Wherever I can I prefer to work in the browser vs. tools like Figma. As the web platform grows (we seem to be in a sort of golden age at the moment) it becomes easier and easier to do my job with only the raw materials of the web.
Recently I’ve been working on a project at the day job that requires the use of something akin to layout grids in Figma. I was curious how difficult it would be to recreate this on the web.
It took longer than I’d like to admit to figure out the math, but with a single repeating-linear-gradient we can overlay a representation of our grid onto the page. I whipped up a class for this with support for specifying your own number of columns and gutter width.
In the spirit of blogging the things I want to remember:
Autumn is my favorite time of the year. The trees outside my apartment here in Oak Park are shining gold, and the air is starting to feel crisp and cold. Sweater weather, if you will.
Besides the weather and foliage, the best part of the season may just be its rituals. One of my favorites is an annual rewatching of Over the Garden Wall, which is the coziest, most endearing television series I’ve ever seen.
If the show is to teach us anything, it’s that things are not always what they seem.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to this wonderful exploration of vintage postcards that share a vibe with OtGW from the blog Weird Christmas (which is written by, get this, Craig Kringle). The entire site is dedicated to vintage Victorian Christmas cards, which Craig collects and shares online.
A few of the show’s scenes appear to take almost direct inspiration from some of the postcards in Craig’s collection. There is truly nothing new under the sun.
I recently discovered that a new animated series on HBO Max, Scavenger’s Reign, is based upon an animated short which appeared online 4 years ago by Joe Bennett and Charles Huettner.
The short caught my attention when it originally released for being a beautiful and wholly original bit of science fiction. Sometimes the internet, like the world, is full of serendipity, and you might rediscover something familiar just like you might stumble into an old friend at a crowded place.
The first six episodes have already premiered, and I’m hooked already. The style is something like a cross between Fantastic Planet, Sable, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
I am such a sucker for any media that takes world building seriously, and the world of Scavenger’s Reign is overflowing with details—flora, fauna, and environments as alien as you’ve ever seen. The ecology of Vesta Minor, the planet on which the show takes place, is just as much a character as the humans stranded there.
Since there seems to be an animation theme going here, I’ll briefly mention how excited I am for the upcoming animated Scott Pilgrim series on Netflix: Scott Pilgrim Takes Off. I have a love for both the graphic novels and the 2010 film, whose cast will be returning to voice the characters in the new series.
Robin Sloan recommended the book Ghosts and Demons of India in his latest newsletter, and I picked up a copy of my own just in time for Halloween.
I love books that can be imbibed in small sips like a hot cup of coffee. Ghosts reads like an encyclopedia of creatures and spirits from the Indian subcontinent, and each entry conjures up the most vivid images. I have no idea the pantheon of ghost stories in India was so vast!
Allow me to recommend one of my favorite blogs of late, which excites me every time it appears in my RSS reader. It is the wonderful Going Medieval by Dr. Eleanor Janega, who specializes in “late medieval sexuality, apocalyptic thought, propaganda, and the urban experience in general.” How cool is that??
Dr. Janega uses their expertise to make comparisons and critiques between modern internet culture and that of medieval societies. One of their latest posts was sparked by the recent national test of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) on October 4 in the United States, which caused everyone’s smartphones to scream in unison. If you’re like me, you found it surprising and terrifying despite the numerous warnings online in the weeks leading up to the test.
Some folks found it more than surprising, though, and used it as the basis for conspiracy theories related to 5G, vaccines, viruses, and the like.
We often like to think of medieval European societies as unenlightened, unintelligent, and superstitious, but Dr. Janega reminds us that we’re not much better ourselves. Many bogus explanations were offered for the Black Death, and the parallels with how people respond to public health emergencies today are eery.
Definitely go read the whole piece, it’s full of gems like this:
I have repeatedly heard people now refer to the fact that “medieval streets were full of shit” to explain the spread of the Black Death. This is interesting because it is 1) not true – most medieval cities tightly regulated the disposal of human waste very strenuously and 2) would be irrelevant anyway even if it were true (it’s not) because that’s not how yersinia pestis travels.
So I’ve never seen myself as a designer or engineer or writer, but as a third thing. It’s sort of pompous and silly to call myself this word though, so I avoid it, but deep down it’s what I’m always thinking whenever someone asks what I do. But here, in this secret society of the newsletter, I will admit to you:
I’ve always seen the browser as a printing press.
Because of that, I’ve always seen myself as a publisher first and then everything else second.
I couldn’t agree more. The power of the browser is not that it gave us the ability to write or create art or build programs, but that it allowed anyone to publish those things to the entire world.
The application of the web—design, engineering, writing—are all interests of mine, but for me they’re inevitably second to the printing press itself.
Speaking of Robin, be sure to check out his latest newsletter, The Cascade which focuses on the past, present, and future of CSS. Robin has been exploring new color features in CSS in the latest issues and it’s been a delight to follow along with.
In the spirit of publishing, I’ve been working on a little side project that is an ode to the written word.
While I appreciate the convenience of ebooks and audio books, I have always preferred to own and read physical copies. As a result, I’ve accumulated quite a few books that are becoming increasingly difficult to store and move around. I know at some point I’ll need to slim down my collection, but I wanted to preserve it in its current form.
To that end, I decided the place to start would be creating a database of all the books in my physical collection. I spent a few weeks inputting titles, authors, dates, ISBN numbers, page counts, and more metadata about the titles on my shelves. I still have a few boxes of books to go through and log, but most of my collection is now captured digitally.
I decided to use Airtable for this job, partly because it has such an easy to use API. I wanted to display my collection in a way that was more pleasant to browse than a spreadsheet, so I built my own little frontend for the database.
It’s still very much a WIP, and not as performant as I’d like it to be just yet, but you can take a peek at books.chasem.co
Now I feel much more comfortable donating some of my books knowing that I’ll always be able to look back over my collection.
I hope this season find you well. With reverence to the Great Pumpkin,
I’ll leave it to others to discuss the implications of this, but if true it could turn out to be the greatest physics discovery of my lifetime.
It could also, of course, turn out to be false, and plenty of doubts are already being cast about the results and the researchers. But at this moment there are people all around the globe trying to replicate the findings, and we may start hearing about the results in a matter of hours. Some of them are even live-tweeting the effort. There’s an exciting energy of discovery and optimism stemming from this finding.
I can think of 3 obvious reasons why this might all be happening now as opposed to any time over the past decade:
The content on social media platforms is valuable for AI training, and platforms want to capitalize on or keep that value for themselves.
The recent, high-interest-rate environment has companies cutting costs in ways they might not before, and subsidizing API access for third party developers is no longer a bill they’re willing to foot.
The bad behavior of platforms is creating a more competitive environment as new challengers spring up (Bluesky, Posts, Mastodon, and Threads all come to mind).
Those seem obvious, but are they really the cause? Is it one more than the other? Or something else entirely?
I wonder how much of this trend is really just a domino effect of CEOs realizing that they can get away with screwing over their users because they saw Elon Musk (or some other robber baron) get away with it.
Humane (the mysterious company founded by ex-Apple executives) has finally revealed the name of the product they’re hoping to ship this year: the Humane Ai Pin.
I’m as skeptical as the next person about AI and wearables and really anything with as much hypebeast marketing as this product has received. But if I put my skepticism aside for a moment I’m able to appreciate this for what it is—a group of people trying to create a new kind of computer and computing paradigm.
There’s a bit of footage out there of the device in action, but regardless of the specifics I think it’s essential that we never stop asking ourselves what a computer could or should be.
The problem was, you can’t ask Aristotle a question. And I think, as we look towards the next fifty to one hundred years, if we really can come up with these machines that can capture an underlying spirit, or an underlying set of principles, or an underlying way of looking at the world, then, when the next Aristotle comes around, maybe if he carries around one of these machines with him his whole life—his or her whole life—and types in all this stuff, then maybe someday, after this person’s dead and gone, we can ask this machine, “Hey, what would Aristotle have said? What about this?” And maybe we won’t get the right answer, but maybe we will. And that’s really exciting to me. And that’s one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing.
For all the work we’ve put into creating ways to capture our lives digitally, it doesn’t feel like the ritual of passing that information down to future generations is considered much.
I wonder if this might be a common use case for conversational AIs in the future. You can imagine a ChatGPT trained on the works of Aristotle, waiting to answer new and novel questions. Like Steve says, we won’t always get the right answer, but maybe we will.
The digital book is lovely and full of wisdom—definitely a recommended read.
It’s hard to keep up with the progress of AI. It seems as though every week there’s a new breakthrough or advancement that seemingly changes the game. Each step forward brings both a sense of wonder and a feeling of dread.
This past week, OpenAI introduced ChatGPT plugins which “help ChatGPT access up-to-date information, run computations, or use third-party services.”
Though not a perfect analogy, plugins can be “eyes and ears” for language models, giving them access to information that is too recent, too personal, or too specific to be included in the training data.
A web browser plugin which allows the AI gather information from the internet that was not originally part of its training corpus by searching the web, clicking on links, and reading the contents of webpages.
A code interpreter plugin which gives ChatGPT access to a sandboxed Python environment that can execute code as well as handle file uploads and downloads.
Both of these plugins are pretty astonishing in their own right, and unlock even more potential for AI to be a helpful tool (or a dangerous actor).
But what caught my eye the most from OpenAI’s announcement is the ability for developers to create their own ChatGPT plugins which interact with your own APIs, and more specifically the way in which they’re created.
Here’s how you create a third party plugin:
You create a JSON manifest on your website at /.well-known/ai-plugin.json which includes some basic information about your plugin including a natural language description of how it works. As an example, here’s the manifest for the Wolfram Alpha plugin.
You host an OpenAPI specification for your API and point to it in your plugin manifest.
That’s it! ChatGPT uses your natural language description and the OpenAPI spec to understand how to use your API to perform tasks and answer questions on behalf of a user. The AI figures out how to handle auth, chain subsequent calls, process the resulting data, and format it for display in a human-friendly way.
And just like that, APIs are accessible to anyone with access to an AI.
Importantly, that AI is not only regurgitating information based on a static set of training data, but is an actor in and of itself. It’s browsing the web, executing code, and making API requests on behalf of users (hopefully).
The implications of this are hard to fathom, and much will be discussed, prototyped, and explored in the coming months as people get early access to the plugin feature. But what excites me the most about this model is how easily it will allow for digital bricoleurs to plug artificial intelligence into their homemade tools for personal use.
Have a simple API? You now have the ability to engage with it conversationally. The hardest part is generating an OpenAPI spec (which is not very hard to do, it’s just a .yaml file describing your API), and you can even get ChatGPT to generate that bit for you. Here’s an example of someone successfully generating a spec for the Twilio API using ChatGPT.
It seems to me that this will greatly incentivize companies and products to create interfaces and APIs that are AI-friendly. Consumers will grow to expect AI tools to be able to interface with the other digital products and services they use in the same way that early iPhone users expected their favorite websites to have apps in the App Store.
There are certainly many negative and hard-to-predict consequences of opening up APIs to AI actors, but I am excited about the positives that might come from it, such as software products becoming more malleable via end-user programming and automation.
Don’t want to futz around with complex video editing software? Just ask your AI to extract the first 5 seconds of an MP4 and download the result with a single click. This type of abstraction of code, software, and interface will become ubiquitous.
But when you consider that ChatGPT can write code to build GUIs and can even interact with them programmatically on a user’s behalf, the implications become clear. Everyone will benefit in some way from their own personal interface assistant.
I wonder also how many future products will be APIs only with the expectation that AIs are how users will interact with them?
Simon Willison wrote a great blog post demonstrating this. He wired up a ChatGPT plugin to query data via SQL, and the results, though technically returned as JSON, get displayed in a rich format much more friendly for human consumption.
I wonder if future “social networks” might operate simply as a backend with a set of exposed APIs. Instead of checking an app you might simply ask your AI “what’s up with my friend Leslie?” Or you could instruct your AI to put together a GUI for a social app that’s exactly to your specification.
It would be interesting to try this today with good old RSS, which could be easily wired up as a ChatGPT plugin via a JSON feed. Alas, I don’t yet have access to the plugins feature, but I’ve joined the waitlist.
I’m both excited and nervous to see what happens when we combine AI with a medium like the web.
I’m finally getting around to playing Ghost of Tsushima which is impressive all around. But the thing that has impressed me most is… wind??
The game rejects the normal interface of a minimap to guide players, and instead uses the wind and the environment to show the way forward.
When The Guiding Wind blows in Tsushima, the entire game world responds. The trees bend over, pointing you onward. The pampas grass ripples like the surface of water. Leaves and petals swirl around the scene. The controller emits the sound of gusting wind, and the player can swipe the touch pad to blow the winds and set the environment in motion.
Such a simple mechanic is so unexpected and beautiful and calming in a world of cutting edge graphics and 4K 60FPS VR madness. Video games (and everything else) today are so over the top, but in the end it’s something simple like the wind that gets you.
For a while now I’ve been saying that science fiction works by a kind of double action, like the glasses people wear when watching 3D movies. One lens of science fiction’s aesthetic machinery portrays some future that might actually come to pass; it’s a kind of proleptic realism. The other lens presents a metaphorical vision of our current moment, like a symbol in a poem. Together the two views combine and pop into a vision of History, extending magically into the future.
I read that and then, a day later, stumbled upon a thought experiment published on the wonderfully quirky website of Ville-Matias Heikkilä.
The thought experiment, titled “Inverted computer culture”, asks the reader to image a world where computing is seen “as practice of an ancient and unchanging tradition.”
It is considered essential to be in a properly alert and rested state of mind when using a computer. Even to seasoned users, every session is special, and the purpose of the session must be clear in mind before sitting down. The outer world is often hurried and flashy, but computers provide a “sacred space” for relaxing, slowing down and concentrating on a specific idea without distractions.
What a dream. I encourage you to read the piece which is quite short. It struck me as being exemplary of the aforementioned double action of science fiction—both a vision of the future and a metaphor for the current moment. You can imagine how a fictional immune response to our current culture might drive us toward a world of computing and technology like the one imagined here.
The story’s alright, but the last paragraph is something else. It captures so many of the feelings I have about computing and the web:
As she sat there, lost in her work, she knew that she would never leave this place, this sacred space where the computers whispered secrets to those who knew how to listen. She would be here always, she thought, a part of this ancient tradition, a keeper of the flame of knowledge. And in that moment, she knew that she had found her true home.
I have a lot of nostalgia for the era of blogging that I grew up with during the first decade or so of the 2000s.
Of course there was a ton of great content about technology and internet culture, but more importantly to me it was a time of great commentary and experimentation on the form of blogging and publishing.
As social media and smartphones were weaving their ways into our lives, there was a group of bloggers constructing their own worlds. Before Twitter apps and podcast clients became the UI playgrounds of most designers, it was personal sites and weblogs that were pioneering the medium.
Looking back, this is probably where my meta-fascination with the web came from. For me the most interesting part has always been the part analyzing and discussing itself.
Robin Sloan puts it well (as he is wont to do):
Back in the 2000s, a lot of blogs were about blogs, about blogging. If that sounds exhaustingly meta, well, yes — but it was also SUPER generative. When the thing can describe itself, when it becomes the natural place to discuss and debate itself, I am telling you: some flywheel gets spinning, and powerful things start to happen.
Design, programming, and writing started for me on the web. I can recall the progression from a plain text editor to the Tumblr theme editor to learning self-hosted WordPress.
All of that was driven by the desire to tinker and experiment with the web’s form. How many ways could you design a simple weblog? What different formats were possible that no one had imagined before?
Earlier this week I listened to Jason Kottke’s recent appearance on John Gruber’s podcast and was delighted to hear them discuss this very topic. Jason is one of the original innovators of the blog form, and I’ve been following his blog, kottke.org, since I was old enough to care about random shit on the internet.
Jason and John have an interesting conversation during the podcast (starting around 25 minutes in) about how the first few generations of bloggers on the web defined its shape. Moving from print to digital mediums afforded a labyrinth of new avenues to explore.
It’s always important to remind ourselves that many of the things we take for granted today on the web and in digital design had to be invented by someone.
Early weblogs did not immediately arrive at the conclusion of chronological streams—some broke content up into “issues”, some simply changed the content of their homepages entirely.
It wasn’t until later that the reverse-chronological, paginated-or-endless scrolling list of entries was introduced and eventually became the de-facto presentation of content on the web. That standard lives on today in the design of Twitter, Instagram, etc., and it’s fascinating to see that tradition fading away as more sites embrace algorithmic feeds.
By the way, I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention Amy Hoy’s amazing piece How the blog broke the web. Comparing the title of her piece with the title of this one, it’s clear that not everyone sees this shift in form as a positive one, but she does a great job in outlining the history and the role that blogs played in shaping the form of the web. Her particular focus on early content management systems like Movable Type is fascinating.
Another great example that Jason and John discuss on the podcast is the idea of titling blog posts.
They point out that many early sites didn’t use titles for blog posts, a pattern which resembles the future form of Tweets, Facebook posts, text messages, and more. But the rise of RSS readers, many of which made the assumption that entries have titles and design their UIs around that, forced many bloggers to add titles to their posts to work well in the environment so popular with their readers.
Jason mentions that this was one of the driving factor for kottke.org to start adding titles to posts!
This is an incredible example of the medium shaping the message, where the UI design of RSS readers heavily influenced the form of content being published. When optimizing for the web, those early bloggers and the social networks of today both arrived at the same conclusion—titles are unnecessary and add an undue burden to publishing content.
This difference is the very reason why sending an email feels heavier than sending a tweet. Bloggers not using titles on their blog posts figured out tweeting long before Twitter did.
When referring to the early bloggers at suck.com, Jason said something that I think describes this entire revolution pretty well.
[…]there was in information to be gotten from not only what they linked to, but how they linked to it, which word they decided to make the hyperlink.
It’s not often that you have an entirely new stylistic primitive added to your writing toolbox. For decades you could bold, italicize, underline, uppercase, footnote, etc. and all of a sudden something entirely new—the hyperlink.
With linking out to other sites being such a core part of blogging, it’s no surprise that the interaction design of linking was largely discussed and experimented with. Here’s a post from Shawn Blanc discussing all the ways that various blogs of the time handled posts primary geared towards linking to and commenting on other sites.
Another similar example is URL slugs—the short string of text at the end of a web address identifying a single post. For many of my favorite bloggers, the URL slug is a small but subtle way to convey a message that may or may not be the same as the message of the post itself. One other stylistic primitive unique to the web.
The different ways in which bloggers designed their site or linked to words became a part of their unique style, and it gave their each of them an entirely new way to express themselves.
It’s hard to communicate how grateful I feel for this era of experimentation on the web, and specifically for Jason Kottke’s influence on me as a designer. The past 25 years have been a special time to experience the internet.
There was a time when I thought my career might be curved towards blogging full-time and running my own version of something like kottke.org. Through exploring that I found my way to what I really loved—design and software. My work continues to benefit from what I learned studying bloggers and publishers online.
Whether you care much about writing or not, I encourage you to have a blog. Write about what interests you, take great care of how you present it to the world, and you might be surprised where it takes you. There are new forms around every corner.