Sep 04 2014

Taking CSS Seriously

Published under Technology

At Oasis Digital, we have spent much of our effort over the last several years creating complex “single page” web applications. There is much to say about that, but today I’m writing about one specific sliver: styling the application pages with CSS. To do good work at scale when using CSS to style an application (versus a one-off “webpage”), the only path to success is to take CSS seriously as a language, and study how to use it in an idiomatic, semantic, maintainable way.

Unfortunately, thinking about CSS in this way is considered far into “advanced” CSS territory, and these topics received almost no attention from the countless online and off-line resources to learn CSS.

What does it mean to take CSS seriously? Briefly, it means learning the technology and patterns of use in depth, by studying what others have done and thinking about why and how to solve problems.

Idiomatic CSS

CSS written by experts tends to follow many idioms. These are patterns that have been found useful again and again: a consistent order of selectors, consistent use of white space and other formatting, and so on. There is a popularly cited online resource explaining some of the most common idioms, and A List Apart (which you should probably read extensively) has a busy topic area around CSS.

Robust CSS

Do you always use the same browser, with your window the same size, with the same settings? Then your CSS is probably not robust at all. It is quite easy to accidentally style in such a way that the slightest disruption in the layout causes unexpected unpleasant results.

The way to robustness is exposure to ongoing change. Use multiple browsers, and switch often. Adjust your font size every day up or down, for a good reason or no reason. Change the width and height of your browser window, don’t just always leave it maximized at whatever very common screen size you happen to use. Do you work on a PC? Try a Mac sometimes. You work on a Mac? Your CSS-styled pages probably change in some minor but irritating way if you haven’t looked on a PC.

Good CSS is robust. It is specified sufficiently but not over-specified. A particular anti-pattern to avoid: layout some elements; observe their width on your particular browser and settings; set the width of an element that is supposed to contain them to a hard-coded number based on that single observed width; then watch what happens when some minor difference in font or other matter makes something a little bit wider than you expected.

Appropriate CSS

A hammer is a great tool, but not every problem is a nail. Grid systems are wonderful, but not for every element on every page. To take CSS seriously, we must learn when and where to use grid systems, ad hoc floats, that shiny new flexbox, and even an old-fashioned table.

Layered CSS

Many projects today start with a CSS framework like Bootstrap or Foundation. Working in this context requires a keen awareness of how your CSS interacts with that provided by the framework. It is common to see CSS which randomly and arbitrarily overrides rules set by such a framework, with no regard for what sense those framework provided rules made. The typical result: layer upon layer of overrides, trying to fix a resulting problem by adding layer upon layer of of more overrides.

The key to winning this battle of layers is to stop fighting. To use the delete key extensively, trimming away excess CSS to fix problems rather than adding more. Adjust variables provided by your framework, instead of ad hoc overwriting its calculated class attributes. Understand exactly what layers are needed and why.

Semantic CSS

“Semantic” means “pertaining to the meanings of words”. But the problem many of us have around semantics isn’t so much of wrong meaning, but of applying the wrong names to the right meaning.

It seems everyone is taught, on their CSS journey, about the evil of the in-line style attribute. As a result, we see in the wild many CSS classes like this:

Thus allowing the CSS user to type class=”float-right” instead of style=”float: right;”.

This of course misses the point of the admonition against in-line style completely. It is not the literal use of the style attribute that is the problem, it is that the idea behind CSS is to mark up content with classes which say something about what the content is, then use CSS separately to apply a visual layout and so on.

If you can look at the name of a CSS class and know exactly the style settings it contains, it is probably not a very good name. But if you can look at a piece of content, and tell what CSS class you should apply based on what kind of content it is, you probably have a very good name.

Did I mention, don’t actually write CSS itself?

CSS is lacking critical facilities for abstraction and removal of duplication. There are persuasive arguments floating around that CSS is too broken to ever be fixed; and I would not argue against that. But given that we are mostly stuck with CSS for many types of applications, it is necessary to use a layer on top of CSS. The usual contenders are Sass and LESS. This means that all of these goals mostly apply to the Sass or LESS you write, rather than to the CSS generated from Sass or LESS.

People who have studied both usually conclude that Sass is a better choice than LESS, and indeed the former is what we most often use.

(A helpful tip: if you are using a CSS framework like Bootstrap or Foundation, use a version of those which is supplied using whichever language about CSS you have chose. For example, if you use Sass, use the Bootstrap Sass version – don’t use the normal Bootstrap LESS or the bare Bootstrap CSS files!)

Maintainable CSS

The net result of all of the above is maintainable CSS. CSS which you can keep adding to, in an incremental way, as the application you are styling continues to grow and improve. CSS which you or someone else can understand a year later. CSS which you can be proud of when someone looks under the hood.

Balanced CSS

CSS is not ideal; it has gradually accumulated features since the emergence of the web and therefore has legacy concerns, among other problems. The CSS to solve any particular problem might not be able to meet all of these design qualities at the same time. Therefore, good quality CSS strikes a balance: semantic enough, robust enough, idiomatic enough, and so on.

Rapidly Written CSS

Some of the ideas here sound like they could take a long time to code – but good CSS is faster to complete – bad CSS burns up far more hours than good, in the quest to create a finished system.

Of course, mastering tools can take a long time. The payoff is that a master usually creates code (CSS or otherwise) with high “first time quality”.


At Oasis Digital, we are not perfect. We do not yet do all of these things perfectly all the time; there is sometimes a tradeoff between delivery speed and polish. But we do take CSS seriously, and we work hard to move in the right direction along all these axes.



(Cross-posted to the Oasis Digital blog.)

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Aug 18 2014

Bits are Free, People are Valuable

Published under Business,Life

A few days ago, I caught myself thinking about whether to save some images and video; whether the likely future value of those megabytes would be greater or lesser than the cost of storage. This is a sort of thought that was important and valuable… a couple of decades ago.

Bits are Free

Today, and at least for the last decade, bits are so absurdly cheap that they can be considered free, compared to the time and energy of people. Storing gigabytes or terabytes because they might come in handy is not just for government agencies, it makes sense for all of us in our daily work.

Waste bits to save time.

Waste bits to help people.

People matter, bits are free.

Bits are Free at Work

Here are some ways I waste bits at work:

  • We often gather a few people working on project to meet or code together; it is very easy to start a video or screen video recording of the work. That recording can then be shared with anyone on the project who wasn’t present.
  • We record screenshots or videos of the future in progress, and send it to a customer. Yes, we could wait and present to them “live” using WebEx or whatever. But it is cheaper to waste the bits and conserve human coordination effort.
  • If I have something complex to explain to someone, I can do it in person, and I can do it on the phone, and I can write lots of text. But if I already know them well enough to partly anticipate their questions, I will start a video recording and explain something using voice and white board. The bits are cheaper than the coordination to work “live”. The bits are cheaper than asking them to figure it out themselves.
  • Driving down the road, it is unsafe to text, or read, or write, or (I am looking at you, morning commuters…) apply makeup. But while the numbers are unclear, we have a broad assumption that merely talking with someone while driving down the road is OK. I sometimes make use of traffic time, and burn some bits, by recording audio about some problem to be solved or other matter. The bits are free, who cares if this uses 1000x as much data as sending an email?

Wasting bits can grow somewhat extreme. In the first example above, I described a screen video of developers working together, recorded for the benefit from other developers. You might imagine this as a high-ceremony process, done on important occasions about important code. But bits are free – so we sometimes record such video even if no developer will ever pay attention to it – the value is there even if just one developer maybe lets it play in the background while they work on something else – much like by working in the same room as other people, it is common to pick up some important bit in the background. If one developer learns one small thing to make their work better, that is more valuable than 400 MB of video storage space.

Bits are Free at Home

Here are some ways I waste bits at home:

  • When I take photographs, I take a lot of photographs. One might come in handy. Who cares if 95% of them are bad and 90% of them are useless?
  • Why do cameras have settings other than maximum resolution? Bits are free.
  • Nearly 100% of paperwork I get in the mail, other than marketing, I scan, OCR, and keep in a searchable archive. The disk space for this costs almost nothing. The time saved deciding whether to keep each item, and how to file each item, is irreplaceable. I probably only ever look at 10% of what is scanned, but who cares?
  • If my kids are doing something even vaguely interesting, I try hard to remember to take photos and record video. Looking back at when they were very young, snippets of video we have (from before every phone had a decent video camera) are priceless. I can’t reach back and record more of those, but I can easily record things now that might be fun in the future. Who cares if 95% of that video no-one ever looks at? If I ever need to go through it, I can do it then. The storage space in the meantime doesn’t matter.
  • If I need to look at a model number, serial number, etc. of anything around the house, I snap a photo of it. Then I can look back at the photo anytime from anywhere. Yes, it is absurd to store 3,000,000,000 bytes of JPG rather than 20 bytes of serial number. But they both round to zero.

How Free Can Bits Get?

I expect this tradeoff will shift even more exponentially in the future. In a couple of decades, perhaps:

  • We will record 5 petabyte ultra beyond-HD holographic recordings of insignificant activities just in case someone wants to watch them.
  • We will run video and audio recording of our lives 24 x 7, to be indexed just in case anyone ever wants to look back at it.
  • Future cameras won’t even come with an on-off switch, and will instead record continuously for the lifetime of the camera.


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Jul 21 2014

HTML Syntax: Threat or Menace?

Published under Technology

Some developers love HTML: its syntax, its angle brackets, its duplicated tag names, its scent, its silky smooth skin. If you are among them, you probably don’t won’t like this post.

I appreciate the practicality of HTML: HTML is ubiquitous, so nearly every developer already knows it. Nearly every editor and IDE already syntax-highlights and auto-formats HTML. But I don’t care for HTML’s syntax. On some projects, I use tools that offer an alternative, simpler syntax for the underlying HTML/DOM data model.

Indentation-Based HTML Alternatives

The most popular HTML alternative syntax is a Python-like indentation-based syntax, in which element nesting in determined by start-of-line white space. Implementations of this idea include Jade, HAML, and Slim.

Of those, Jade seems the most polished, and there are multiple Jade implementations available: the original (JavaScript, for use in Node or the browser), Java, Scala, Python, PHP, and possibly others. Jade looks like this:


There is a free, helpful HTML to Jade converter online thanks to Aaron Powell, shown in the above image. It can be used to translate HTML documents or snippets to Jade in a couple of clicks.

Non-HTML HTML Advantages

  1. Jade (and other tools) trivially do lot of things right, like balanced tags, with no need for IDE support.
  2. Generated HTML will automatically be “pretty” and consistent
  3. Generated HTML will always be well formed: Jade doesn’t have a way to express unbalanced tags!
  4. Very concise and tidy syntax.
  5. Cleaner diffs for code changes – less noise in the file means less noise in the diff.

Non-HTML HTML Disadvantages

  1. Another Language to Learn: People already know HTML; any of these tools is a new thing to learn.
  2. Build Step: any of these tools needs a build step to get from the higher level language to browser-ready HTML.
  3. Limited development tool support – you might get syntax highlighting and auto-completion, but you will need to look around and set it up.


  1. There is no “lock in” risk – any project using (for example) Jade as an alternative HTML syntax, could be converted to plain HTML templates in a few hours or less.
  2. Since it is all HTML at runtime, there is no performance difference.


On balance, I think it is a minor win (nice, but not indispensable) to use a non-HTML HTML syntax. At work, we do so on many of our projects..


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Mar 02 2014

AngularJS $q Promise Delayer

Published under Technology

In class a couple months ago (the Angular Boot Camp I often teach), a student asked how to do something like Thread.sleep(n) in JavaScript. Of course there isn’t such a thing, at least in the main JS execution environments (browsers, Node). Rather there is the asynchronous equivalent of setTimeout().

But there is an equivalent, nearly as terse way to insert a delay in a promise chain. Here is a short (thought perhaps not optimally short) sleep equivalent. This is for use in an AngularJS app, with its $q promise implementation.

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Jan 21 2014

Video Encoding, Still Slow in 2014

Published under Technology

Over at Oasis Digital, some of us work together in our St. Louis office, while others are almost entirely remote. I’ve written before about tools for distributed teams, and we’ve added at least one new tool since then: talk while drawing on a a whiteboard, record video, upload it to where the whole team can watch it. There are fancier ways to record a draw-and-talk session (for example, record audio of the speaker, and video of drawing on a Wacom tablet), but it’s hard to beat the ease of pointing a video camera and pressing Record.

This is effective, but I am disappointed by the state of video encoding today.

Good: Recording with a Video Camera

We tried various video cameras and still cameras with a video feature. There are problems:

  • Some cameras have a short video length limit.
  • Some cameras emit a high-pitched noise from their autofocus system, picked up by the microphone. (The worst offender I’ve heard so far is an Olympus camera. Many other cameras manage to autofocus quietly.)
  • Some cameras have a hilariously poor microphone.
  • Many cameras lack the ability to accept an external microphone.
  • Some cameras have a hard time focusing on a whiteboard until there is enough written on it.
  • Many cameras lack the depth of field to accommodate both a whiteboard and a person standing in front of it.

For example, I recorded a whiteboard session yesterday, 28 minutes of video, using a GoPro camera at 1080 HD (so that the whiteboard writing is clear). The GoPro camera did a good job. I’d prefer it have a narrower field of view (a longer lens) to yield a flatter, less distorted image, but it is acceptable for this impromptu daily use.

The GoPro produces high quality, but poorly compressed, MP4 video. In this example, the file size was ~5 GB for 38 minutes.

Bad: Uploading and Downloading

The question is: how to provide this video to others? We have a good internet connection at headquarters, but 5 GB still takes a while to upload and download. Even if the transfer speed was greatly improved, as a person who remembers computers with kilobytes of memory, I find 5 GB for 38 minutes morally offensive.

Good: Re-Encoding to Reduce File Sizer

The answer of course, is to re-encode the video. A better encoder can pack 38 minutes of HD video into much less than 5 GB. Keeping the resolution the same, with common encoding systems this 5 GB is easily reduced by 80% or more. If I’m willing to give up some resolution (1080 to 720), it can be reduced by 90%.

By the way, I describe this as a re-encoding rather than transcoding because most often we use the same encoder (H.264) for both. Sometimes we use Google’s VP8/9/WEBM/whatever, as that sounds like it might be “the future”.

Bad: Re-Encoding in the Cloud

I love the idea of making re-encoding someone else’s problem. Various companies offer a video encoding service in the cloud; for example Amazon has Elastic Transcoder. But that doesn’t solve the problem I actually have, which is that I want to never upload 5 GB in the first place.

Good: Ease of Re-Encoding / Transcoding

There are plenty of tools that will perform the re-encoding locally with a few clicks. I have used these recently, and many more in the past:

Worse: Encoding Speed

With the computers I most often use (a MacBook air, a Mac Mini, various others) the encoding time for good compression is a multiple of real time. For example, my experience yesterday which led to this blog post was 38 minutes of video re-encoding in 3+ hours on my Air. (It would’ve been considerably faster than that on the faster Mac Mini, but still a long time).

Is There a Good Solution?

I’m hoping someone will point me to a piece of hardware that does high quality transcoding to H.264 or WEBM, at real-time speed or better, for a not-too-painful price. It seems like such a thing should exist. It is just computation, and there are ASICs to greatly speed some kinds of computations (like BitCoin mining) at low cost. There are GPUs, which speed video rendering, but from reviews I have seen the GPU based video encoders tend to do a poor-quality job, trading off video quality and compression rate for speed. Is there a box that speeds of transcoding greatly, while keeping high quality and high compression? Or the the only improvement a very fast (non-laptop) PC?


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Dec 07 2013

Code Reviews – Use a gate, not a drive-by

Published under Technology

Does your team / project use code reviews? If not, I suggest starting today. There are countless resources online about how and why to do code reviews; there are numerous code review tools, open source and commercial.

Who should review code? A great question, perhaps for other blog posts.

When should code be reviewed? Hopefully also great question, and the topic of this blog post.


When making a recommendation, I’m trying to get in the habit of always mentioning the context, the situation in my work from which my recommendation arises. This is in response to seeing frustration when people try to follow advice, not realizing that their situation is completely unlike that of the writer.

Here ate Oasis Digital our context is mostly complex line-of-business applications, which are expected to live for a long time and are important to the business operations of the companies that use them. We are almost always replacing an existing system (which a company relies on) or expanding an existing system (which a company relies on).

Another critical part of our context: we have flexible and fast source control, and a group of developers who have learned how to use it competently. We have decoupled source control from build automation, so that we can perform builds of branches in progress without merging them to a mainline. We can achieve a sufficient degree of continuous integration without actually putting each change directly into the same code line.

Review Code Early

How long after code has been written should it be reviewed? Hours or days, not weeks. For this reason, we commit and push code frequently (to a disposable branch of course) where others can see it for early review. It can be a challenge to get past the ego-driven desire to make code perfect before exposing it to the scrutiny of others, but it is worthwhile. By exposing code to review and comment early in its life, a developer can get useful feedback early in a unit of work.

Review Code Often

Another anti-pattern of code review is to look at a given proposed change only once or twice. That is sensible for a very small change, but for a complex change to a complex system it is best to perform code review repeatedly as work proceeds. For example, consider a feature that takes four weeks to implement. Our typical approach, which I recommend to others (if their context is reasonably similar to ours, see above) is something like this:

  • Review the code a few days in.
  • Review the code progress once a week or so.
  • Review the code when it is nearly ready to be called “done” and to go in the mainline.
  • If there are fixes needed, review those promptly so as not to cause delay.

Review Code Now

Code waiting for review is a drag on the speed of development; the right time to review code is now. A quick review now is probably more valuable than a deep review deferred.

Review Code as a Gate

In some organizations, code review happens asynchronously and sporadically, after code is already part of a project. This risks software quality collapse. Once code is in the mainline of a product, it is arguably too late to review. If a reviewer finds a problem with code already in a system, there will be pressure to sweep that problem under the rug and move on, or to convince your that is not really a problem, or that quality doesn’t really matter, just this once.

The right answer is simple: use code review as a gate through which code must pass before it can become part of the mainline of the project. Use your source control system, and stack up proposed code changes that are nearly ready to go into the mainline. Then periodically perform your review process (whether it is in person, remote, synchronous, asynchronous, etc.). Once the code passes a final review process, then it goes in the mainline. If there are serious problems, the code sits in a branch, a developer improves it, and it tries again next time.

We have had excellent results with this approach, maintaining software quality for years on end even through ongoing development team turnover.


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