Mat Marquis

Mat “Wilto” Marquis is a designer-slash-developer working at Filament Group, in Boston. Mat is a member of the jQuery Mobile team, an active member of the open source community, and a contributor to A List Apart where he also acts as technical editor and curator. Mat's passion for responsive web design has led him to chair the Responsive Images Community Group, where he’s helping the web design community deal with the complex topic of responsive images and working towards a standardized solution with the W3C.

Mat is also well known for posting some of the wittiest, funniest tweets out there. So go ahead: check him out @wilto.

Published Thoughts

I don’t have any big dramatic send-off planned here, apart from thanking you all for putting up with my nonsense for an entire year. Instead I’m gonna tell you to write more in 2014. Not in an “I’m going to start a gym membership this year” kinda way, either. I mean it like “start typing.”

I know this is an easy thing to shrug off with “I don’t have any ideas,” but give it a shot anyway—start putting some words down on paper and see what it turns into. Writing without a big dramatic idea in mind is like stretching a sore muscle: not always the most pleasant feeling, but at least it gets things moving.

Meanwhile go get yourself a deadline, or the post will never quite happen. There are lots of places to get one of those. Otherwise you’re gonna wait for the perfect idea to come along, and then you are gonna tell yourself you’ll write it in your “spare time” and, listen, none of us have any of that anymore. It just won’t end up happening; it will be a non-post forever destined for a blog somewhere that never gets updated. I have one of those too.

So, yes. I am telling you to go sign up to write something with a deadline before you have so much as a fully-formed idea. Additionally, I am making “buk buk buh-gawk” noises at you. I’m calling you out because I want to see more posts from more new voices next year, and if you’re anything like me it won’t happen unless you jump in with both feet. Send me something on Twitter or wherever, and I’ll help you make it happen.

Get out of here. Seriously. Go away. It’s Thanksgiving*: go eat a pie or drink a beer or drink nine beers or curse with/at/near a family member. Put your phone away—the internet isn’t going anywhere. You can skip a day.

*Non-US readers: my advice stands.

Adjusting the Ignition Point Timing on a 1978 Triumph Bonneville T140E

Remove the right cylinder spark plug and carefully set it aside. Note that carefulness is optional here, as you accidentally ordered four times as many spare plugs as can possibly be applied to a motorcycle at one time, barring the use of a hot glue gun. Consider that you do not actually have a hot glue gun. Regret having an account on

Pull the carpenter’s pencil from behind your ear and split it lengthwise along the lead. Take the half containing the lead and reflexively shove it back behind your ear. If this step is done correctly, you will now have splinters in the side of your head. What is wrong with you; why would you even do that. Drop non-ear-splinter length of pencil into the cylinder head.

Finding the cylinder’s lowest point can be accomplished by manipulating the kickstart lever by hand, making a series of marks on the length of broken carpenter’s pencil at the top of the spark plug port. Note that it will take significant effort to manipulate the kickstart lever by hand, and that there is probably a better way of doing this. If desired, take a moment to reflect on how much stronger you were when you worked with your hands. Wonder whether the memory of your father’s toughness has become exaggerated in the years since his death. Recall the time you witnessed a 4x4 that was propping up a roof—curved like a bow—spring loose from a floor jack and hit him across the face; recall that the entirety of his reaction was to curse quietly to himself. Curse quietly to yourself. During this time, you may find that you have dislocated your shoulder—this is normal. Curse loudly at yourself.

Once you’ve found the cylinder’s lowest point in the above manner, place a mark 3/8" up from the mark at the lowest point. Manipulate the kickstart lever by han—… You will find a vial of ibuprofen in one of the inside pockets of your electrical toolbag. Manipulate the kickstart lever by hand until this new mark aligns with the top of the spark plug port. Your engine is now at “top dead center.” You think. You aren’t entirely sure what that is. In any case: you are done with this part. Replace the spark plug.

Adjust the position of the ignition point adjustment plate until the right-hand cam follower—a white plastic tab—aligns with the notched mark on the end of the camshaft. Secure the point adjustment plate with the top and bottom pillar bolts.

Congratulations: it is not entirely unlikely that you have properly set your ignition point timing.

If you should now have difficulty in starting, uneven idling, or misfiring: consider that a reasonable person would not have purchased a bike that is made up of parts older than said person’s own parts, and that it is entirely your own dumbass fault. Repeat the above steps as needed.

This may come as a shock to many of you, but I have something of a temper. I know, I know. I like to think that I got pretty good at steering it, in thirty years. I don’t snap at people. I don’t go picking fights, I mean, unless you need to get off your [redacted] phone and drive; this is a [continued redaction] crosswalk, [incredibly redacted].

I needed that anger, when I was freelancing. I was mad because I wasn’t supposed to “make it,” on paper. It worked—it got my blood moving every morning. I had something to prove. It sharpened me up; it gave me focus.

Now, though, I catch myself gritting my teeth at something three, four, five times a day. Links to all manner of terribleness are constantly popping up on some part of my screen. There’s always something to be righteously furious about—something that makes me want to knock the awful out of someone via TCP/IP. But, man, it is tiring, and all that fuming sure as hell doesn’t fix anything. I’ve lost all the focus I had, because there’s just so much to be outraged about, every day. There’s just too much.

The bottom line is that I’ve only got so much typing left in my hands. I figure I can burn what I have left by idly threatening to punch various and sundry faces, or I can try to use them to do some honest-to-God good. I don’t know what that means just yet, but I know ratcheting up my blood pressure isn’t the right first step.

This is a post about craftsmanship. I know you’ve read plenty of these already, but indulge me. This one isn’t quite the same.

A lot of these kinds of posts are about taking pride in your craft, comparing you to architects and sculptors. I’m not gonna do that, here. I’m going to talk to you about doing honest-to-God, unglamorous work, and taking pride in that.

Our aim is to design and build something that will allow users to do whatever it is that they need to do, then get out of their way. It’s not as fancy as I think we sometimes make it out to be—we’re not artists or poets. We just make websites. That’s my go-to response when people ask me what I do for a living: “I make websites.” I’m not a something-engineer or a whatever-architect, and I’m sure as hell no “rockstar” or “ninja.” I make websites. I’m alright with that; you should be too.

When you lose the fancy titles and the posturing and the industry-wide identity crises, all that’s left to this gig is sitting your ass down and putting in the work. This is a brand new career, in relative terms. When we lose the comparisons to other jobs, this job—this entire industry—can be whatever we want it to be. We can plunk down for eight hours, build something that works as much as it has to in the umpteen browsers someone put on a list of browsers that are easy to support, or we can work harder. We can do whatever gets us a paycheck and sends us home—we can make this “just some job”—or we can make up our minds that “it’s how we’ve always done things” isn’t a real reason for anything. We can pick apart every technique we take for granted, build new ones, and share them with each other. We can file away the “browsers we need to support” list and never look at it again, and never tell a soul—because we’ll make sure any user with any browser has access. We’ll build things the right way because we can; because that’s just what we do. That’s what we’ve decided this job should be.

It’s not easy, and I don’t aim to make it sound like it is. It’s frustrating. You’re making more work for yourself than you need to, sure, but you’ll also be building something you can be enormously proud of. Some people want their paychecks and to go home, and that’s fine. You and me, though—we’re gonna work harder than they do. We’ll build things that ensure that entire populations just setting foot on the web for the first time can tap into the collected knowledge of the whole of mankind.

The hell with being a rockstar; I didn’t have the hair for it anyway.

I make websites.

My old man taught me to cook back when I was a kid. I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life, so it was largely a matter of survival in my household. Plus, Ma can’t cook to save her life. Sorry, Ma.

My father, though, was a great cook. I figured he was just naturally good at it; I mean, the guy could do a lot of things. I never questioned it until a couple of years ago, watching a French cooking show; they “finished” a sauce by swirling in a few pats of butter. “Beurre monté,” they called it. I’d done that—the butter acts as an emulsifier, when you get it right. I knew that the butter had to be added cold, and I knew the temperature had to be hot enough that it melted fast, but low enough that it wouldn’t “break.” I did not know that it was, like, a thing with accent marks and whatnot.

It turned out that my father had learned how to cook from my great-grandmother’s boyfriend of decades, Tom. Tom was a classically trained French chef—I guess he was pretty famous around Boston, back in the day. My father never really learned the vocab or it just never stuck with him, but he didn’t teach it to me because he didn’t know it himself. He just knew how cooking worked.

They say you don’t really know something unless you can explain it, but I’m not sure that’s always completely true. Then again, I’m a vegetarian, so I can’t eat most of what I make anyway. For all I know, I’m a lousy cook.

I’ve been doing this—on a very focused topic—for coming up on two years now, and encountered resistance every step of the way. It has been incredibly frustrating, and for a long time occupied every bit as many hours of my free time as a part-time job would, for myself and a handful of other members of my community group. Despite the efforts of dozens of native and web developers, despite tremendous and highly vocal support from the developer community, and despite the formal publication of our proposed spec, we have made next to no real-world progress. When we engage UA representatives, we’re usually met by something to the tune of “you should involve more browser representatives in these discussions” and a prompt end to the discussion we aimed to start. There has been no implementation progress, apart from a Chromium implementation done by one of our members. There is no incentive to help us. We’re largely regarded as pests.

It sounds like a ton of work because it is. It isn’t pleasant work, and you’ll receive very little help along the way. And after putting enough time and effort into it for—literally—several years, you may not make any progress anyway.

I left this comment on a G+ post about getting more web developers involved in web standards, last month.

I should say up-front that I do stand by it: working in web standards is incredibly frustrating. It involves no small amount of interaction with people who seem to have graduated from the Hacker News Commenter School of Diplomacy. We “authors” don’t hold much weight in standards discussions; at least, nowhere near as much as browser representatives do.

Now, do I think more full-time designers and web developers should get involved in standards, after all this glowing endorsement? Absolutely. The fact is, we don’t have the kind of voice we ought to have because we’re not there. “Author preference” is very often used to argue for or against something in a standards discussion, but very few of us are around to agree or disagree. We’re a talking point more than we’re active participants.

Join a mailing list, start a community group; make yourself heard. When you see someone post “I think developers will prefer X,” speak up. When you’re building something and find yourself cursing out some strange syntax or thinking to yourself “this would have made so much more sense if,” don’t chalk it up to someone in web standards dropping the ball. Don’t assume someone with a louder voice than yours is going to keep it from happening again.

As I write this, I’m on lockdown. “Shelter-in-place.”

It’s the first day that really feels like Spring—the first day that doesn’t just feel like a reprieve from Winter, but the honest-to-God start of Springtime. It would be a beautiful day today.

One town over, the police are chasing down one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. I woke up to sirens on Mass Ave. and they haven’t stopped yet—not that I’ve noticed, anyway, and I’ve been listening.

There hasn’t been any news in a while. People were tweeting out information on the Police scanner, giving away locations and plans. The scanner has gone silent.

It’s quiet save for the bells of St. John’s church down the street, and the sirens. It’s quiet and I don’t know what to do.

I did Pixelworkers’ Origin Story podcast a few days ago, and it has me thinking. I get uneasy when I think back on how I got here. A smirking kind of uneasy, like telling a bar story about a near-miss and changing the subject before you have time to consider how it might have gone instead. I go over the “if”s once in a while just to reassure myself that they didn’t happen, like touching a wall to help me keep my balance.

If entire generations didn’t live and die to give me a shot at a better life than a framing hammer and a ruined spine.

If the friends I made at Wellesley hadn’t taken in some ratty kid sleeping in his car and taught him how to put together a halfway-convincing “responsible adult” costume.

If not for friends handing me a couple of particularly fortunate gigs.

If I’d wavered; if I’d given up.

If I weren’t so goddamned lucky.

That one echoes. “If I weren’t so lucky.” Not as veiled self-congratulation for whatever successes or a smug celebration of any particularly fortunate standing, but to keep me honest. I worked hard, sure, but where would I be if my luck had been just a little worse at the wrong times? Not here. If I weren’t so goddamned lucky, I don’t know where I’d be right now.

This hurts to write. I mean, it literally hurts—my hands are killing me lately. This New England weather, man.

I don’t like to talk about it much, but my skeleton is basically held together with the organic equivalent of kite string and “wishing super hard.” I’ve got a condition called “Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome,” one of the “hypermobility” types. It’s a one-in-tens-of-thousands genetic mutation that more or less makes me Bizarro Wolverine, if you’ll pardon my mixing of comic universes.

It hits everyone a little differently, and I’m fortunate enough not to have any of the particularly nasty kinds—the ones where blood vessels and/or organs are made of stretchy tissue paper, for example. I have a type where the only thing holding my joints in place are the joints themselves, more or less. I’ll partially dislocate things—fingers, wrists, shoulders, ankles—a couple of times a day, just by way of using them normally. The upshot is that it isn’t really painful popping something out of joint, the way it would be if I were put together right—most times I don’t notice. For example, I realized a few days ago that I hold my iPad with my left wrist partially out of joint, and I didn’t even notice. The downside is that my joints hurt, every day, for as long as I’ve known me. I take a lot of Motrin, and I carry a roll of hockey tape with me.

When I was a kid—real young—I had to sleep with metal bars binding my feet together so my hips wouldn’t be out of their sockets all night. My parents were told I’d likely never walk—not normally, anyway—but I lucked out there. A handful of years and a few bad decisions ago, it led to me wrenching up my back bad enough that a partially-herniated disc clamped off my right sciatic nerve. I walked with a limp for a couple of years. The nerve damage wasn’t bad enough that it was permanent, thankfully, but it still aches some days.

I’m not the “degenerative” type, for which I am tremendously thankful—the condition won’t get worse in and of itself. I’m not gonna wake up some morning with one arm over on the other side of the room, knock on wood. It’s gonna cause my joints to wear out a lot faster than they should. When I was twenty or so, a doctor told me I had the joints of a sixty year old. I’m thirty now.

That part scares me; my hands in particular. I need these things to get work done. It wouldn’t be abrupt, but at some point they’ll hurt too much to be useful—someday those joints will be so “old” that they’ll stop working altogether. I mean, they sure as hell aren’t gonna get any better. Every time I hear something “pop” as I reach for a key—even as we speak—it sounds an awful lot like a ticking clock.

Been colder than usual, though, this winter. That’s probably all it is, for now.

That’s probably all it is.

The web is awesome. I don’t mean “awesome” in the Ninja-Turtle-parlance sense, either—I mean that the web is something deserving of our awe; like the ocean, like space. Almost all of us are carrying—in our pockets—a tiny sheet of glass that can access thousands of years’ worth of information on an unimaginable range of subjects. Within a matter of minutes, any of us can know damn near anything. I hope that never stops blowing my mind.

I’m constantly amazed by this thing we’re building together, and I consider it a genuine privilege to be able to make a living doing something I care about. If I should ever become jaded about this stuff, I hope that’ll be the same day I find myself a new career. Slowly, I assume, by way of newspaper ads and a red Sharpie.

…They still make both of those, yeah?