Simon St. Laurent
Can we create more vibrant intersections?
For the past two decades, the web has been a vibrant intersection of design and programming, a place where practices from art and engineering both apply. Though I’ve spent my career on the programming side – you don’t really want to see the things I design – I’ve loved the time I’ve spent working with designers.
Much of that time was frustrating, because I was frequently stuck telling designers that no, 1990s HTML couldn’t produce page layouts like QuarkXPress. The medium was different, with its own complications. However, as designers became familiar with the web, and found new ways to apply it, the conversations became richer and richer. Front-end web development became an amazing place where designers and technicians could work (and sometimes curse) together. Read more…
DRM makes a mash of security and privacy.
Put your books, movies, and music on a gleaming shelf. Close the door to keep the dust off. Lock the door, so no one can take it, and hand me the key. I’ll let you have the key when you need it, if you promise not to share these with anyone else.
I might keep track of when you borrow the keys, and what you check in and out. You understand, of course, that it’s just data I need to collect and aggregate to keep my costs down, right? I wouldn’t want to have to charge you very much for my key-keeping service.
It’s the Deal of the Century!
Or at least it will be if some kinds of content publishers and distributors get their way. Terrified by the sudden collapse in the cost of duplication and distribution, locking everyone’s shelves down seems like the only way to maintain their balance (sheets). Worse, products from beyond publishing are appearing with the new key-management practices built in, including cars, coffee, and of course printer cartridges.
Making forking the norm
Forking another spec: generally less than ideal. Spooning w another spec: weird. Knifing another spec: generally indicative of larger issues
— вкαя∂εℓℓ (@briankardell) April 28, 2014
— Kip Hampton (@kiphampton) April 28, 2014
Free and Open Source software licenses make forking legal. Git makes forking easy. GitHub makes it easy to fork sociably. Can we just make this normal?
Meanwhile, in a reminder that specifications can fork too, Ian Hickson put his objections to the W3C forking a WHATWG spec on www-archive to make sure his complaints of plagiarism would be part of the permanent record. WHATWG specs are licensed CC0, so once again, it’s legal.
It seems to be a common pattern to want to grant rights, but only want other people to use those rights if they acknowledge our control. (I sometimes have similar tendencies, granted.) We hope that people will contribute to our works while recognizing our power and our ownership over those works. Even the fact that we have to choose licenses at the start of a project gives us a sense of ownership and control, often hiding the (excellent) lack of control that comes once those licenses are applied.
Can Elixir bring functional programming to a much wider audience?
I was delighted to talk with Dave Thomas, co-founder of the The Pragmatic Programmers and author of their in-progress Programming Elixir. I’m writing Introducing Elixir for O’Reilly, and we both seem to be enjoying the progress of the language. Read more…
The DOM and human nature create some challenges
“Design by Committee” is rarely a compliment. Can the Web shift away from that model, retaining some order without falling into troublesome chaos?
Part of the excitement around the Extensible Web Manifesto was that it wanted to move the Web to more of an evolutionary model:
We aim to tighten the feedback loop between the editors of web standards and web developers.
Acknowledging the source of the Web's strength
I asked Jen Simmons, host of the Web Ahead podcast, to keynote Fluent after seeing her give a talk on responsive layouts at the ARTIFACT conference last year. It wasn’t just a great talk on responsive layout, but an exploration of the Web foundations that make responsive layout possible. Responsive layout’s foundations are deep in HTML, which contained those multi-device values from the beginning.
At Fluent, Simmons delivered A Love Letter to HTML, exploring HTML’s origins. The goals driving a memo written 25 years ago gave the Web strengths that developers need to study today.
Decorating content may no longer be enough
Thousands of people invented it independently. Millions use it without thinking about a broader context. It’s time to name it so we can talk about it.
Transformation is changing the way we look at the balance between clients and servers, our approach to formatting and layout, and our expectations of what’s possible on the Web. As applications shift from transformation on the server toward transformation on arrival on the client, transformation’s central role becomes more visible.
These practices have been emerging for a long time, in many different guises:
- In the Dynamic HTML days, scripts might tinker with the DOM tree as well as modify CSS presentation.
- Transformation was supposed to be a regular and constant thing in the early XSLT plans. Stylesheets on the client would generate presentation from clean blocks of XML content.
- New data format options evolved at about the same time that Ajax emerged. JSON offered a more concise set of programmer-friendly content tools. Many apps include a ‘bind JSON to HTML before showing it to the user’ step.
- Template systems now run on the client as well as the server. In many systems, templates on the server feed data to the client, which applies other templates to that data before presenting it to users.
- The HTTP powering Ajax still created a long slow cycle of interaction. WebSockets and WebRTC now offer additional approaches for collecting content with less overhead, making it easier to create many more small transformations.
- Some developers and designers have long thought of the document tree as a malleable collection of layout boxes rather than a deliberately coherent base layer. Separation of concerns? A dead horse, apparently. Recent debates over CSS Regions highlighted these issues again.
Simon St. Laurent and Jose Valim explore a new functional programming language
I was delighted to sit down with Jose Valim, the creator of Elixir, earlier this month at Erlang Factory. He and Dave Thomas had just given a brave keynote exploring the barriers that keep people from taking advantage of Erlang’s many superpowers, challenging the audience with reminders that a programming environment must have reach as well as power to change the world.
Elixir itself is a bold effort to bring Erlang’s strengths to a broader group of developers, adding new strengths, notably metaprogramming, along the way.
Whether you’re interested in Elixir itself or just in the challenges of creating a new combination in a world filled with past experiments, it’s well worth listening to Jose Valim.
- We’ve had functional programming since 1959 – why the burst of interest now? [2:10]
- Moving from Ruby to Erlang “making Rails thread-safe, that was my personal pain-point” [3:13]
- “Every time I got to study more about the VM, the tooling and everything it provides, my mind gets blown.” [6:12]
- Why Elixir started, and how it’s changed as Jose learned more. [10:08]
- Integrating new Erlang features (R17 maps) into Elixir. [15:43]
- When can you use Elixir in production? [18:07]
I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more Elixir, even as I need to catch up on updating Introducing Elixir. I’m not sure it will conquer the world immediately, but it will certainly leave its mark.
Learning from "The Humble Border-Radius"
One of the best things I overheard at the Fluent Conference was (more or less):
“CSS live coding? I was like, that isn’t code. But then it was.”
Lea Verou had changed the mind of a skeptic.
CSS is not Turing complete (Update: Lea points out that I’m wrong about that), and I’ve long been grateful that it wasn’t designed as an imperative programming language. It can be too much code for designers, too little code for programmers, and yet it’s code.
I think about the graphics work I tried to do with shapes and sprites and assorted kinds of vectors over the years, and then watch this keynote. Even with the glitches and coming improvements she notes, it’s clear that whatever tools I was using at the time, they weren’t declarative enough. (I’d also just seen this JSFest talk on CSS box-shadow by Vince Allen, so I was looking forward to more CSS graphics magic.)
Web technologies have become the default, and are spreading
A few years ago, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote that “software is eating the world”:
Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.
That may be true, but Andreessen seems to have left out some of his earlier, more Web-centric visions (though perhaps he considers them complete).
Software may be eating the world, but the Web has been “eating software” in a similar sense for as long as the Web has been visible.
On the front end, the browser has grown from being a strange dumb terminal of documents and forms to a full partner. The browser not only provides a window into the world of classic websites, but helps us deal with devices that we can reach over a network. Their interfaces may be invisible or basic on the physical device, but offer much more when accessed through a browser. Web apps, though frequently not as capable as their desktop competition, long ago passed the point where their collaborative possibilities were more valuable than the details they lack.