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Developer priorities throughout their career

I made this chart in the amazing Excalidraw about two weeks ago:

It only took me 10 minutes! Shortly after, my laptop broke down into repeated kernel panics, and it spent about 10 days in service (I was in a remote place when it broke, so it took some time to get it to service). Yesterday, I was finally reunited with it, turned it on, launched Chrome, and saw it again. It gave me a smile, and I realized I never got to post it, so I tweeted this:

There was a problem connecting to Twitter.

The tweet kinda blew up! It seems many, many developers identify with it. A few also disagreed with it, especially with the “Does it actually work?” line. So I figured I should write a bit about the rationale behind it. I originally wrote it in a tweet, but then I realized I should probably post it in a less transient medium, that is more well suited to longer text.

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Articles Original

The Cicada Principle, revisited with CSS variables

Many of today’s web crafters were not writing CSS at the time Alex Walker’s landmark article The Cicada Principle and Why it Matters to Web Designers was published in 2011. Last I heard of it was in 2016, when it was used in conjunction with blend modes to pseudo-randomize backgrounds even further.

So what is the Cicada Principle and how does it relate to web design in a nutshell? It boils down to: when using repeating elements (tiled backgrounds, different effects on multiple elements etc), using prime numbers for the size of the repeating unit maximizes the appearance of organic randomness. Note that this only works when the parameters you set are independent.

When I recently redesigned my blog, I ended up using a variation of the Cicada principle to pseudo-randomize the angles of code snippets. I didn’t think much of it until I saw this tweet:

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Articles

Refactoring optional chaining into a large codebase: lessons learned

Chinese translation by Coink Wang

Now that optional chaining is supported across the board, I decided to finally refactor Mavo to use it (yes, yes, we do provide a transpiled version as well for older browsers, settle down). This is a moment I have been waiting for a long time, as I think optional chaining is the single most substantial JS syntax improvement since arrow functions and template strings. Yes, I think it’s more significant than async/await, just because of the mere frequency of code it improves. Property access is literally everywhere.

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Tips Tutorials

Hybrid positioning with CSS variables and max()

Notice how the navigation on the left behaves wrt scrolling: It’s like absolute at first that becomes fixed once the header scrolls out of the viewport.

One of my side projects these days is a color space agnostic color conversion & manipulation library, which I’m developing together with my husband, Chris Lilley (you can see a sneak peek of its docs above). He brings his color science expertise to the table, and I bring my JS & API design experience, so it’s a great match and I’m really excited about it! (if you’re serious about color and you’re building a tool or demo that would benefit from it contact me, we need as much early feedback on the API as we can get! )

For the documentation, I wanted to have the page navigation on the side (when there is enough space), right under the header when scrolled all the way to the top, but I wanted it to scroll with the page (as if it was absolutely positioned) until the header is out of view, and then stay at the top for the rest of the scrolling (as if it used fixed positioning).

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Apps & scripts Articles CSS WG Original

LCH colors in CSS: what, why, and how?

I was always interested in color science. In 2014, I gave a talk about CSS Color 4 at various conferences around the world called “The Chroma Zone”. Even before that, in 2009, I wrote a color picker that used a hidden Java applet to support ICC color profiles to do CMYK properly, a first on the Web at the time (to my knowledge). I never released it, but it sparked this angry rant.

Color is also how I originally met my now husband, Chris Lilley: In my first CSS WG meeting in 2012, he approached me to ask a question about CSS and Greek, and once he introduced himself I said “You’re Chris Lilley, the color expert?!? I have questions for you!”. I later discovered that he had done even more cool things (he was a co-author of PNG and started SVG 🤯), but at the time, I only knew of him as “the W3C color expert”, that’s how much into color I was (I got my color questions answered much later, in 2015 that we actually got together).

My interest in color science was renewed in 2019, after I became co-editor of CSS Color 5, with the goal of fleshing out my color modification proposal, which aims to allow arbitrary tweaking of color channels to create color variations, and combine it with Una’s color modification proposal. LCH colors in CSS is something I’m very excited about, and I strongly believe designers would be outraged we don’t have them yet if they knew more about them.

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Articles

Issue closing stats for any repo

tl;dr: If you just want to quickly get stats for a repo, you can find the app here. The rest of this post explains how it’s built with Mavo HTML, CSS, and 0 lines of JS. Or, if you’d prefer, you can just View Source — it’s all there!

The finished app we’re going to make, find it at https://leaverou.github.io/issue-closing

One of the cool things about Mavo is how it enables one to quickly build apps that utilize the Github API. At some point I wanted to compute stats about how quickly (or rather, slowly…) Github issues are closed in the Mavo repo. And what better way to build this than a Mavo app? It was fairly easy to build a prototype for that.

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Articles

ReferenceError: x is not defined?

Today for a bit of code I was writing, I needed to be able to distinguish “x is not defined” ReferenceErrors from any other error within a try...catch block and handle them differently.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Trying to figure out exactly what kind of error you have programmatically is a well-known fool’s errand. If you express a desire to engage in such a risky endeavor, any JS veteran in sight will shake their head in remembrance of their early days, but have the wisdom to refrain from trying to convince you otherwise; they know that failing will teach you what it taught them when they were young and foolish enough to attempt such a thing.

Despite writing JS for 13 years, today I was feeling adventurous. “But what if, just this once, I could get it to work? It’s a pretty standard error message! What if I tested in so many browsers that I would be confident I’ve covered all cases?”

I made a simple page on my server that just prints out the error message written in a way that would maximize older browser coverage. Armed with that, I started visiting every browser in my BrowserStack account. Here are my findings for anyone interested:

  • Chrome (all versions, including mobile): x is not defined
  • Firefox (all versions, including mobile): x is not defined
  • Safari 4-12 : Can't find variable: x
  • Edge (16 – 18): 'x' is not defined
  • Edge 15: 'x' is undefined
  • IE6-11 and Windows Phone IE: 'x' is undefined
  • UC Browser (all versions): x is not defined
  • Samsung browser (all versions): x is not defined
  • Opera Mini and Pre-Chromium Opera: Undefined variable: x

Even if you, dear reader, are wise enough to never try and detect this error, I thought you may find the variety (or lack thereof) above interesting.

I also did a little bit of testing with a different UI language (I picked Greek), but it didn’t seem to localize the error messages. If you’re using a different UI language, please open the page above and if the message is not in English, let me know!

In the end, I decided to go ahead with it, and time will tell if it was foolish to do so. For anyone wishing to also dabble in such dangerous waters, this was my checking code:

if (e instanceof ReferenceError 
    && /is (not |un)defined$|^(Can't find|Undefined) variable/.test(e.message)) {
    // do stuff
}

Found any cases I missed? Or perhaps you found a different ReferenceError that would erroneously match the regex above? Let me know in the comments!

One thing that’s important to note is that even if the code above is bulletproof for today’s browser landscape, the more developers that do things like this, the harder it is for browser makers to improve these error messages. However, until there’s a better way to do this, pointing fingers at developers for wanting to do perfectly reasonable things, is not the solution. This is why HTTP has status codes, so we don’t have to string match on the text. Imagine having to string match “Not Found” to figure out if a request was found or not! Similarly, many other technologies have error codes, so that different types of errors can be distinguished without resulting to flimsy string matching. I’m hoping that one day JS will also have a better way to distinguish errors more precisely than the general error categories of today, and we’ll look back to posts like this with a nostalgic smile, being so glad we don’t have to do crap like this ever again.

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Apps & scripts Articles

Refresh CSS Bookmarklet v2

Almost 11 years ago, Paul Irish posted this brilliant bookmarklet to refresh all stylesheets on the current page. Despite the amount of tools, plugins, servers to live reload that have been released over the years, I’ve always kept coming back to it. It’s incredibly elegant in its simplicity. It works everywhere: locally or remotely, on any domain and protocol. No need to set up anything, no need to alter my process in any way, no need to use a specific local server or tool. It quietly just accepts your preferences and workflow instead of trying to change them. Sure, it doesn’t automatically detect changes and reload, but in most cases, I don’t want it to.

I’ve been using this almost daily for a decade and there’s always been one thing that bothered me: It doesn’t work with iframes. If the stylesheet you’re editing is inside an iframe, tough luck. If you can open the frame in a new tab, that works, but often that’s nontrivial (e.g. the frame is dynamically generated). After dealing with this issue today once more, I thought “this is just a few lines of JS, why not fix it?”.

The first step was to get Paul’s code in a readable format, since the bookmarklet is heavily minified:

(function() {
	var links = document.getElementsByTagName('link');
	for (var i = 0; i < links.length; i++) {
		var link = links[i];
		if (link.rel.toLowerCase().match(/stylesheet/) && link.href) {
			var href = link.href.replace(/(&|%5C?)forceReload=\d+/, '');
			link.href = href + (href.match(/\?/) ? '&' : '?') + 'forceReload=' + (new Date().valueOf())
		}
	}
})()

Once I did that, it became obvious to me that this could be shortened a lot; the last 10 years have been wonderful for JS evolution!

(()=>{
	for (let link of Array.from(document.querySelectorAll("link[rel=stylesheet][href]"))) {
		var href = new URL(link.href, location);
		href.searchParams.set("forceReload", Date.now());
		link.href = href;
	}
})()

Sure, this reduces browser support a bit (most notably it excludes IE11), but since this is a local development tool, that’s not such a big problem.

Now, let’s extend this to support iframes as well:

{
	let $$ = (selector, root = document) => Array.from(root.querySelectorAll(selector));
	
	let refresh = (document) => {
		for (let link of $$("link[rel=stylesheet][href]", document)) {
			let href = new URL(link.href);
			href.searchParams.set("forceReload", Date.now());
			link.href = href;
		}

		for (let iframe of $$("iframe", document)) {
			iframe.contentDocument && refresh(iframe.contentDocument);
		}
	}

	refresh();
}

That’s it! Do keep in mind that this will not work with cross-origin iframes, but then again, you probably don’t expect it to in that case.

Now all we need to do to turn it into a bookmarklet is to prepend it with javascript: and minify the code. Here you go:

Refresh CSS

Hope this is useful to someone else as well 🙂
Any improvements are always welcome!

Credits

  • Paul Irish, for the original bookmarklet
  • Maurício Kishi, for making the iframe traversal recursive (comment)
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Articles

HTML APIs: What they are and how to design a good one

I’m a strong believer in lowering the barrier of what it takes to create rich, interactive experiences and improving the user experience of programming. I wrote an article over at Smashing Magazine aimed at JavaScript library developers that want their libraries to be usable via HTML (i.e. without writing any JavaScript). Sounds interesting? Read it here.

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Articles Thoughts

One year of pastries

Last September, I was approached by Alex Duloz, who invited me to take part in his ambitious new venture, The Pastry Box Project. Its goal was to gather 30 people (“bakers”) every year who are influential in their field and ask them to share twelve thoughts — one per month. For 2012, that field would be the Web. I was honored by the invitation and accepted without a second thought (no pun intended). The project was quite successful and recently we all (almost) agreed for The Pastry Box Project to become a book, whose profits will be donated to charity.

The initial goal of the project was to gather thoughts somehow related to the bakers’ work. Although many stuck to that topic, for many others it quickly drifted away from that, with them often sending thoughts that were general musings about their lives or life in general. For me …well lets just say I was never good at sticking to the topic at hand. 😉

The Pastry Box showed me that I want a personal blog so I made one today. I will still publish personal stuff here, as long as it’s even remotely web-related, so not much will change. However, my interests range to more than the Web, so I will now have another medium to express myself in. 🙂

Since 2012 is now over, I decided to gather all my “pastries” and publish them in two blog posts: I will post the more techy/professional ones below and the more general/personal ones in my personal blog. Since most of them were somewhere in the middle, it wasn’t easy to pick which ones to publish where. I figured the best solution is to allow for some overlap and publish most of them in both blogs.