A markup language that makes the authoring of interactive articles more accessible. You can see it in use on the Parametric Press, a new magazine experimenting with the dynamic capabilities of digital texts:

The current generation of publishing technology mimics tools that were designed during the era of the printing press. Past aspirations for the future of computing centered around empowering individuals and enhancing cognition, but many of these ideas fell to the wayside during the wildfire spread of internet connectivity and the commodification of publishing through platforms like WordPress and Facebook.

Alan Kay imagined the Dynabook in the hands of children across the world, while Neal Stephenson wrote of interactive paper that could display videos and interfaces, and books that could teach their readers. The web offers rich dynamic capabilities, but to most authors these are off limits, residing outside the confines of restrictive content management systems. We are a group of designers, programmers, and researchers who want to change that. Together, we are building interactive publishing tools, supporting digital journalism, and pushing the boundaries of web design.

(On the same topic: why books don’t work)

An overview of what goes into the computer processing of text:

I don’t believe there is a single place where it’s all properly written down. I have some explanation for that: while basic text layout is very important for UI, games, and other contexts, a lot of the “professional” needs around text layout are embedded in much more complicated systems such as Microsoft Word or a modern Web browser. […]

The hierarchy is: paragraph segmentation as the coarsest granularity, followed by rich text style and BiDi analysis, then itemization (coverage by font), then Unicode script, and shaping clusters as the finest.

Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel on the New York Times:

While innovation — the social process of introducing new things — is important, most technologies around us are old, and for the smooth functioning of daily life, maintenance is more important. […] It’s not just maintenance that our society fails to appreciate; it’s also the maintainers themselves. We do not grant them high social status or high salaries. Typically, maintenance is a blue-collar occupation: mechanic, plumber, janitor, electrician. There are white-collar maintainers (like the I.T. crowd) and white-jacket maintainers (like dentists). But they, too, are not celebrated like the inventor.

Once you notice this problem — innovation is exalted, maintenance devalued — you begin to see it everywhere.

Same authors (they organised a conference around this topic), on Aeon Magazine:

First, it is crucial to understand that technology is not innovation. Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old. […]

Second, by dropping innovation, we can recognise the essential role of basic infrastructures. […]

Third, focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going.

To truly appreciate the mundane labour that keeps everything running pay attention to the details, to how stuff works. It’s anything but mundane. Maintaining stuff should be cool.

Un-doing is oftentimes easier — the number of times I heard someone suggesting starting from scratch to take the complexity away. The problem with this line of thought is that things only stay simple in the beginning. Any mature system is complex.

Audio editing using text. You can remove filler words (uhm, ehm) automatically but, most impressive, you can change what you said by editing the transcription: the app will update the recording by generating a digital voice that sounds like you.

Interesting take from Palladium Mag:

Considered frankly, this trend reveals the internet to be a technology of centralization. One of the core functions of the internet is to record material of human interest in digital format. These records span everything from our trivial preferences and financial habits to the most intimate messages we send each other. With adequate analysis, this data can be used to predict user behavior. This information is not made available to us as individuals. Even if it were, it would not be the kind of information we could use. It’s only useful en masse—in other words, only insofar as it makes us legible and visible to centralized institutions. The rise of Amazon, Tencent, Facebook, or Twitter aren’t bugs in the system, but the natural result of its real logic.

But maybe we shouldn’t always look at centralisation as necessarily bad?

In trying to understand and chart a course for the future, we might take inspiration from the centralizing effects of past technology. The printing press reduced the Catholic Church’s control over intellectual institutions. But it also paved the way for the standardization of language and for more direct control by state bureaucracies. Society was vastly more centralized in 1750 than it was in 1400. Through the modern lens, the benefits of the printing press vastly outweigh its costs, suggesting that we may be wrong to fear centralizing technologies in our own time.

Redmonk:

Most toolchains, from where the first lines of code are written through test, build, integration and deployment all the way out to production, are made up of a patchwork quilt of products and services from different suppliers. […] In order to make the life of a developer easier, rather than harder, a quality developer experience is focused on allowing developers to use the tools they’re familiar with, or at least closely mimicking them. Whether that’s the out of the box support for VS Code that is a common feature of today’s platforms or the Git-like syntax Heroku pioneered in its CLI, the less that developers have to context switch between tools and steps the less friction there is in usage.

This sounds like a saner way to handle privacy settings than having a banner on every single website (security UI doesn’t work).

A reminder that the best emails are plain text and nothing else. Not only they read well on any screen (even on a watch), they actually perform better:

The plain email—which took no time to design or code—was opened by more recipients and had 3.3x more clicks than the designed email. The plain, unstyled emails resulted in more opens, clicks, replies, and conversions, every time. […] Replies to welcome emails were tripled. Cold emails were getting 30-35% open rates and 3% conversion rates, which is incredible.

Besides, every HTML email looks like an ad.

I initially believed the new time picker of iOS 14 was a bug specific to the calendar app I use, until I started encountering it across apps. If you haven’t seen it yet, it looks like this. What.

New watch faces. Watch faces should receive the same attention screensavers get. Fun, cool, not frequently that nice mostly just fine. I think the stacked cards interface of the Siri face should be the default wake up screen, and all efforts should go in that direction. The watch metaphor was useful to begin with, but the Apple Watch was never a watch and complications are what their name implies.

I am pleased to find out I am not the only one frustrated by the behaviour of the back button in Photos or bewildered by where it will take me in Music. There’s a growing list of apps, developed directly by Apple, that would benefit from having proper navigation but have opted for an erratic and lazy back button:

The more common apps that have long featured back and forward buttons do not function in these peculiar ways. Web browsers do not; Finder doesn’t; neither does System Preferences. And, as I was writing this article, I was worried that it would be made obsolete by the forthcoming release of MacOS Big Sur, but everything is pretty much identical as of the latest beta. If the back buttons in the apps listed at the top of this post do not conform to the system standard in any way, the obvious question is something like: “why do these apps have a back button at all?”

In every instance, it seems to be a catch-all attempt to solve complex UI design problems. In Catalyst apps, it kind of works like the iOS system back button. In the App Store and in Music, it is a way to display web-based pages without having to implement a hierarchical navigation structure. In Photos, I suppose it is a way to reduce the amount of toolbars and buttons onscreen compared to iPhoto, and to make it conform closer to its iOS counterpart.

Here’s another aspect of the ebook reading experience Amazon has a monopoly on, and somehow lacks a vision for. From The New Stateman:

Goodreads today looks and works much as it did when it was launched. The design is like a teenager’s 2005 Myspace page: cluttered, random and unintuitive. Books fail to appear when searched for, messages fail to send, and users are flooded with updates in their timelines that have nothing to do with the books they want to read or have read. Many now use it purely to track their reading, rather than get recommendations or build a community. “It should be my favourite platform,” one user told me, “but it’s completely useless.” […]

With the vast amount of books and user data that Goodreads holds, it has the potential to create an algorithm so exact that it would be unstoppable, and it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to their data being used for such a purpose. Instead, it has stagnated: Amazon holds on to an effective monopoly on the discussion of new books – Goodreads is almost 40 times the size of the next biggest community, LibraryThing, which is also 40 per cent owned by Amazon – and it appears to be doing very little with it.

To improve discovery I would focus on manually curated lists, like bookshop.org and fivebooks.com do, and instead of giving users a meaningless star rating I would aggregate book reviews. bookmarks.review, a sort of Rotten Tomatoes for books, does just that.

A calming little website collecting 10 minute videos of someone’s else window. Displayed randomly, from anywhere in the world.

Andy Matuschak:

Books are static. Prose can frame or stimulate readers’ thoughts, but prose can’t behave or respond to those thoughts as they unfold in each reader’s head. […] How might we design mediums in which “readers” naturally form rich associations between the ideas being presented? How might we design mediums which “readers” naturally engage creatively with the material? How might we design mediums in which “readers” naturally contend with competing interpretations? If we pile together enough of these questions we’re left with: how might we design mediums in which “reading” is the same as “understanding”?

The state of ebooks is truly sad. Nothing has changed in a decade (to be optimistic) and the digital book is still just a scan of the paper book trapped in a screen.

GPT-3 — let’s define it as the autocomplete tool by OpenAI trained on a large amount of uncategorized text from the internet — is quite impressive, comparable to what happened to AI image processing from 2012 onward. We can safely ignore the hype — it’s probably a dead end in terms of reaching artificial general intelligence (see its performance on the Turing Test). And I doubt it’s going to replace developers. But as an autocomplete, at guessing common sense or trivia questions, it’s a leap forward. Here I am asking Alexa for the third time to lower the volume, and this thing can almost handle a conversation.

Anyway because of how it works (you give it some text, a prompt, and it guesses what comes next) in recent weeks the internet got inundated with things they made GPT-3 do. There’s even a course in creative writing taught by GPT-3 (which is probably as valid as most creative writing courses).

Like all good AI GPT-3 never admits of not knowing an answer, it’d rather make up stuff, weird stuff sometimes, nonsense but nicely written nonsense. It might not make sense but at least it’s syntactically correct. It’s an idea machine, and a quite funny one. Here’s one of its replies, when prompted by Arram Sabeti to write an essay on human intelligence:

I propose that intelligence is the ability to do things humans do. [..] The brain is a very bad computer, consciousness is a very bad idea.