the one that redeclared its display type, IE made… a bit of a mess of things…

Internet Explorer scrambles a list/grid combination.
Thanks, Internet Explorer. That’s totally what I was looking for.

Do websites need to look the same in every browser? No. But the content should be readable regardless, and here my CSS was rendering my content unreadable. Given that Internet Explorer users represent a little under 0.1% of visitors to my site I don’t feel the need to hack it to have the same look-and-feel: I just need it to have the same content readability. CSS Feature Queries to the rescue!

CSS Feature Queries – the @supports selector – make it possible to apply parts of your stylesheet if and only if the browser supports specific CSS features, for example grids. Better yet, using it in a positive manner (i.e. “apply these rules only if the browser supports this feature”) is progressive enhancement, because browsers that don’t understand the  @supports selector act in the same way as those that understand it but don’t support the specified feature. Fencing off the relevant parts of my stylesheet in a @supports (display: grid) { ... } block instructed IE to fall back to displaying that content as a boring old list: exactly what I needed.

Internet Explorer's view of the "grid" on the DanQ.me homepage.
It isn’t pretty, but it’s pretty usable!

Reduced-motion support

I like to put a few “fun” features into each design for my blog, and while it’s nowhere near as quirky as having my head play peek-a-boo when you hover your cursor over it, the current header’s animations are in the same ballpark: hover over or click on some of the items in the header menu to see for yourself..

Main menu with "Dan Q" title in it's "bounced" position.
I’m most-pleased with the playful “bounce” of the letter Q when you hover over my name.

These kinds of animations are fun, but they can also be problematic. People with inner ear disorders (as well as people who’re just trying to maximise the battery life on their portable devices!) might prefer not to see them, and web designers ought to respect that choice where possible. Luckily, there’s an emerging standard to acknowledge that: prefers-reduced-motion. Alongside its cousins inverted-colors, prefers-reduced-transparency, prefers-contrast and prefers-color-scheme (see below for that last one!), these new CSS tools allow developers to optimise based on the accessibility features activated by the user within their operating system.

Motion-reducing controls in Windows 10 and MacOS X.
In Windows you turn off animations while in MacOS you turn on not-having animations, but the principle’s the same.

If you’ve tweaked your accessibility settings to reduce the amount of animation your operating system shows you, this website will respect that choice as well by not animating the contents of the title, menu, or the homepage “tiles” any more than is absolutely necessary… so long as you’re using a supported browser, which right now means Safari or Firefox (or the “next” version of Chrome). Making the change itself is pretty simple: I just added a @media screen and (prefers-reduced-motion: reduce) { ... } block to disable or otherwise cut-down on the relevant animations.

Dark-mode support

DanQ.me in dark mode.

Similarly, operating systems are beginning to support “dark mode”, designed for people trying to avoid eyestrain when using their computer at night. It’s possible for your browser to respect this and try to “fix” web pages for you, of course, but it’s better still if the developer of those pages has anticipated your need and designed them to acknowledge your choice for you. It’s only supported in Firefox and Safari so far and only on recent versions of Windows and MacOS, but it’s a start and a helpful touch for those nocturnal websurfers out there.

Enabling Dark Mode on Windows 10 and MacOS X
Come to the dark side, Luke. Or just get f.lux, I suppose.

It’s pretty simple to implement. In my case, I just stacked some overrides into a @media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) { ... } block, inverting the background and primary foreground colours, softening the contrast, removing a few “bright” borders, and darkening rather than lightening background images used on homepage tiles. And again, it’s an example of progressive enhancement: the (majority!) of users whose operating systems and/or browsers don’t yet support this feature won’t be impacted by its inclusion in my stylesheet, but those who can make use of it can appreciate its benefits.

This isn’t the end of the story of CSS experimentation on my blog, but it’s a part of the it that I hope you’ve enjoyed.

Happy Metamour Appreciation Day, JTA

Apparently the NCSF (US) are typing to make 28 February into Metamour Day: a celebration of one’s lover’s lovers. While I’m not convinced that’ll ever get Hallmark’s interest, I thought it provided a good opportunity to sing the praises of my metamour, JTA.

JTA and Annabel looking into a cabinet at the British Museum.
This is a man who knows how to use Greek myths and legends to add magic to his daughter’s museum visit.

I first met JTA 15 years ago at Troma Night XX, when his girlfriend Ruth – an attendee of Troma Night since its earliest days the previous year – brought him along and we all mocked his three-letter initialism. Contrary to our previous experience, thanks to Liz, of people bringing boyfriends once but never again (we always assumed that we scared them off), JTA became a regular, even getting to relive some of the early nights that he’d missed in our nostalgic 50th event. Before long, I felt glad to count him among my friends.

We wouldn’t become metamours until 3½ years later when a double-date trip to the Edinburgh Fringe turned into a series of (alcohol-assisted) confessions of nonmonagamous attractions between people present and a the ocassionally-controversial relationships that developed as a result. Polyamory has grown to get a lot more media coverage and general acceptance over the last couple of decades, but those of us in these kinds of relationships still face challenges, and during the times that bigots have made it hardest for us – and one period in 2017 in particular – I’ve been so very glad to have JTA in my corner.

JTA delivering the 2018 Three Rings Christmas Quiz.
Three Rings’ Quizmaster General at work.

Almost 13 years ago I described JTA thusly, and I stand by it:

You have a fantastic temper which you keep carefully bottled away and of which you draw out only a little at a time and only where it is genuinely justly deserved. Conversely, your devotion to the things you love and care about is equally inspiring.

But beyond that, he’s a resourceful jury-rigger, a competent oarsman, and a man who knows when it’s time to throw a hobbit into the darkness. He’s a man who’ll sit in the pub and talk My Little Pony with me and who’ll laugh it off when he gets mistaken for my father.

We’d be friends anyway, but having a partner-in-common has given us the opportunity for a closer relationship still. I love you, man: y’know, in the Greek way. Happy metamour appreciation day.

Debugging WorldWideWeb

Earlier this week, I mentioned the exciting hackathon that produced a moderately-faithful reimagining of the world’s first Web browser. I was sufficiently excited about it that I not only blogged here but I also posted about it to MetaFilter. Of course, the very first thing that everybody there did was try to load MetaFilter in it, which… didn’t work.

MetaFilter failing to load on the reimagined WorldWideWeb.
500? Really?

People were quick to point this out and assume that it was something to do with the modernity of MetaFilter:

honestly, the disheartening thing is that many metafilter pages don’t seem to work. Oh, the modern web.

Some even went so far as to speculate that the reason related to MetaFilter’s use of CSS and JS:

CSS and JS. They do things. Important things.

This is, of course, complete baloney, and it’s easy to prove to oneself. Firstly, simply using the View Source tool in your browser on a MetaFilter page reveals source code that’s quite comprehensible, even human-readable, without going anywhere near any CSS or JavaScript.

MetaFilter in Lynx: perfectly usable browing experience
As late as the early 2000s I’d occasionally use Lynx for serious browsing, but any time I’ve used it since it’s been by necessity.

Secondly, it’s pretty simple to try browsing MetaFilter without CSS or JavaScript enabled! I tried in two ways: first, by using Lynx, a text-based browser that’s never supported either of those technologies. I also tried by using Firefox but with them disabled (honestly, I slightly miss when the Web used to look like this):

MetaFilter in Firefox (with CSS and JS disabled)
It only took me three clicks to disable stylesheets and JavaScript in my copy of Firefox… but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t keep my browser configured like “normal people” probably do.

And thirdly: the error code being returned by the simulated WorldWideWeb browser is a HTTP code 500. Even if you don’t know your HTTP codes (I mean, what kind of weirdo would take the time to memorise them all anyway <ahem>), it’s worth learning this: the first digit of a HTTP response code tells you what happened:

  • 1xx means “everything’s fine, keep going”;
  • 2xx means “everything’s fine and we’re done”;
  • 3xx means “try over there”;
  • 4xx means “you did something wrong” (the infamous 404, for example, means you asked for a page that doesn’t exist);
  • 5xx means “the server did something wrong”.

Simple! The fact that the error code begins with a 5 strongly implies that the problem isn’t in the (client-side) reimplementation of WorldWideWeb: if this had have been a CSS/JS problem, I’d expect to see a blank page, scrambled content, “filler” content, or incomplete content.

So I found myself wondering what the real problem was. This is, of course, where my geek flag becomes most-visible: what we’re talking about, let’s not forget, is a fringe problem in an incomplete simulation of an ancient computer program that nobody uses. Odds are incredibly good that nobody on Earth cares about this except, right now, for me.

Dan's proposed "Geek Flag"
I searched for a “Geek Flag” and didn’t like anything I saw, so I came up with this one based on… well, if you recognise what it’s based on, good for you, you’re certainly allowed to fly it. If not… well, you can too: there’s no geek-gatekeeping here.

Luckily, I spotted Jeremy’s note that the source code for the WorldWideWeb simulator was now available, so I downloaded a copy to take a look. Here’s what’s happening:

  1. The (simulated) copy of WorldWideWeb is asked to open a document by reference, e.g. “https://www.metafilter.com/”.
  2. To work around same-origin policy restrictions, the request is sent to an API which acts as a proxy server.
  3. The API makes a request using the Node package “request” with this line of code: request(url, (error, response, body) => { ... }).  When the first parameter to request is a (string) URL, the module uses its default settings for all of the other options, which means that it doesn’t set the User-Agent header (an optional part of a Web request where the computer making the request identifies the software that’s asking).
  4. MetaFilter, for some reason, blocks requests whose User-Agent isn’t set. This is weird! And nonstandard: while web browsers should – in RFC2119 terms – set their User-Agent: header, web servers shouldn’t require that they do so. MetaFilter returns a 403 and a message to say “Forbidden”; usually a message you only see if you’re trying to access a resource that requires session authentication and you haven’t logged-in yet.
  5. The API is programmed to handle response codes 200 (okay!) and 404 (not found), but if it gets anything else back it’s supposed to throw a 400 (bad request). Except there’s a bug: when trying to throw a 400, it requires that an error message has been set by the request module and if there hasn’t… it instead throws a 500 with the message “Internal Server Fangle” and  no clue what actually went wrong. So MetaFilter’s 403 gets translated by the proxy into a 400 which it fails to render because a 403 doesn’t actually produce an error message and so it gets translated again into the 500 that you eventually see. What a knock-on effect!
Illustration showing conversation between simulated WorldWideWeb and MetaFilter via an API that ultimately sends requests without a User-Agent, gets a 403 in response, and can't handle the 403 and so returns a confusing 500.
If you’re having difficulty visualising the process, this diagram might help you to continue your struggle with that visualisation.

The fix is simple: simply change the line:

request(url, (error, response, body) => { ... })

to:

request({ url: url, headers: { 'User-Agent': 'WorldWideWeb' } }, (error, response, body) => { ... })

This then sets a User-Agent header and makes servers that require one, such as MetaFilter, respond appropriately. I don’t know whether WorldWideWeb originally set a User-Agent header (CERN’s source file archive seems to be missing the relevant C sources so I can’t check) but I suspect that it did, so this change actually improves the fidelity of the emulation as a bonus. A better fix would also add support for and appropriate handling of other HTTP response codes, but that’s a story for another day, I guess.

I know the hackathon’s over, but I wonder if they’re taking pull requests…

WorldWideWeb, 30 years on

This month, a collection of some of my favourite geeks got invited to CERN in Geneva to participate in a week-long hackathon with the aim of reimplementing WorldWideWeb – the first web browser, circa 1990-1994 – as a web application. I’m super jealous, but I’m also really pleased with what they managed to produce.

DanQ.me as displayed by the reimagined WorldWideWeb browser circa 1990
With the exception of a few character entity quirks, this site remains perfectly usable in the simulated WorldWideWeb browser. Clearly I wasn’t the only person to try this vanity-check…

This represents a huge leap forward from their last similar project, which aimed to recreate the line mode browser: the first web browser that didn’t require a NeXT computer to run it and so a leap forward in mainstream appeal. In some ways, you might expect reimplementing WorldWideWeb to be easier, because its functionality is more-similar that of a modern browser, but there were doubtless some challenges too: this early browser predated the concept of the DOM and so there are distinct processing differences that must be considered to get a truly authentic experience.

Geeks hacking on WorldWideWeb reborn
It’s just like any other hackathon, if you ignore the enormous particle collider underneath it.

Among their outputs, the team also produced a cool timeline of the Web, which – thanks to some careful authorship – is as legible in WorldWideWeb as it is in a modern browser (if, admittedly, a little less pretty).

WorldWideWeb screenshot by Sir Tim Berners-Lee
When Sir Tim took this screenshot, he could never have predicted the way the Web would change, technically, over the next 25-30 years. But I’m almost more-interested in how it’s stayed the same.

In an age of increasing Single Page Applications and API-driven sites and “apps”, it’s nice to be reminded that if you develop right for the Web, your content will be visible (sort-of; I’m aware that there are some liberties taken here in memory and processing limitations, protocols and negotiation) on machines 30 years old, and that gives me hope that adherence to the same solid standards gives us a chance of writing pages today that look just as good in 30 years to come. Compare that to a proprietary technology like Flash whose heyday 15 years ago is overshadowed by its imminent death (not to mention Java applets or ActiveX <shudders>), iOS apps which stopped working when the operating system went 64-bit, and websites which only work in specific browsers (traditionally Internet Explorer, though as I’ve complained before we’re getting more and more Chrome-only sites).

The Web is a success story in open standards, natural and by-design progressive enhancement, and the future-proof archivability of human-readable code. Long live the Web.

Update 24 February 2019: After I submitted news of the browser to MetaFilter, I (and others) spotted a bug. So I came up with a fix…

Hello, Friendly Insurance Salesman!

Hello, friendly insurance salesman I spoke to earlier today! I’ve been expecting you. Also: sorry.

JTA, Ruth, and Dan at JTA and Ruth's wedding.
Here are the people you just sold car insurance to.

I’ve been expecting you because you seemed so keen to finish your shift and search for me and, with my name, I’m pretty easy to find. I knew that you planned to search for me because after I caused so much trouble for your computer systems then, well, I probably deserved it.

I’m sorry that I have such an awkward name and that you had to make your computer system work around it. At least it handled it better than Equifax’s did, and you were far friendlier about it than the Passport Office were. It’s an awkward name, yes, but mostly only because programmers are short-sighted when it comes to names. And I say that as a programmer.

I’m sorry that my unusual relationship structure made your computer system do a double-take. My partner Ruth can’t have a husband as well, can she not? Try telling her that! Don’t feel bad: you’re not even the first person this last fortnight to get confused by our uncommon arrangement, and even where my name doesn’t break computer systems, my relationship status does: even the census can’t cope. I’m sure people must assume we’re insanely radical but we’re honestly pretty boring: just like any other family, just with more love. Don’t believe me? We have spreadsheets. You can’t get more boring than that.

I’m sorry that the email address I gave you looked like a typo and you felt you had to check it thrice. It wasn’t, it’s just that I give a different email address to every company I deal with.

I’m sorry that what should have been a click-click-done exercise came down to a live chat session and then a phone call. I don’t mean to be more work for people.

John points to Arthur, our car
“Which car are we insuring, little fella’?” // “THE RED ONE!”

But thank you for being friendly. And useful. And generally awesome. I expected a painful process, perhaps because that’s what I’d had from my last insurer. You, on the other hand (and your Live Chat colleague who I spoke to beforehand) were fantastic. Somehow you were more-pleasant, more-competent, and represent better value than the insurer we’re coming from, so thank you. And that’s the real reason that I hope you’ll follow through on the suggestion that you search for me by name: because you deserve a pat on the back.

So thanks. But yeah: sorry.

Why do book spines have the titles printed the way they do?

Have you noticed how the titles printed on the spines of your books are all, for the most part, oriented the same way? That’s not a coincidence.

Illustration of a chained library
If you can’t see the spines of your books at all, perhaps you’re in a library and it’s the 17th century. Wait: how are you on the Internet?

ISO 6357 defines the standard positioning of titles on the spines of printed books (it’s also codified as British Standard BS6738). If you assume that your book is stood “upright”, the question is one of which way you tilt your head to read the title printed on the spine. If you tilt your head to the right, that’s a descending title (as you read left-to-right, your gaze moves down, towards the surface on which the book stands). If you tilt your head to the left, that’s an ascending title. If you don’t need to tilt your head in either direction, that’s a transverse title.

ISO 6357:1985 page illustrating different standard spine title alignments.
Not every page in ISO 6357:1985 is as exciting as this one.

The standard goes on to dictate that descending titles are to be favoured: this places the title in a readable orientation when the book lays flat on a surface with the cover face-up. Grab the nearest book to you right now and you’ll probably find that it has a descending title.

Books on a shelf.
This eclectic shelf includes a transverse title (the Holy Bible), a semi-transverse title (The Book of English Magic) and a rare ascending title (A First Dictionary) among a multitude of descending titles.

But if the book is lying on a surface, I can usually read the cover of the book. Only if a book is in a stack am I unable to do so, and stacks are usually relatively short and so it’s easy enough to lift one or more books from the top to see what lies beneath. What really matters when considering the orientation of a spine title is, in my mind, how it appears when it’s shelved.

It feels to me like this standard’s got things backwards. If a shelf of anglophone books is organised into any kind of order (e.g. alphabetically) then it’ll usually be from left to right. If I’m reading the titles from left to right, and the spines are printed descending, then – from the perspective of my eyes – I’m reading from bottom to top: i.e. backwards!

It’s possible that this is one of those things that I overthink.

CSS-driven console graphics

If you’re reading this post via my blog and using a desktop computer, try opening your browser’s debug console (don’t worry; I’ll wait). If you don’t know how, here’s instructions for Firefox and instructions for Chrome. Other browsers may vary. You ought to see something like this in your debugger:

Debug console on DanQ.me showing Dan's head and a speech bubble.
I’m in your console, eating your commands!

What sorcery is this?

The debug console is designed to be used by web developers so that they can write Javascript code right in their browser as well as to investigate any problems with the code run by a web page. The web page itself can also output to the console, which is usually used for what I call “hello-based debugging”: printing out messages throughout a process so that the flow and progress can be monitored by the developer without having to do “proper” debugging. And it gets used by some web pages to deliver secret messages to any of the site users who open their debugger.

Facebook console messaging advising against the use of the console.
Facebook writes to the console a “stop” message, advising against using the console unless you know what you’re doing in an attempt to stop people making themselves victims of console-based social engineering attacks.

Principally, though, the console is designed for textual content and nothing else. That said, both Firefox and Chrome’s consoles permit the use of CSS to style blocks of debug output by using the %c escape sequence. For example, I could style some of a message with italic text:

>> console.log('I have some %citalic %ctext', 'font-style: italic;', '');
   I have some italic text

Using CSS directives like background, then, it’s easy to see how one could embed an image into the console, and that’s been done before. Instead, though, I wanted to use the lessons I’d learned developing PicInHTML 8¾ years ago to use text and CSS (only) to render a colour picture to the console. First, I created my template image – a hackergotchi of me and an accompanying speech bubble, shrunk to a tiny size and posterised to reduce the number of colours used and saved as a PNG.

Hackergotchi of Dan with a speech bubble, "squashed".
The image appears “squashed” to compensate for console monospace letters not being “square”.

Next, I wrote a quick Ruby program, consolepic.rb, to do the hard work. It analyses each pixel of the image and for each distinct colour assigns to a variable the CSS code used to set the background colour to that colour. It looks for “strings” of like pixels and combines them into one, and then outputs the Javascript necessary to write out all of the above. Finally, I made a few hand-tweaks to insert the text into the speech bubble.

The resulting output weighs in at 31.6kB – about a quarter of the size of the custom Javascript on the frontend of my site and so quite a bit larger than I’d have liked and significantly less-efficient than the image itself, even base64-encoded for embedding directly into the code, but that really wasn’t the point of the exercise, was it? (I’m pretty sure there’s significant room for improvement from a performance perspective…)

Scatmania.org in 2012
I’ll be first to admit it’s not as cool as the “pop-up Dan” in the corner of my 2012 design. You might enjoy my blog post about my 20 years of blogging or the one about how “pop-up Dan” worked.

What it achieved was an interesting experiment into what can be achieved with Javascript, CSS, the browser console, and a little imagination. An experiment that can live here on my site, for anybody who looks in the direction of their debugger, for the foreseeable future (or until I get bored of it). Anybody with any more-exotic/silly ideas about what this technique could be used for is welcome to let me know!

Update: 17 April 2019 – fun though this was, it wasn’t worth continuing to deliver an additional 25% Javascript payload to every visitor just for this, so I’ve stopped it for now. You can still read the source code (and even manually run it in the console) if you like. And I have other ideas for fun things to do with the console, so keep an eye out for that…