Where are the non-English programming languages? Thoughts prompted by a small but mighty bug

A short two-parter

Part 1: A small-but-mighty bug

I’m doing a few coding-for-designers workshops with the students in the MA Graphic Media Design programme at the LCC, the first one was this past Thursday.

We’re focusing on web stuff since that’s what they expressed the most interest in and it’s in my wheelhouse. We started with a broad and brief overview of code, about how we use human-readable programming languages to communicate with computers. But 99% of the time, when we say “human-readable” we really mean “English-based”. More on this later.

After my short intro, we put together a simple webpage with HTML and CSS. A few of the students ran in to a small-but-mighty bug that I’ve never encountered before.

We were working on a basic CSS rule set, something like:

body {
  background-color: linear-gradient(blue, pink);
}

And for one of the students, it just wasn’t working. I checked it a bunch of times, it was all typed perfectly. No missing spaces or characters, spelling was fine. VSCode indicated that the background-color declaration wasn’t finished, which seemed weird. I looked really closely at it and noticed that the semicolon seemed a little thinner than the others in the file.

Turns out that the student had typed a full-width semicolon (U+FF1B) instead of a semicolon (U+003B). The full-width semicolon is used in Chinese to “demarcate parallel structures in a paragraph”. Another student ran in to the same problem a few minutes later, using a full-width left curly bracket (U+FF5B) instead of a left curly bracket (U+007B).

I had asked them to type in a semicolon, to type in a curly bracket, and so they typed the characters the way they normally do in their native languages. Super understandable.

If you were just starting to learn what code is and how it works, I can’t imagine how hard it would be to debug this sort of language-based problem on your own.

Part 2: Where are the non-English programming languages?

Gretchen McCulloch wrote a very worthwhile Wired article titled “Coding Is for Everyone—as Long as You Speak English”. I feel like every programmer / dev should read it.

Programming doesn’t have to be English-centric. As McCulloch puts it:

The computer doesn’t care. The computer is already running an invisible program (a compiler) to translate your IF or <body> into the 1s and 0s that it functions in, and it would function just as effectively if we used a potato emoji 🥔 to stand for IF and the obscure 15th century Cyrillic symbol multiocular O ꙮ to stand for <body>.

How would we go about implementing non-English HTML tags? W3C has an FAQ on the topic where they state that “HTML or XHTML tags are all pre-defined (in English) and must remain that way if they are to be correctly recognized by user agents (eg. browsers).

Since browsers just implement the standards set by W3C (I’m pretty sure that’s right?), I’m guessing that W3C would have to approve it if we wanted native non-English HTML support. It seems like it would be a bit of a mountain to climb but if we take something like Wikipedia’s translation efforts as an example, surely there are tons of people out there that would help with translation?

Gonna keep an eye on this. Need to find a book or good article on the history of ALGOL.

Using CSS, HTML, and maybe a little logic to display images with a consistent surface area

Every once in a while, I have to figure out how to display images on the web with a consistent surface area. It’s usually in relation to making a lot of logos with very different aspect ratios look evenly sized so that none of them stick out like a sore thumb.

I haven’t had to do this in a while but came across a tweet by Nick Sherman that prompted me to think about it again.

To achieve an evenly-sized group of images, you have to calculate a maximum width that is proportionate to the surface area you want. To do this, you need to be able to calculate a square root, you need the width and height of each original image, and all of your images need to be tightly cropped since extra negative space will throw things off visually.

In the past, I’ve achieved this with logic since vanilla CSS doesn’t currently support a sqrt() function (more on this later). I’ve usually used PHP since I tend to work with Kirby CMS pretty often.

The function in PHP:

function max_img_width($img_width, $img_height, $ideal_area) {
  $max_width = round($img_width * sqrt($ideal_area / ($img_width * $img_height)));
  echo $max_width;
}

And the function in use + corresponding HTML:

<img style="max-width: <?php max_img_width(1500, 3000, 40000); ?>px;" src="https://piperhaywood.com/my-image.jpg">

A CSS-only solution that works now

There seems to be a CSS-only way to go about this though. Apparently you can approximate square roots in CSS by using a series of CSS variables and calc(), see more info in this thread.

Here’s the CSS and the image markup:

img {
  --width: 0;
  --height: 0;
  --ideal-area: 40000;
  --area: calc(var(--logo-width) * var(--logo-height));
  --ratio: calc(var(--ideal-area) / var(--area));
  --guess01: calc(calc(var(--ratio) + calc( var(--ratio) / var(--ratio))) / 2);
  --guess02: calc(calc(var(--guess01) + calc( var(--ratio) / var(--guess01))) / 2);
  --guess03: calc(calc(var(--guess02) + calc( var(--ratio) / var(--guess02))) / 2);
  --guess04: calc(calc(var(--guess03) + calc( var(--ratio) / var(--guess03))) / 2);
  --guess05: calc(calc(var(--guess04) + calc( var(--ratio) / var(--guess04))) / 2);
  --guess06: calc(calc(var(--guess05) + calc( var(--ratio) / var(--guess05))) / 2);
  --guess07: calc(calc(var(--guess06) + calc( var(--ratio) / var(--guess06))) / 2);
  --guess08: calc(calc(var(--guess07) + calc( var(--ratio) / var(--guess07))) / 2);
  max-width: calc(var(--width) * var(--guess08) / 2 * 1px);
}
<img style="--width: 1500; --height: 3000;" src="https://piperhaywood.com/my-image.jpg">

I’d want to do some more browser testing since this results in a pretty gnarly calc() situation by --guess08, but at first glance this seems like it might be a worthwhile solution. It doesn’t give us exactly proportionate surface areas but it gets very close. It only starts to fall apart with super skyscraper-y and letterbox-y images.

A few quick notes regarding why this is written as it is and ways that it could be tweaked:

I capped the number of guesses at eight because any more seemed to just fail, Chrome and Safari wouldn’t interpret such a big calc() equation.

I set the default width and height to zero so that there is no max width restriction if the image tag is missing the width and height CSS variables. This could be changed, as could the ideal area variable (increase to get larger images, decrease to get smaller).

The 1px value in the max-width calculation is required so that the value is interpreted as a unit. That said, it doesn’t have to be pixels! Could change this to another unit like 1em or 1%.

If I wanted to display these evenly centred, I’d probably give the images some margin and then wrap them in a container with styles as below:

.container {
  align-items: center;
  display: flex;
  flex-wrap: wrap;
  justify-content: center;
}

Could also use CSS grid for a more consistent spacing result.

And a final reminder: this only visually scales the images. Try to avoid loading a 3000px wide image if you’re going to be displaying it around 200px wide, your users and the planet will thank you.

A CSS-only solution that might work in the future

So apparently more complex math functions including sqrt() might be coming to CSS in the future! See this issue raised by Lea Verou in the CSS specifications editor’s drafts repo and the exponential functions section from CSS Values and Units Module Level 4 in the W3C editor’s draft from 3 February 2020 (a couple days ago!).

I’m not sure when this would become part of the spec and no idea if / when the browsers might implement them, but here is a snippet that should work with that new function in theory:

img {
  --width: 0;
  --height: 0;
  --ideal-area: 40000;
  max-width: calc(var(--width) * sqrt(calc(var(--ideal-area) / calc(var(--width) * var(--height)))) / 2 * 1px);
}

I’m happy that Nick asked the question on Twitter, I actually need this on an upcoming project where I’ve only got Twig to work with which doesn’t support square roots, and I’d prefer to avoid JavaScript in this instance. Hopefully this is the solution, will update here if so.

A picture says a thousand words, so see Nick’s very nice demo of area-based image sizing with CSS to check out one possible outcome.


Edit 05.02.20

Edited a few words for clarity, added Nick’s demo, added future example incorporating a CSS-based sqrt() function.

Thanks Sam Baldwin for bringing future math function support in CSS to my attention!

Edit 06.02.20

Simplified the PHP + HTML example.

The original PHP + HTML example used a --max-width CSS variable instead of just applying a max-width directly. I used a CSS variable because I thought that they were compliant with a strict Content Security Policy that includes the style-src directive set to unsafe-inline. That assumption was incorrect, though there does seem to be some discussion about the topic.

Thanks Lizzie Malcolm for questioning the CSS var usage in the PHP example!

Edit 18.02.20

Changed parenthesis-enclosed arithmetic so that each is enclosed in calc(). Plain CSS seems to interpret arithmetic enclosed in parenthesis just fine, but SASS doesn’t seem to like it.

Switching from Google Analytics to Matomo (f.k.a. Piwik) on WordPress

It’s a new decade, time to leave Google Analytics.

A big part of me wants to say screw it, just get rid of analytics altogether. But I find it interesting. I’ve never used it to decide what to write, and I don’t think I ever will, but it’s just fascinating to find out what makes the rounds. I’ll never know why a short post about repairing my mom’s straw bag was my most popular post for years, but I’m glad to know a lot of people checked it out.

So I decided to keep my Google Analytics property in place and just locked it down as much as I could. I adjusted the script to respect users’ Do Not Track browser settings (Paul Fawkesley has a short article about how to do this). I also configured Google Analytics to anonymise IP addresses, and I deliberately disabled Data Collection for Advertising Features, Demographics and Interest Reports, User-ID, and all data-sharing settings. I also set a low data retention policy to make sure old data would get deleted.

None of this changed the fact that I was still sharing data with Google.

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Site update: a new taxonomy index and a11y improvements

Just pushed an update to this site.

The Browse page is now mainly an index of taxonomies and archives (years, post formats, categories, tags). This new index replaces the opacity-based tag cloud. I kind of miss it, but it was problematic. Very hard to digest, and the lighter greys were way too low-contrast.

Besides the index, most of the changes are related to accessibility. I focused on making the tabbing experience a bit better, introducing a couple skip links. Note that I haven’t totally ironed out the tabbing… Most of my manual testing for this update was done in Chrome. I checked it briefly in Safari and it’s pretty weird, but I think it may have to do with the default Safari settings. I haven’t adjusted these yet, read more about Safari tab settings on a11yproject.com. Besides the tabbing, I also had a handful of links that weren’t suitably descriptive, particularly on the new term index. I added more aria-label attributes where I could. See the “Using aria-label for link purpose” page on the WCAG wiki for more info.

I’m trying to work on accessibility a bit more on an ongoing basis. Need to take a little dive in to this Hacker News thread, via this tweet.

See also:

There are probably a million a11y optimisations I can / should still make on this site. Suggestions are very welcome.

Edit 08.11.19 – Added Mozilla accessibility blog post

Exploring the use cases for serverless website architecture

Last Saturday, Sam introduced me to Chris Coyier’s talk on serverless-ness, The All-Powerful Front-End Developer. Pretty interesting and useful. I’m glad he leads it by breaking down the problematic nature of the word “serverless”! The following day was spent in agorama’s p2p workshop at furtherfield. Coincidentally, there is a lot of overlap in these topics.

I’ve spent the past few days wrapping my head around all of this, contextualising it against the sorts of concerns and projects we work with. Though I desperately want to get going with Dat, I’m starting with serverless because it may solve an urgent need in my day-to-day work. Right now, I’m spending much more time than I realistically can maintaining CMSs and hosting environments for older websites.

All of the below is a thought dump on the topic, an attempt to pick apart the meaning of and the use cases for a serverless website architecture.

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