Thoughts From Eric Archive

Pseudo-Randomly Adding Illustrations with CSS

Published 10 months, 2 weeks past

I’ve been incredibly gratified and a bit humbled by the responses to the new design.  So first of all, thank you to everyone who shared their reactions!  I truly appreciate your kindness, and I’d like to repay that kindness a bit by sharing some of the techniques I used to create this design.  Today, let’s talk about the ink-study illustrations placed between entries on the site, as well as one other place I’ll get to later.

Very early in the process, I knew I wanted to separate entries with decorations of some sort, as a way of breaking up the stream of text.  Fortunately, Hamonshū provided ample material.  A little work in Acorn and I had five candidate illustrations ready to go.

The five illustrations.

The thing was, I wanted to use all five of them, and I wanted them to be picked on a random-ish basis.  I could have written PHP or JS or some such to inject a random pick, but that felt a little too fiddly.  Fortunately, I found a way to use plain old CSS to get the result I wanted, even if it isn’t truly random.  In fact, its predictability became an asset to me as a designer, while still imparting the effect I wanted for readers.

(Please note that in this article, I’ve simplified some aspects of my actual CSS for clarity’s sake; e.g., removing the directory path from url() values and just showing the filenames, or removing declarations not directly relevant to the discussion here.  I mention this so that you’re prepared for the differences in the CSS shown in this piece versus in your web inspector and/or the raw stylesheet.)

Here’s how it starts out:

#thoughts .entry + .entry::before {
   content: "";
   display: block;
   height: 10em;
      url(separator-big-05.png) 50% 100% / contain no-repeat;

That means, for every blog entry except the first, a block-level bit of generated content is inserted at the beginning of the entry, given a height, and the image separator-big-05.png is dropped into the generated box and sized to be contained within it, which means no part of the image will spill outside the background area and thus be clipped off.  (The file has the number 05 because it was the fifth I produced.  It ended up being my favorite, so I made it the default.)

With that in place, all that remains is to switch up the background image that’s used for various entries.  I do it like this:

#thoughts .entry:nth-of-type(2n+1)::before {
   background-image: url(separator-big-02.png);
#thoughts .entry:nth-of-type(3n+1)::before {
   background-image: url(separator-big-03.png);
#thoughts .entry:nth-of-type(4n+1)::before {
   background-image: url(separator-big-04.png);
#thoughts .entry:nth-of-type(5n+1)::before {
   background-image: url(separator-big-01.png);

So every second-plus-one entry (the third, fifth, seventh, etc.) that isn’t the first entry will use separator-big-02.png instead of -05.png.  Unless the entry is an every-third-plus-one (fourth, seventh, tenth, etc.), in which case separator-big-03.png is used instead.  And so on, up through every-fifth-plus-one.  And as you can see, the first image I produced (separator-big-01.png) is used the least often, so you can probably guess where it stands in my regard.

This technique does produce a predictable pattern, but one that’s unlikely to seem too repetitious, because it’s used to add decoration separated by a fair amount of text content, plus there are enough alternatives to keep the mix feeling fresh.  It also means, given how the technique works, that the first separator image on the home page (and on archive pages) is always my favorite.  That’s where the predictability of the approach helped me as a designer.

I use a similar approach for the separator between posts’ text and their comments, except in that case, I add a generated box to the end of the last child element in a given entry:

.single #thoughts article .text > *:last-child:after {
   content: "";
   display: block;
   height: 10em;
      url(separator-big-05.png) 50% 100% / contain no-repeat;

That is, on any page classed single (which is all individual post pages) after the last child element of a .text element (which holds the text of a post), the decoration box is generated.  The default, again, is separator-big-05.png—but here, I vary the image based on the number of elements in the post’s body:

.single #thoughts article .text > *:nth-child(2n+1)::after {
   background-image: url(separator-big-02.png);
.single #thoughts article .text > *:nth-child(3n+1)::after {
   background-image: url(separator-big-03.png);
.single #thoughts article .text > *:nth-child(4n+1)::after {
   background-image: url(separator-big-04.png);
.single #thoughts article .text > *:nth-child(5n+1)::after {
   background-image: url(separator-big-01.png);

In other words: if the last child element of the post text is a second-plus-one, separator-big-02.png is used.  If there are 3n+1 (one, four, seven, ten, thirteen, …) HTML elements in the post, separator-big-03.png is used.  And so on.  This is an effectively random choice from among the five images, since I don’t count the elements in my posts as I write them.  And it also means that if I edit a piece enough to change the number of elements, the illustration will change!  (To be clear, I regard this as a feature.  It lends a slight patina of impermanence that fits well with the overall theme.)

I should note that in the actual CSS, the two sets of rules above are merged into one, so the selectors are actually like so:

#thoughts .entry + .entry::before,
   .single #thoughts article .text > *:last-child:after {…}

#thoughts .entry:nth-of-type(2n+1)::before,
   .single #thoughts article .text > *:nth-child(2n+1)::after {…}

#thoughts .entry:nth-of-type(3n+1)::before,
   .single #thoughts article .text > *:nth-child(3n+1)::after {…}

In all honesty, this technique really satisfies me.  It makes use of document structure while having a random feel, and is easily updated by simply replacing files or changing URLs.  It’s also simple to add more rules to bring even more images to the mix, if I want.

And since we’re talking about using structure to vary layout, I also have this @media block, quoted here verbatim and in full:

@media (min-width: 50em) {
   #thoughts .entry:nth-of-type(2n) {
      transform: translate(-1vw,0);
   #thoughts .entry:nth-of-type(3n) {
      transform: translate(3vw,0);

This means on the home page and blog archive pages, but only at desktop-browser widths, some entries are shifted a bit to the left or right by fractions of the viewport width, which subtly breaks up the strict linearity of the content column on long pages, keeping it from feeling too grid-like.

To be honest, I have no idea if that side-shifting effect actually affects visitors’ experience of using meyerweb, but I like it.  Sometimes the inter-entry wave art fits together with the side-shift so that it looks like the art flows into the content.  That kind of serendipity always delights me, whether it comes by my hand or someone else’s.  With luck, it will have delighted one or two of you as well.


Published 10 months, 2 weeks past

I ended my observance of CSS Naked Day 2020 by launching an entirely new design for meyerweb.  I’m calling it Hamonshū after the source from which I adapted most of the graphic elements.  I’ve been working on it sporadically in my free time since mid-January, finally coming to a place I thought was ready to launch in late March.

Naked Day was a convenient way to change over the structure of pages while there was no design, which probably makes it sound like that’s the only reason I even observed it.  To the contrary, I hadn’t planned to launch the new design until June 8th of this year—but once I decided on going style-naked, I realized it was the perfect opportunity to make the switch.

I might still have delayed, if not for everything happening in the world right now.  But Cameron Moll said it best as he recently launched a new design: “Deploying in the middle of a pandemic seems so unimportant at the moment. Or maybe there’s no better time for it.”  That last sentence resonated with me unexpectedly deeply, and came to mind again as I took the CSS away for Naked Day.

I’ll have quite a few things to say about the design in the future: things I learned, techniques I used, bits I really like, that sort of thing.  In this post, I want to say a bit about its genesis.

It all started when someone—I’ve since lost track of who, or even where it happened—brought my attention to Hamonshū, Vols. 1-3, available on the Internet Archive thanks to the Smithsonian Institution.  Hamonshū, a word which I understand roughly translates into English as “wave forms” or “wave design”, is a three-volume set of art studies of water.  Created by Yūzan Mori and published in 1903, I had never heard of it before, but the sketches immediately appealed to me.  You can get an preview of some of Yūzan’s art in this article from Public Domain Review, or just go to the source (linked previously, as well as in the footer of the site) and immerse yourself in it.

As I absorbed Yūzan’s ink studies of ocean waves, rivers, fountains, and more, the elements of a design began to form in my head.  I won’t say I saw it—being aphantasic, I couldn’t—but certain sketches suggested themselves as components of a layout, and stuck with me.

Tall Bamboo and Distant Mountains, after Wang Meng, Wang Hui 王翬, 1694

Early on, I had thought to combine elements from Hamonshū with other artwork, primarily ink landscape paintings from the Qing Dynasty and Edo periods: two such examples being Tall Bamboo and Distant Mountains, after Wang Meng (Wang Hui 王翬, 1694) and View of West Lake (Ike Taiga, 1700s).  I made attempts, but the elements never really combined properly.  I eventually realized I was trying to combine close-up studies of water with adaptations of much larger works, and the scale of the brush strokes was clashing.  At that point, I abandoned the paintings and concentrated exclusively on Hamonshū.

As the various design elements came together, I went looking for fonts to use.  I originally thought to use variable fonts, but I kept coming back to IM Fell, a typeface I’d seen Simon St. Laurent use and had put to my own purposes in an experimental typeset of Neal Stephenson’s Mother Earth Mother Board.  IM Fell has a sort of nautical feel to it, at least to me, which fit nicely with the water elements I was adapting from Hamonshū, so I ended up using it as a “site elements” typeface.  It’s what’s used for the site name in the header, the main navigation links, metadata for posts, sidebar heading text, the h1 on most pages, and so on.

Originally I used IM Fell for the titles of blog posts like this one, but it didn’t feel quite right.  I think it caused the titles to blend into the rest of the design a little too much unless I kept it relatively huge.  I needed something that felt consistent, but distinguished itself at the smaller sizes I needed for post titles.  I went back to Google Fonts and scrolled through the choices until I narrowed down to a few faces, of which Eczar was the eventual winner.  In addition to using Eczar for post titles, I also employ it in the site’s footer, at least wherever IM Fell isn’t used.  The general body copy of the site is Georgia Pro, falling back to Georgia or a generic serif as needed.

One of the limitations I set for myself was to be reasonably lightweight, and that was a major part of the process.  The details merit a post or two of their own, but my overall goal was to get even the post archive pages under a megabyte in total.  I’m pleased to say I was able to get there, for the most part.  As an example, the main post archive page is, as I write this (but before I posted it) 910.98KB, and that includes the various photographs and other images embedded in posts.  The time to DOMContentLoaded over WiFi is consistently below 200ms, 400-500ms on “Regular 3G”, and 500-600ms on “Regular 2G”, all with the local cache disabled, at least when the server is responding well.  I still have work to do in this area, but I was comfortable enough with the current state to launch the design publicly.

Since I was redesigning anyway, I did some sprucing up of various subpages.  Most notable are the Toolbox and Writing pages, which use a number of techniques to improve organization and appearance.  I still think the top part of the Writing page could use some work, but it’s leagues better than it used to be.  The one major page I’d like to further upgrade is CSS Work, but I’m still looking for an approach that is distinct from the other pages, yet thematically consistent.  If I can’t find one, I’ll probably take the same general approach I did for Toolbox.  I also rewrote some of the microcopy, such as the metadata (publication date, categories, etc.) at the bottom of blog posts, to be more evocative of the feel I was going for.

Late in the process, I got a welcome assist from Jesse Gardner, who had seen a preview of article design.  He had the idea to make a traced SVG version of the “Hand Made With Love” necklace charm from the masthead of the previous design, and then he just up and did it and sent me the file.  You’ll find it in the footer of the site.  It isn’t interactive, although it may in the future.  I haven’t decided yet.

I really hope you enjoy the new look.  It’s the first design I’ve done that wasn’t cribbed off someone else’s site in, oh, 15-20 years, give or take, and I’m rather proud of it.  It won’t win any awards, but it makes the statement I want it to make, and visiting my own site gives me a little glow of satisfaction.  I don’t know if I could ask for more than that.

CSS Naked Day 2020

Published 10 months, 3 weeks past

If you’re here on meyerweb on April 9th, 2020, then you’re seeing the site without the CSS I wrote for its design and layout.  Why?  It’s CSS Naked Day!  To quote that site:

The idea behind this event is to promote Web Standards. Plain and simple. This includes proper use of HTML, semantic markup, a good hierarchy structure, and of course, a good old play on words. It’s time to show off your <body> for what it really is.

So last night, I removed the links to the main stylesheets for the site.  There are, I should note, scattered pages where local CSS is still in play. I could have tracked them all down and removed their CSS as well, and I considered doing so, but in the end I decided against it.

There’s a history to this day.  In the late Aughts, it was an annual thing, not unlike Blue Beanie Day, to draw attention to web standards and reinforce among the community that good, solid, robust development practices are a good thing.  Because after all, if your site isn’t usable without the CSS, then it almost certainly has structure and accessibility problems you probably haven’t been thinking about.

In all honesty, I had forgotten about it until just a couple of days prior, I suddenly thought, “Wait, early April, isn’t that when CSS Naked Day was observed?”  I went looking, and discovered that yes, it was.  I had remembered April 7th, but apparently April 9th was the actual date.  Or became it over time.  Either way, here we are, feeling fancy-free!

What’s been interesting has been what CSS Naked Day has revealed about browsers as well as about our HTML.  To pick one example, suppose you have a very large SVG logo, which you size to where you want it with CSS.  This is ordinarily a best practice: the SVG is the same file size whether it renders huge or tiny, so there’s no downside to having an SVG that renders 1200 x 1000 when you view it directly—thus allowing you to see all the little details—but is sized to 120 x 100 via CSS for layout purposes.

But take away the CSS, and the SVG will become 1200 x 1000 again.  That might tell you to resize it for production, sure, and you probably should.  But it also points out that browsers will not constrain that image, not even to the viewport.  If your window is only 900 pixels wide, the SVG could well spill outside, forcing a horizontal scrollbar.  Is that good?  Maybe!  Maybe not!  We might wish browsers would bake something like img {max-width: 100%; height: auto;} into their user-agent stylesheet(s), but maybe that would have unforeseen downsides.  The point is, this is a thing about browsers that CSS Naked Day reveals, and it’s worth knowing.

Similarly, this reveals that browsers don’t have a way to restrict the width of lines of text.  Thus, if the browser window is wide, the lines get very long—long enough to make reading more difficult.  This isn’t a problem on handheld devices like smartphones, but on desktop (use of which has risen significantly in areas locked down to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2) it can be a problem.  Again, if browsers had something like body {max-width: 70em;} or max-width: 100ch or suchlike, this wouldn’t be a problem.  Should they?  Maybe!  It’s worth thinking about for your own work, if nothing else.

(For much more thinking about these kinds of browser behaviors and how to address them, you should absolutely check out the CSS Remedy project.  “CSS Remedy sets CSS properties or values to what they would be if the CSSWG were creating the CSS today, from scratch, and didn’t have to worry about backwards compatibility.”)

If I’d remembered sooner, I might have contacted the maintainers of the CSS Naked Day site and posted about it ahead of time and thought about stuff like a hashtag to spread the word.  Maybe that will happen next year.  Until then, enjoy all the nudity!

Get Static

Published 11 months, 1 week past

If you are in charge of a web site that provides even slightly important information, or important services, it’s time to get static.  I’m thinking here of sites for places like health departments (and pretty much all government services), hospitals and clinics, utility services, food delivery and ordering, and I’m sure there are more that haven’t occurred to me.  As much as you possibly can, get it down to static HTML and CSS and maybe a tiny bit of enhancing JS, and pare away every byte you can.

Because too many sites are already crashing because their CMSes can’t keep up with the traffic surges.  And too many sites are using dynamic frameworks that drain mobile batteries and shut out people with older browsers.  That’s annoying and counter-productive in the best of times, but right now, it’s unacceptable.  This is not the time for “well, this is as performant as our stack gets, so I guess users will have to live with it”.  Performance isn’t just something to aspire to any more.  Right now, in some situations, performance could literally be life-saving to a user, or their family.

We’re in this to serve our users.  The best service you can render at this moment is to make sure they can use your site or service, not get 502/Bad Gateway or a two-minute 20%-battery-drain page render.  Everything should take several back seats to this effort.

I can’t tell you how best to get static—only you can figure that out.  Maybe for you, getting static means using very aggressive server caching and a cache-buster approach to updating info.  Maybe it means using some kind of static-render plugin for your CMS.  Maybe is means accelerating a planned migration to a static-site CMS like Jekyll or Eleventy or Grav.  Maybe it means saving pages as HTML from your browser and hand-assembling a static copy of your site for now.  There are a lot of ways to do this, but whatever way you choose, do it now.

Addendum: following are a few resources that can help. Please suggest more in the comments!

Trying to Work From Home

Published 11 months, 1 week past

I’ve been working from home for (checks watch) almost 19 years now, and I’d love to share some tips with you all on how to make it work for you.

Except I can’t, because this has been incredibly disruptive for me.  See, my home is usually otherwise empty during the day—spouse at work, kids at school—which means I can crank up the beats and swear to my heart’s content at my code typos.  Now, not only do I have to wear headphones and monitor my language when I work, I also am surrounded by office-mates who basically play video games and watch cat videos all day, except for those times when I really get focused on a task, when they magically sense it’s the perfect time to come ask me random questions that could have waited, derailing my focus and putting me back at square one.

Which, to most of you used to working in an office setting, I suppose might seem vaguely familiar.  I’m not used to it at all.

Here’s what I can tell you: if you’re having trouble focusing on work, or anything else, it’s not that you’re terrible at working from home or bad at your job.  It’s that you’re doing this in a set of circumstances completely unprecedented in our lifetimes.  It’s that you’re doing this while worried not only about keeping yourself and your loved ones safe from a global pandemic, but probably also worried about your continued employment—not because you’re doing badly, but because the economy is on the verge of freezing up completely.  No spending means no business income means no salaries means no money to spend.

We can hope for society-level measures to unjam the economic engine, debt leniency or zero-interest loans or Universal Basic Income or what have you, but until those measures exist and begin to work together, we’re all stumbling scared in a pitch-black forest.  Take it from someone who has been engulfed by overwhelming, frightening, pitiless circumstances before: Work can be a respite, but it’s hard to sustain that retreat.  It’s hard to motivate yourself to even think about work, let alone do a good job.

Be forgiving of yourself.  Give yourself time and space to process the fear, to work through it and you.  Find a place for yourself in relation to it, so that you can exist beside it without it always disrupting your thoughts.  That’s the only way I know to free up any mental resources to try to do good work.  It also puts you in a place where you can act with some semblance of reason, instead of purely from fear.

Stay safe, friends.  We have a long, unknown road ahead.  Adjustment will be a long time in coming.  Support each other as much as you can.  Community is, in the end, the most resilient and replenishing force we have.

Sir Joshua Meyer

Published 11 months, 3 weeks past

Six years ago, we participated in our first St. Baldrick’s event.  Carolyn was preparing to shave her head to support Rebecca, who was still very much alive and, we thought, cancer-free.  And Joshua, the little brother at just over three years old, had apparently decided to do the same to his head, although he didn’t tell us until the day of the event.

Knight of the Bald Table logo

This year, Joshua will be participating in St. Baldrick’s for the seventh time in a row, shaving his head to raise money for and awareness of the campaign to cure cancers in memory of his sister at the Cleveland Heights event on Sunday, March 15th.  He’s been letting his hair grow all year for maximum payoff: literally, he has not had a single hair cut since last year’s St. Baldrick’s event.  He also recently had Carolyn dye it blue, which means he’s giving off a strong JRPG vibe.  (He rolls his eyes whenever I mention this.)

This being his seventh year, Joshua will officially become a Knight of the Bald Table.  In his honor, I will be his squire for the day—which means I will be shaving my head as well, for the first time.

If you can, please support Joshua’s knighting shave by supporting his fundraising efforts.  He’s set an ambitious goal, but I’m pretty sure that working together, we can well exceed it.  You can do it in honor of him, or in honor of his sister, or both; but please, if you can give him a boost, please do so.  Any amount will help, as will spreading the word on les médias sociaux.  Thank you.

CSS Specification Timelines, Updated and Modernized

Published 11 months, 4 weeks past

Back in 2011, I decided to make a timeline out of CSS modules’ version histories, where “version history” means “a list of all the various drafts that were published”.  I updated the data every now and again, and then kind of let it go dormant for a few years.

Until this past weekend, when for no clear reason I decided what the hell, it’s time for a refresh.  So I trawled through all the specs’ version histories to get the stuff I didn’t have, and gave the presentation a bit of an upgrade.  The overall look and feel is pretty consistent, except now, thanks to repeating linear gradients, I have vertical stripes to show each year in the now 21-year-long timeline.  I put labels up at the top of the stripes, and figured they should remain visible no matter where you scroll, so I set them to position: sticky.  Then I realized most people would have to scroll horizontally, so I made the specification names sticky as well.

So now, no matter where you scroll on the page, you’ll see the specifications along the left and the years along the top.  The layout isn’t mobile-hostile, exactly, but it isn’t RWD-ized either.  I’m not really sure how I could make this fully responsive, except maybe to just drop the timeline layout altogether and revert to the lists that underlie the layout.

While I was at it, I converted a fair bit of the CSS to use var() and calc() so that I could set a column width in one place, and sprinkled in just a tiny bit more PHP to output offset values in a couple of places.  Nothing major, just quality-of-life upgrades for the maintainer, which is to say, me.

I bring all this up for two reasons.  One, I like the presentation upgrades, and wanted to share.  Two, by sheer coincidence, today the CSS Working Group published first versions of four CSS modules:

So I’ve added them to the timeline, along with CSS Color Module Level 4, which I’d overlooked in my weekend update.  These are the first module versions of 2020, so enjoy!

I do find it a little weird that Color Level 5 is out when Color Level 4 has never left Working Draft status, but maybe Level 4 is about to graduate, and this just happened to come out first.  We’ll see!

Preventing Commits to the master Branch in OS X Mojave

Published 1 year, 2 weeks past

What happened was, I was preparing to roll out new designs for the News section and event pages of An Event Apart, and I had each rollout in its own branch.  Somewhere in the process of bringing both into the master branch, I managed to create a merge conflict that rapidly led to more and more conflicts.  I very nearly had to take off and nuke the entire site from orbit, just to start over.  (A couple of branches, including dev, did have to get erased and re-pulled.)

Part of what made it worse was that at one point, I accidentally committed a quick edit to master, because I’d forgotten to check out the branch I was trying to edit, and my attempts to undo that mistake just compounded whatever other mistakes already existed.  Once all the dust settled and things were back into good shape, I said to myself, “Self, I bet there’s a way to prevent commits to the master branch, because git is second only to emacs in the number of things you can do to/with it.”  So I went looking, and yes, there is a way: add the following to your .git/hooks/pre-commit file.


branch="$(git rev-parse --abbrev-ref HEAD)"

if [ "$branch" = "master" ]; then
  echo "You can't commit directly to master branch"
  exit 1

I got that from this StackOverflow answer, and it was perfect for me, since I use the bash shell.  So I created the pre-commit file, made a trivial edit, and tried to commit to master.  That’s when OS X Mojave’s Terminal spit back:

fatal: cannot exec '.git/hooks/pre-commit': Operation not permitted

Huh.  I mean, it prevented me from committing to master, but not in a useful way.  Once I verified that it happened in all branches, not just master, I knew there was trouble.

I checked permissions and all the rest, but I was still getting the error.  If I went into .git/hooks and ran the script from the command line by ./pre-commit, I got a slightly different error:

-bash: ./pre-commit: /bin/bash: bad interpreter: Operation not permitted

So I submitted my own StackOverflow question, detailing what I’d done and the file and directory permissions and all the rest.  I was stunned to find out the answer was that Mojave itself was blocking things, through its System Integrity Protection feature.  Why did this simple file trigger SIP?  I don’t know.

The fix, shared by both Jeff and Rich, was to go into .git/hooks and then type the following to check for SIP status:

xattr -l pre-commit

It showed a value, so I then typed:

xattr -d pre-commit

And that was it!  Now if I try to commit a change to the master branch, the commit is rejected and I get a warning message.  At that point, I can git stash the changes, check out the proper branch (or a new one), and then git stash pop to bring the changes into that branch, where I can commit them and then merge the changes in properly.

I may modify the script to reject commits to the dev branch as well, but I’m holding off on that for now, since the dev branch is often where merge conflicts are worked out before going to master.  Either way, at least I’ll be less likely to accidentally foul up master when I’m hip-deep in other problems.

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