Tags: opensource

3

sparkline

Just change it

Amber and I often have meta conversations about the nature of learning and teaching. We swap books and share ideas and experiences whenever we’re trying to learn something or trying to teach something. A topic that comes up again and again is the idea of “the curse of knowledge“—it’s the focus of Steven Pinker’s book The Sense Of Style. That’s when the author/teacher can’t remember what it’s like not to know something, which makes for a frustrating reading/learning experience.

This is one of the reasons why I encourage people to blog about stuff as they’re learning it; not when they’ve internalised it. The perspective that comes with being in the moment of figuring something out is invaluable to others. I honestly think that most explanatory books shouldn’t be written by experts—the “curse of knowledge” can become almost insurmountable.

I often think about this when I’m reading through the installation instructions for frameworks, libraries, and other web technologies. I find myself put off by documentation that assumes I’ve got a certain level of pre-existing knowledge. But now instead of letting it get me down, I use it as an opportunity to try and bridge that gap.

The brilliant Safia Abdalla wrote a post a while back called How do I get started contributing to open source?. I definitely don’t have the programming chops to contribute much to a codebase, but I thoroughly agree with Safia’s observation:

If you’re interested in contributing to open source to improve your communication and empathy skills, you’re definitely making the right call. A lot of open source tools could definitely benefit from improvements in the documentation, accessibility, and evangelism departments.

What really jumps out at me is when instructions use words like “simply” or “just”. I’m with Brad:

“Just” makes me feel like an idiot. “Just” presumes I come from a specific background, studied certain courses in university, am fluent in certain technologies, and have read all the right books, articles, and resources. “Just” is a dangerous word.

But rather than letting that feeling overwhelm me, I now try to fix the text. Here are a few examples of changes I’ve suggested, usually via pull requests on Github repos:

They all have different codebases in different programming languages, but they’re all intended for humans, so having clear and kind documentation is a shared goal.

I like suggesting these kinds of changes. That initial feeling of frustration I get from reading the documentation gets turned into a warm fuzzy feeling from lending a helping hand.

The meaning of AMP

Ethan quite rightly points out some semantic sleight of hand by Google’s AMP team:

But when I hear AMP described as an open, community-led project, it strikes me as incredibly problematic, and more than a little troubling. AMP is, I think, best described as nominally open-source. It’s a corporate-led product initiative built with, and distributed on, open web technologies.

But so what, right? Tom-ay-to, tom-a-to. Well, here’s a pernicious example of where it matters: in a recent announcement of their intent to ship a new addition to HTML, the Google Chrome team cited the mood of the web development community thusly:

Web developers: Positive (AMP team indicated desire to start using the attribute)

If AMP were actually the product of working web developers, this justification would make sense. As it is, we’ve got one team at Google citing the preference of another team at Google but representing it as the will of the people.

This is just one example of AMP’s sneaky marketing where some finely-shaved semantics allows them to appear far more reasonable than they actually are.

At AMP Conf, the Google Search team were at pains to repeat over and over that AMP pages wouldn’t get any preferential treatment in search results …but they appear in a carousel above the search results. Now, if you were to ask any right-thinking person whether they think having their page appear right at the top of a list of search results would be considered preferential treatment, I think they would say hell, yes! This is the only reason why The Guardian, for instance, even have AMP versions of their content—it’s not for the performance benefits (their non-AMP pages are faster); it’s for that prime real estate in the carousel.

The same semantic nit-picking can be found in their defence of caching. See, they’ve even got me calling it caching! It’s hosting. If I click on a search result, and I am taken to page that has a URL beginning with https://www.google.com/amp/s/... then that page is being hosted on the domain google.com. That is literally what hosting means. Now, you might argue that the original version was hosted on a different domain, but the version that the user gets sent to is the Google copy. You can call it caching if you like, but you can’t tell me that Google aren’t hosting AMP pages.

That’s a particularly low blow, because it’s such a bait’n’switch. One of the reasons why AMP first appeared to be different to Facebook Instant Articles or Apple News was the promise that you could host your AMP pages yourself. That’s the very reason I first got interested in AMP. But if you actually want the benefits of AMP—appearing in the not-search-results carousel, pre-rendered performance, etc.—then your pages must be hosted by Google.

So, to summarise, here are three statements that Google’s AMP team are currently peddling as being true:

  1. AMP is a community project, not a Google project.
  2. AMP pages don’t receive preferential treatment in search results.
  3. AMP pages are hosted on your own domain.

I don’t think those statements are even truthy, much less true. In fact, if I were looking for the right term to semantically describe any one of those statements, the closest in meaning would be this:

A statement used intentionally for the purpose of deception.

That is the dictionary definition of a lie.

Update: That last part was a bit much. Sorry about that. I know it’s a bit much because The Register got all gloaty about it.

I don’t think the developers working on the AMP format are intentionally deceptive (although they are engaging in some impressive cognitive gymnastics). The AMP ecosystem, on the other hand, that’s another story—the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP pages in the carousel and in search results; that’s messed up.

Still, I would do well to remember that there are well-meaning people working on even the fishiest of projects.

Except for the people working at the shitrag that is The Register.

(The other strong signal that I overstepped the bounds of decency was that this post attracted the pond scum of Hacker News. That’s another place where the “well-meaning people work on even the fishiest of projects” rule definitely doesn’t apply.)

Open source

Building and maintaining an open-source project is hard work. That observation is about as insightful as noting the religious affiliation of the pope or the scatological habits of woodland bears.

Nolan Lawson wrote a lengthy post describing what it feels like to be an open-source maintainer.

Outside your door stands a line of a few hundred people. They are patiently waiting for you to answer their questions, complaints, pull requests, and feature requests.

You want to help all of them, but for now you’re putting it off. Maybe you had a hard day at work, or you’re tired, or you’re just trying to enjoy a weekend with your family and friends.

But if you go to github.com/notifications, there’s a constant reminder of how many people are waiting

Most of the comments on the post are from people saying “Yup, I hear ya!”

Jan wrote a follow-up post called Sustainable Open Source: The Maintainers Perspective or: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love Open Source:

Just because there are people with problems in front of your door, that doesn’t mean they are your problems. You can choose to make them yours, but you want to be very careful about what to care about.

There’s also help at hand in the shape of Open Source Guides created by Nadia Eghbal:

A collection of resources for individuals, communities, and companies who want to learn how to run and contribute to an open source project.

I’m sure Mark can relate to all of the tales of toil that come with being an open-source project maintainer. He’s been working flat-out on Fractal, sometimes at work, but often at home too.

Fractal isn’t really a Clearleft project, at least not in the same way that something like Silverback or UX London is. We’re sponsoring Fractal as much as we can, but an open-source project doesn’t really belong to anyone; everyone is free to fork it and take it. But I still want to make sure that Mark and Danielle have time at work to contribute to Fractal. It’s hard to balance that with the bill-paying client work though.

I invited Remy around to chat with them last week. It was really valuable. Mind you, Remy was echoing many of the same observations made in Nolan’s post about how draining this can be.

So nobody here is under any illusions that this open-source lark is to be entered into lightly. It can be a gruelling exercise. But then it can also be very, very rewarding. One kind word from somebody using your software can make your day. I was genuinely pleased as punch when Danish agency Shift sent Mark a gift to thank him for all his hard work on Fractal.

People can be pretty darn great (which I guess is an underlying principle of open source).