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I’m Probably Wrong

If there’s one thing that’s made it possible for me to learn as much as I have, and create as much as I have, it’s that my default attitude about things, especially technical things, is that I’m probably wrong about them.

When I first took up CSS and it didn’t do what I expected from reading the spec, I started creating simple, focused tests of each property and its values, to figure out what I was getting wrong.  Because I wanted to be sure, I built tests for all the properties, even the ones I was confident about understanding—and, in places, found out my confidence was misplaced.  Eventually, those tests became the CSS1 Test Suite.  Since I had discovered that, in a lot of cases, the browsers were actually wrong, I decided to document CSS support in browsers.  That became the CSS Mastergrid (long since gone).  On the strength of that resource, I started writing articles to explain how things worked, or didn’t, which led to writing my first book.  And so on.

But it all started because I assumed I was wrong about how CSS should work, not that the browsers were fundamentally broken.  Simple test cases seemed like the best way to find out.  One thing led to another.  In a lot of ways, you could say that my career was made possible by me assuming I was wrong, and setting out to determine exactly how wrong I was.

It’s not that I want to be wrong; in fact, I dislike being wrong.  But I dislike continuing to be wrong much more, so I try to find out how I’m wrong, in hopes of becoming less wrong.  It’s not even “strong opinions, weakly held”—it’s more “strong suspicion of error, strongly pursued”.  In public, when necessary.  (This is where it helps to be willing to look like a dork, or even a fool, as Kitt wrote about yesterday.)

When asking for help, this is the approach I take.  When I post to mailing lists or forums, it usually comes out as, “Here’s what I think is so, but results don’t match that understanding.  What am I missing?  Please help me get it right.”

How am I wrong?  Because I’m probably wrong.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 November 2015.

A More Compassionate Facebook

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Facebook, in terms of compassionate design decisions.

First they announced that they aren’t adding a Dislike button, but they are adding a set of six emoji reactions to the “Like” button, so you can indicate a wider range of emotion.  Some people immediately linked this to Slack, as if emoji reactions hadn’t been a thing on social media for the last couple of years.  I happened to see Sally Herships asking “what are your thoughts?” about it on Twitter (heh), and oh, I had thoughts.  I ended up sharing some of those thoughts by phone, and one of them was part of a segment on American Public Media’s Marketplace.

It’s funny, in a way, that my thought on marketing and advertisers was what made it into the piece, because I think that was literally my whole thought about that side of things.  Most of the rest of my conversation with Sally was about how Facebook could use these reactions as a way to avoid insensitive design choices.  As an example, a status update that gets lots of interaction in the frowny-face or sad-face realm could be avoided when it comes to things like Year in Review.  I said something to the effect of:

People are sharing everything about their lives, positive and negative, billions of us every day.  That isn’t going to stop, so it’s great to see Facebook making changes to meet us where we are, or at least meet us partway.

These reaction emoji almost certainly aren’t the last word on this, but they’re a credible initial attempt.  In more than one sense, they’re a first step into a larger world.


Next, Facebook introduced filtering for its On This Day (OTD) feature.  This is another step in the evolution of On This Day, one that’s very welcome.  Facebook had already been revising its language to be more humane, shifting from simple “Relive this memory” to nuanced language expressing care and openness.

The original and more recent copy at the top of an On This Day memory.

With its new OTD preferences, Facebook now lets you define ranges of dates you’d like to be blacklisted, in effect, as well as people you don’t want to see memories about.  I’d commented on the lack of this, back when OTD launched:

…what I notice here is what’s missing:  I don’t see any reference to an ability to opt out of On This Day, either for certain days or altogether.

So far as I can tell, you still can’t opt out entirely; even if you turn off all notifications, you can still get memories inserted into your timeline.  For me, I see about one a month, more or less.  But here’s the interesting thing: they’re almost never my memories.  In what I still regard as a major gamble by Facebook, On This Day will show you posts, pictures, and videos posted by someone else, but on which you were tagged.  I presume (though I have no simple way to test) that adding a person in the OTD filtering preferences will prevent you from seeing memories in which they’re tagged as well as memories they posted.

If so, that’s a really smart step, as I can only imagine how a spiteful ex might abuse OTD.  It still leaves open the possibility of old posts that you don’t remember being tagged on suddenly appearing.  In many cases, that will be a delightful moment, but in many others, the exact opposite of that.  This is why I regard Facebook’s decision to show you posts from other people a gamble.  Even if they show unwanted memories to just 1% of their user base—a ridiculously low percentage—that’s literally 10 million people a day.

Still: wrinkles or no, flaws or no, the presence of filtering preferences is a major enhancement to On This Day.  I could block out all of June 2014, if I so chose.  There might be years where I blocked it, and others where I removed the block.  The important thing is that I’m being given that capability, in an environment that’s already designed to show me memories and acknowledge that it’s easy to get that wrong.  The user experience for adding filters is still clunky, but much like the reaction emoji, I view this as a credible first try, not the final word.

All this has made for some interesting Slack discussions between me and Sara, as we literally just finished the manuscript for our forthcoming, still-not-quite-titled-but-we’re-really-close-honest book on compassion in design.  Which has references to things like On This Day, so we’re already revising a book that hasn’t even been published yet.  And when will it be published?  We’re pulling for early next year, which sounds like a long way away until you remember that 2015 is getting close to done.

Kudos to Facebook, both for its efforts to be kinder in what they do and for its willingness to try.  Not many businesses, let alone social-media titans, have had the courage to think about what can go wrong in this realm, let alone actually acknowledge missteps and work to do better.  Well done.

Rebecca’s Boardwalk

One month from today is the first-ever Rebecca’s Boardwalk, a fundraiser in support of Rebecca’s Gift.  It’s a family-friendly afternoon of carnival games with actual prizes to be won, a facepaint and temporary tattoo booth (many thanks to Tattly for their generous support!), indoor mini-golf and bounce houses, boardwalk food, and a pretty great silent auction.  We’ll have everything from gift-card grab bags to artisanal meat parties to signed shooting scripts from The Walking Dead up for bid!

All of the proceeds will go to fund the mission of Rebecca’s Gift, which is to provide healing family vacations after the death of a child.  The organization has already raised enough to assist at least two families in 2016.  We’d very much appreciate your support in helping us lend a helping hand to more families in desperate need of time to reconnect, rebuild, and relax.  It’s one of the very few organizations we know of that supports families after a child’s death, as opposed to before.  This is something I touched on in a piece I wrote for Natural Papa back in September, in conjunction with St. Baldrick’s.  It’s something Kat and our friend Karla are determined to do something about, and I’m honored to support their efforts.

I very much hope you can join us for Rebecca’s Boardwalk, or if not, support the event via a sponsorship.  Rebecca loved travel and boardwalks in particular, and we can’t think of a better way to celebrate her life while striving to help others heal as best we can.


(Side note for the web folks in the audience: the Rebecca’s Gift site in general, and the event page in particular, makes use of flexbox for simple layout.  Just in case you were looking for a public deployment example.)

CSS:TDG Update

It’s time for a semi-periodic update on CSS: The Definitive Guide, 4th Edition!  The basic news is that things are proceeding, albeit slowly.  Eight chapters are even now available as ebooks or, in most cases, print-on-demand titles.  Behold:

  • CSS and Documents, which covers the raw basics of how CSS is associated with HTML, including some of the more obscure ways of strapping external styles to the document as well as media query syntax.  It’s free to download in any of the various formats O’Reilly offers.
  • Selectors, Specificity, and the Cascade, which combines two chapters to cover all of the various Level 3 selector patterns as well as the inner details of how specificity, inheritance, and cascade.
  • Values, Units and Colors, which covers all the various ways you can label numbers as well as use strings.  It also takes advantage of the new cheapness of color printing to use a bunch of nice color-value figures that aren’t forced to be all in grayscale.
  • CSS Fonts, which dives into the gory details of @font-face and how it can deeply affect the use of font-related properties, both those we use widely as well as many that are quickly gaining browser support.
  • CSS Text, which covers all the text styles that aren’t concerned with setting the font face—stuff like indenting, decoration, drop shadows, white-space handling, and so on.
  • Basic Visual Formatting in CSS, which covers how block, inline, inline-block, and other boxes are constructed, including the surprisingly-complicated topic of how lines of text are constructed.  Very fundamental stuff, but of course fundamentals are called that for a reason.
  • Transforms in CSS, which is currently FREE in ebook format, covers the transform property and its closely related properties.  2D, 3D, it’s all here.
  • Colors, Backgrounds, and Gradients, which covers those three topics in FULL GLORIOUS COLOR, fittingly enough.  Curious about the new background sizing options?  Ever wondered exactly how linear and radial gradients are constructed?  This book will tell you all that, and more.

Here’s what I have planned to write next:

  • Padding, Borders, Outlines, and Margins — including the surprisingly tricky border-image
  • Positioning – basically an update, with new and unexpected twists that have been revealed over the years (case in point)
  • Grid Layout – though this is coming faster than many of us realize, I may put this one off for a little bit while we see how browser implementations go, and find out what changes happen as a result

My co-author, Estelle, has these three chapters/short books currently in process:

  • Transitions
  • Animations
  • Flexbox

Beyond those 14 chapters, we have eight more on the roster, covering topics like floating, multicolumn layout, shapes, and more.  CSS is big now, y’all.

So that’s where we are right now.  Our hope is to have the whole thing written by the middle of 2016, at which point some interesting questions will have to be answered.  While most of the book is fine in grayscale, there are some chapters (like Colors, Backgrounds, and Gradients) that really beenfit from being in color.  Printing a 22-chapter book in color would make it punishingly expensive, even with today’s drastically lower cost of color printing.  So what to do?

Not to mention, printing a 22-chapter book is its own level of difficulty.  Even if we assume an average of 40 pages a chapter—an unreasonabnly low figure, but let’s go with it—that’s still a nine hundred page book, once you add front and back matter.  The binding requirements alone gets us into the realm of punishingly expensive, even without color.

Of course, ebook readers don’t have to care about any of that, but some people (like me) really do prefer paper.  So there will be some interesting discussions.  Print in two volumes?  Sell the individual chapter books in a giant boxed set, Chronicles of Narnia style?  We’ll see!

The Stages of Fear

How many talks have I given over the years?  How many times have I stood at the front of a room, on a stage or in front of a chalkboard or otherwise before an audience, and talked at them for an hour or so?

Lanyrd says 72 as I write this, with two more coming this year.  But Lanyrd only goes back to 2003, so I already know it’s missing some of my past appearances.  Everything from 1995 (or was it 1996?) through 2003, for example.  The talks I’ve done for college classes and user groups in Cleveland.  Probably others as well.  So let’s round it off to an even one hundred, and pretend like that’s a meaningful milestone or something.

I used to talk about code, style, standards, all that stuff.  It was all, as the cliché goes, subjects for which I had prepared not my talk, but myself.  I knew the subject so thoroughly, I pretty much never wrote out a script.  I wrote an outline, assembled slides or demos or whatever to support that outline, and then mostly improvised my way through the talk.  The closest I got to rehearsal was back in 2007, I think, when my talk was two slides in Keynote and then a bunch of pre-created style snippets that I dropped into a live web page, saving and reloading, talking about the changes as I went.  Live-coding, except without relying on my sloppy typing skills.

(That one was called “Secrets of the CSS Jedi”, where I took a table of data, marked up as such, and turned it into a bar graph live on stage, the summary line of which I still remember: “CSS does not care what you think an element should look or act like.  You have far more power than you realize.”  That was a revolutionary thing to say back then.  We were coders once, and young.)

These days, my talks are nearly or entirely code-free, as I explore topics like compassion in design, and the ways that our coding has a profound influence on society now and into the future.  The talks generally start life as 9,000-word essays that I edit, rearrange, patch up, re-edit, polish, and then rehearse.  After the first two rehearsals, I re-re-edit and re-polish.  Then I rehearse several more times.

The point of all this being:

I stumble through my rehearsals, getting more and more incoherent, getting more frustrated every time I have to start over, certain I’ll never get the words to work, increasingly convinced it means the ideas behind them have no merit at all, until I want to curl up in a cushion fort and never come out.  I grapple with the fear that even if by some miracle I do have one or two worthwhile things to say, they’ll be buried in a flood of stuttered half-sentences and self-protective rhetorical tricks.

So I get nervous before my talks.  Adrenaline surges through me, elevating my pulse and making my palms sweat as they get prickly, the cold fire washing up my arms and into my cheeks.  I pace and fidget, concentrating on my breathing so I don’t hyperventilate.  Or hypoventilate, for that matter.

I do this before every talk I give at An Event Apart, even when I’ve given the talk half a dozen times previously.  I did it before I hit the stage at XOXO 2015.  I did it before I started my talks at Rustbelt Refresh.

A hundred public talks or more, and it’s still not easy.  I’m not sure it ever will be easy.  I’m not sure it ever should be easy.

The further point being:

Every speaker I know feels pretty much exactly the same.  We don’t all get the same nervous tics, but we all get nervous.  We struggle with our fears and doubts.  We all feel like we have no idea what we’re doing.

So if you’re afraid to get up in front of people and share what you know: you’re in very, very good company.  I know this, because I am too.

If you have something to share—and you do—try not to let the fear stop you.

We’re all afraid up there.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 October 2015.

The Shape of Things to Come

Software may be eating the world, but we are shaping it.  What we do now—what we build, how we act, what we tolerate—will profoundly influence how society develops over the next few generations.

That’s not because what happens now will change you or me.  We’re unlikely to change much, if at all.  We’re set in our ways, most of us.

Our children are not.

What they see online will seem normal to them, just as what we saw growing up seemed normal to us.  And because there is no meaningful distinction between online and offline, what they come to accept as normal online will be seen as normal offline.

So the way we build our networks matters in the most profound possible way.  If we build networks that make it easy to abuse and harass, and make it difficult to defend against abuse and harassment, our children will come to see that as normal, even desirable.  Similarly, if we build networks where it’s hard to abuse and harass, and easy to defend against such attempts, that will become the norm.

System design is social design.  The question is, what kind of society do we want to design?

And the more important question is, when are we going to start?

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 September 2015.

Dislike

Facebook is emotionally smarter than we give it credit for, though perhaps not as algorithmically smart as it could be.

I’ve been pondering this for a few weeks now, and Zeynep Tufekci’s “Facebook and the Tyranny of the ‘Like’ in a Difficult World” prodded me to consolidate my thoughts.

(Note: This is not about what Tufekci writes about, exactly, and is not meant as a rebuttal to her argument.  I agree with her that post-ranking algorithms need to be smarter.  I also believe there are design solutions needed to compensate for the unthinking nature of those algorithms, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Tufekci’s piece perfectly describes the asymmetrical nature of Facebook’s “engagement” mechanisms, commented on for years: there is no negative mirror for the “Like” button.  As she says:

Of course he cannot like it. Nobody can. How could anyone like such an awful video?

What happens then to the video? Not much. It will mostly get ignored, because my social network has no way to signal to the algorithm that this is something they care about.

What I’ve been thinking of late is that the people in her network can comment as a way to signal their interest, caring, engagement, whatever you want to call it.  When “Like” doesn’t fit, comments are all that’s left, and I think that’s appropriate.

In a situation like Tufekci describes, or any post that deals with the difficult side of life, comments are exactly what’s called for.  Imagine if there were a “Dislike” button.  How many would just click it without commenting?  Before you answer that question, consider: how many click “Like” without commenting?  How many more would use “Dislike” as a way to avoid dealing with the situation at hand?

When someone posts something difficult—about themselves, or someone they care about, or the state of the world—they are most likely seeking the support of their community.  They’re asking to be heard.  Comments fill that need.  In an era of Likes and Faves and Stars and Hearts, a comment (usually) shows at least some measure of thought and consideration.  It shows that the poster has been heard.

Many of those posts can be hard to respond to.  I know, because many of the Facebook posts my wife and I were making two years (and one year) ago right now were doubtless incredibly hard to read.  I remember many people leaving comments along the lines of, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking of you all.”  And even that probably felt awkward and insufficient to those who left such comments.  Crisis and grief and fear in others can make us very uncomfortable.  Pushing past that discomfort to say a few words is a huge show of support.  It matters.

Adding “Dislike” would be a step backward, in terms of emotional intelligence.  It could too easily rob people who post about the difficult parts of life of something they clearly seek.

Marvelous

I’m typing this as North America slowly unwinds below me, fleeing the rising sun that will still overtake us, light-headed and a touch giddy from a sustained shortness of sleep.  If this all sounds a little bit familiar, you’re right, and thank you for following my meanderings over so many months.  Anyone can write, but not everyone is read, and it’s always an honor.

I’m not going to write about my obsessions this time, at least not directly.  But as it happens, I’m watching a movie about someone else’s obsession: Tim’s Vermeer.  In short, it’s about the inventor of Video Toaster and Lightwave, Tim Jenison, and his quest to figure out how Johannes Vermeer did what he did so incredibly well.  Tim hypothesizes that Vermeer used high 16th-Century technology in a novel and long-forgotten fashion.

In the process of making his case, Tim not only reverse-engineers the technique, he decides to recreate Vermeer’s studio, employing 3D CAD modeling and visualization, not to mention computer-driven lathes and mills and routers to build the furniture to exacting precision.  It’s a fascinating contrast to the constraint he sets himself of only using materials that would have been available in the 16th century for the room and the painting itself.  He puts a piece of wood into an industrial tool the size of a 1970s DEC mainframe and sends it commands to fashion a chair leg in the style of 16th-Century Europe, and then picks up a pestle to grind the pigments for his paint by hand.

In the end, he produces a painting that bears all the hallmarks of a Vermeer, a very close copy of The Music Lesson, even though Tim has never studied or even practiced painting of any kind.  In the process, he uncovers a clue in Vermeer’s original, something not noticed in the 350 years since its production, that provides very strong evidence he’s gotten it right.  It’s a really fascinating story.

And there I sat, seven miles above the earth, moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound, watching the whole story unfold on my iPhone 4S plugged into a compact charging device, the movie streaming over wifi from a media server stowed away somewhere in the airframe.  Far above me, a constellation of beacons circled in polar orbit, helping to keep the plane on course and on time as it hurled itself through the thin air.

Bathed in marvels, I watched a man who had birthed or helped birth some of those marvels resurrect a forgotten marvel and produce a marvel of his own.

Then I cued up Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, because the antics of an anarchic sentient raccoon are never not funny.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 August 2015.

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