Around Here, the New GeoCities

I know I’m not the only one who needs a map in Jerusalem:

Old City Map

Problem is, a simple map is not enough here. Some places just really accentuate a dimension. Australia taught us to respect distance, driving our camper all day to cover a mere wrinkle on the map. Manhattan forces you to acknowledge it is 3 dimensional. Jerusalem is impossible to understand if you ignore the dimension of time.

So I made a little app I call “Around Here” which shows wiki articles around my current location:

around-here

It’s not a lot of code, but actually pretty useful. I mostly use it on my phone, but it works on laptop, tablet and would work right here too if WordPress would allow embedding JS.

Building it made me think of how much the web has changed in the last couple of years. Have you noticed how much you can do with JavaScript now? All the awesome libraries coming out? Not even node.js, just old fashioned client-side JS.

Programming languages are like musical genres. New ones are created, existing ones change and move in and out of fashion, but every once in a while a specific genre will experiences a sudden explosion of creativity. If JavaScript is Punk rock I guess this is the mid-1970s now.

punk

HTML5 and modern browsers’ capabilities are a major factor, but also some slower moving, deep server side changes:

  1. Continued APIzation of everything  allowed me to write the app using the WikiLocation API instead of my own DB backend. An embeddable service like Disqus enables pure HTML Jekyll blogs to have active comments. If your data is not sensitive you could even use a Google Spreadsheet as your DB.
  2. Decreasing costs of serving HTML/JS/CSS only pages now allow GitHub to let you serve your pages for free, with no restriction on content and almost no scaling limit. Basically you could do that in 1995 with GeoCities – look how much more you can do with just the above client side technologies now.

So, what we used to call “static pages” are now becoming increasingly powerful, and free. There’s an odd back to basics feel as we’re crossing a gap between very low cost to zero cost for serving a useful, highly scalable app. It might turn out a big deal. More importantly, coding is fun again.

Rebuilding Venice

From Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn series: “Planners the world over take inspiration from Venice. But Venice was never planned”

This points to a fundamental mistake everyone makes, whether you’re planning a city or trying to relive a vacation you enjoyed – you try to match an example or experience, by building top-down what was built bottom-up, orchestrating what happened unexpectedly, reverse engineer Venice.

This is likely to fail: even if you have to resources and skill to copy Venice, your copy by definition is located in another place, with another weather, a different economy, inhabited by different people and so forth. So your copy of Venice, however precise, will always feel contrived and forced unto its environment and people instead of growing organically to meet them.

In software, these copies of Venice usually happens when you build an application without much user feedback in the process. You set your goal to an existing product which you admire, but don’t involve the users in the process. You often end up with a features users don’t require, an interaction which doesn’t make sense to them or even a whole product which doesn’t serve a real need.