This is the first time the conference has been back at Cafe 1001 since the start of the Pandemic and my first HalfStack since 2021’s on the Shore event.
In some ways Halfstack can seem like a bit of an outlandish conference but generally things that are highly experimental or flaky here turn up in refined mainstream forms three to five years later. Part of the point of the event is to question what is possible with the technologies we have and what might be possible with changes that are due in the future. Novelty, niche or pushing the envelope talks are about expanding the conversation about what is possible.
The first standout talk this year was by Stephanie Shaw about Design Systems. It tries to make the absurdist argument that visual memes meet all the criteria to be a design system before looking at what are the properties of a good design system that would disqualify memes. The first major point that resonated with me was that design systems are hot and lots of people say they have them when what they actually have are design principles, a component library or an illustration of UI variant behaviour.
I was also impressed that the talk had a slide dedicated to when a design system would be inappropriate. Context always matters in terms of implementing ideas in organisations and it is important to understand what the organisation needs and capabilities that are required to get value from an idea. Good design systems provide a strong foundation for rapid, consistent development and should demonstrate a clear return on the investment in them.
One of the talks that has stayed with me the longest was one that was about things that can be done now. I’ve seen Chris Heilmann talk about dev tools at previous conferences but this time the frame of the talk was different and was about using dev tools in the browser to make the web sane again. He reminded me that you can use the dev tools to edit the page. Annoying pop-up? Delete it! Right-click hijacked? Go into the handler bindings and unbind the customer listener. Auto-playing video? Change it’s attributes or again just delete the whole thing. He also did explain some new things that I wasn’t aware of such as the ability to take a screenshot of a specific node from within the DOM inspector. I’ve actually used that a few times since in my work.
There was an impromptu talk that was grounded in a context that was a little hard to follow (maintaining peer to peer memes in a centralised internet apocalypse I think) but was about encoding images into QR codes that included an explanation of how QR codes actually work and encode information (something I didn’t know). The speaker took the image data, transformed it into a series of QR codes, then had a website that displayed the QR codes in sequence and a web app that used a phone camera to scan the codes and reassemble the image locally. The scanning app was also able to understand where in the sequence the QR code was which created a kind of scanning line effect as it built up the image which was very cool to watch.
There were three talks that all involved a significant amount of simultaneous interaction and each using slightly different methods but clearly the theme was having many people together on a webpage interacting in near real time.
The first was by a pro developer relations person, Jo Franchetti, who works for Ably and who used the Ably API. Predictably this was the best working (and looking) demo with a fun Halloween theme around the idea of an ouija board or, more technically, trying to spell out messages by averaging all the subscribers’ mouse movements to create a single movement over the screen. However even using a commercial API, probably having no more than 25 connections and a single-screen UI my laptop still ground to a halt and had significant lag on the animations. It did look great projected on the big screen though.
Jo’s talk introduced me to an API I hadn’t heard of before scrollTo (part of a family of scrolling APIs). This is an example of how talks about things on the edge of the possible often come back to things that are more practical day to day.
James Allardice and Ross Greenhalf had the least successful take on the multiuser extension and in terms of presentation style seemed to be continuing an offstage squabble in front of everyone. I get the impression that they were very down on what they had been able to achieve and were perhaps hoping for a showcase example to promote their business.
Primarily they didn’t get this because they were bizarrely committed to AWS Lambda as the deployment platform. Their idea was to do a multiplayer version of Pong and it kind of worked, except the performance was terrible (for everyone this time, not just me). This in turn actually created a more fun experience that what they had intended to build as the lag meant you needed to be quite judicious in when you sent your command (up or down) to the server as there was a tendency to overshoot with too many people sending commands as ball approached and then another as they were waiting for the first one to take effect. You needed to slow down your reaction cycle and try and anticipate what other people would be doing.
The most creative multi-user demo was by Mynah Marie (aka Earth to Abigail who has been a performer at previous Halfstacks) who used Estuary to create a 15 person online jam session which was surprisingly harmonious for a large group with little in the way of being able to monitor your own sound (I immediately had more empathy for any musician who has asked the desk for less drums in their monitor). However synchronisation was again a big problem, not only did other people paste over my loops but also after leaving the session one of my loops remained stubbornly playing until killed by the admin despite me not being able to access the session again, I was given a new user identity and no-one seemed able to reconnect with the orphan session.
Probably the most mindblowing technical talk was by Ulysses Popple about his tool Nodessey which is both a graph editor or notebook and a way to feed values into nodes that can then visualise the input they are receiving from their parent nodes. It reminded me a bit of PureData. I found following the talk, which was a mixture of notes and live-coded examples, a bit tricky as its an unusual design and trying to follow how the data structure was working while also trying to follow the implementation was tricky for me.
One thing I found personally interesting is that Nodessey is built on top of a minimal framework called Hyperapp which I love but have never seen anyone else use. I now see that I have very much underestimated the power of the framework and I want to start trying to use it more again.
Michele Riva did a talk about the use of English in programming languages which had a helpful introduction to programming languages that had been created in non-English languages. As an English speaker you tend to not need to ever leave the US-led universe of English based languages but it was interesting to see how other language communities had approached making programming accessible for non-English speakers. There was a light touch on non-alphabetic languages and symbolic languages like J (and of course brainfuck).
Perhaps the most practical talk of the conference was by Ante Barić around browser extensions. I’ve found these really valuable for creating internal organisation tooling in a very lightweight way but as Chris Heilmann reminded us in his talk too many extensions end up hammering browser performance as they all attempt to intercept the network requests and render cycle. The talk used a version of Clippy to create annoying commentary on the websites you were visiting but it had some useful insight into what is happening with browser extensions and future plans from both the Google and Mozilla teams as well as practical ways to build and use them.
Ante mentioned a tool that I was previously unaware of called web-ext that is a Mozilla project but which might be able to build out Chrome extensions in the future and gives a simplified framework for putting together extensions.
Food and drink is available when you want it just by showing the staff your conference lanyard. Personally I think it is great when conferences are able to be so flexible around letting people eat when they want to and avoiding the massive queues for food that typically happen when you try and cram an entire conference into a buffet in 90 minutes. I think it also helps include people who may have particular eating patterns that might not easily fit into scheduled tea and lunch breaks. It also makes it feel less like school.
In terms of COVID risk, the conference was mostly unmasked and since part of the appeal is the food and drink I felt like I wasn’t going to be changing my risk very much by wearing a mask during the talk sections. The ventilation seemed good (the room could be a bit cold if you were sitting in the wrong place) and there was plenty of room so I never had to sit right next to someone. This is probably going to remain a conference that focuses on in-person socialising and therefore isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Having a mask mandate in the current environment would take courage. The open air “beach” version of the conference on the banks of the Thames would probably be more suitable for someone looking to avoid indoor spaces.