If you want a diverse community, you have to stand up for marginalized members

On Monday, The Perl Conference’s Standards of Conduct Committee published an incident report. In a talk at the conference, a speaker deadnamed and misgendered a member of the community. As a result, they took down the YouTube video of that talk.

The speaker in question happens to be a keynote speaker at PerlCon. The PerlCon organizers wrote a pretty awful post (that they have since edited) that essentially dismissed the concerns of the transgender members of the Perl community. They went on to mock the pain that deadnaming causes.

I did not think to save their post in the Wayback Machine before they edited it down to a brief and meaningless statement. “We are preparing a great conference and do not want to break the festival and trash our year-long hard work we did for preparing the confernece, the program and the entertainment program.”

What they don’t say is “we value the marginalized members of our community.” And they make that very clear. Editing out the insulting part of their post does not ,mean much, as VM Brasseur pointed out.

If you value an inclusive community, you have to stand up for the marginalized members when they are excluded. If you don’t, you make it very clear that you’re only giving lip service to the idea. As it is, the PerlCon organizers don’t even apologize. They’re more concerned about the bad publicity than the bad effect on the community.

Naming your language interpreters and ecosystem

Last week, Fedora contributors proposed to change the meaning of “python” from “python2” to “python3” starting with Fedora 31. This makes sense in the context of Python 2’s upcoming demise. But some feedback on the mailing list, including mine, wonders why we’re perpetuating it.

Should there also be no “pip”, no “pytest”, no “pylint”, … command? I would say “yes”. Admittedly, it’s avoiding future pain in exchange for some current pain. But we’re already dealing with a disruption, so why enable the same issues when it’s time for Python 4?

This is bigger than Python, though. If you’re following semantic versioning, I argue that you should name your interpreters and any ecosystem executables with the major version name. Unless you’re promising to always maintain backward compatibility (or to just stop working on the project), you’re eventually setting your users up for pain.

What about non-programming languages? This is probably good advice for anything with a client-server model (e.g. databases). Or anything else where the command is separated from other components of the ecosystem. You could extend this to any executable or script that may be called by another. That’s not wrong, but there’s probably a reasonable line to draw somewhere.

Wherever you draw the line, doing it from the beginning makes life easier when the new, incompatible version comes out.

What kind of documentation are you writing?

Hopefully the answer isn’t “none”! Let’s assume you’re writing documentation because you’re a wonderful person. Is it a comprehensive discussion of all the features in your software? Good…sort of.

There’s a place for in-depth, comprehensive reference documentation. And that place is often “over there in the corner collecting dust until someone really needs it.” By and large, people are going to need smaller, more task-focused docs. It’s a difference between reference guides and user guides. Or as I like to think of it: “what could I do?” versus “what should I do?” These are not the same documents.

“What could I do?” docs should be chock-full of facts that are easy to discover when you know what you’re looking for. They don’t have opinions, they just list facts. You go to them for an answer to a very specific question that has a correct answer.

“What should I do?” docs should be opinionated. “So you want to do X? The best way to do that is Y, Z.” They’re focused on accomplishing some use case that the reader can probably describe in human language, but might not know how to do technically.

A great example of “What should I do?” docs is the tldr project. Unlike man pages, which are generally reference docs, tldr-pages focus on use cases.

When I was more active in the HTCondor project, I often dreamed (sometimes literally) of writing a book about administering HTCondor pools. The developers had a great reference manual, but it often lacked the more opinionated “here’s what you should do and why.” It’s something we should all consider when we write documentation.

Don’t give gatekeepers a foothold

Gatekeepers are a problem in communities. They decide — often arbitrarily — who can and cannot be members of a community. Are you a true Scotsman? A gatekeeper will tell you. And if there’s something they don’t like about you, or they’re feeling particularly ornery, they’ll keep you away from the community.

Gatekeeping is a problem in open source communities. More experienced (or just louder) contributors set a bar that new contributors cannot meet. This is bad for folks who want to contribute to the project, and it’s bad for the project’s sustainability.

A recent Opensource.com article asked “What is a Linux user?“. In the initial version, it left open the possibility that if you’ve only used a Linux desktop that doesn’t require a ton of tinkering, then you’re not a real Linux user. Fortunately, the comments called this out quickly. And the author, to his credit, did not hold this view. He quickly updated the article.

The revised article does a much better job of closing the door on gatekeeping, but I would rather it have never run at all. By engaging in debate on the question, you give it validity. It’s best to deal with gatekeeping by not even acknowledging that the question is valid.

Community-contributed versus community-led projects

Chris Siebenmann recently wrote a post about Golang where he said: “Go is Google’s language, not the community’s.” The community makes contributions — sometimes important ones — but does not set the direction. We frequently use “community project” to mean two separate ideas: a corporate-lead project that accept community input and a project (that may have corporate backing) lead by the community.

Neither one is particularly better or worse, so long as we’re honest about kind of project we’re running. Community-contributed projects are likely to drive away some contributors, who don’t feel like they have an ownership stake in the project. Chris mentions that Go’s governance has this effect on him. And that’s okay if you’re making that decision on your project intentionally.

Some community-contributed projects would probably welcome being community-led, or at least somewhere closer to that. But technical or governance barriers may inadvertently make it too difficult for would-be contributors to ramp up. This is one area where I don’t think GitHub’s position as the dominant code hosting platform gets enough credit. By having a single account and consistent interface across many unrelated projects, it becomes much easier for someone to progress from being a bug filer to making small contributions to becoming (if the project allows it) a key contributor.

Pay maintainers! No, not like that!

A lot of people who work on open source software get paid to do so. Many others do not. And as we learned during the Heartbleed aftermath, sometimes the unpaid (or under-paid) projects are very important. Projects have changed their licenses (e.g. MongoDB, which is now not an open source project by the Open Source Initiative’s definition) in order to cut off large corporations that don’t pay for the free software.

There’s clearly a broad recognition that maintainers need to be paid in order to sustain the software ecosystem. So if you expect that people are happy with GitHub’s recent announcement of a GitHub Sponsors, you have clearly spent no time in open source software communities. The reaction has had a lot of “pay the maintainers! No, not like that!” which strikes me as being obnoxious and unhelpful.

GitHub Sponsors is not a perfect model. Bradley Kuhn and Karen Sandler of the Software Freedom Conservancy called it a “quick fix to sustainability“. That’s the most valid criticism. It turns out that money doesn’t solve everything. Throwing money at a project can sometimes add to the burden, not lessen it. Money adds a lot of messiness and overhead to manage it, especially if there’s not a legal entity behind the project. That’s where the services provided by fiscal sponsor organizations like Conservancy come in.

But throwing money at a problem can sometimes help it. Projects can opt in to accepting money, which means they can avoid the problems if they want. On the other hand, if they want to take in money, GitHub just made it pretty easy. The patronage model has worked well for artists, it could also work for coders.

The other big criticism that I’ll accept is that it puts the onus on individual sponsorships (indeed, that’s the only kind available at the moment), not on corporate:

Like with climate change or reducing plastic waste, the individual’s actions are insignificant compared to the effects of corporate action. But that doesn’t mean individual action is bad. If iterative development is good for software, then why not iterate on how we support the software? GitHub just reduced the friction of supporting open source developers significantly. Let’s start there and fix the system as we go.

Apache Software Foundation moves to GitHub

Last week, GitHub and the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) announced that ASF migrated their git repositories to GitHub. This caused a bit of a stir. It’s not every day that “the world’s largest open source foundation” moves to a proprietary hosting platform.

Free software purists expressed dismay. One person described it as “a really strange move In part because Apache’s key value add [was] that they provided freely available infrastructure.” GitHub, while it may be “free as in beer”, is definitely not “free as in freedom”. git itself is open source software, but GitHub “special sauce” is not.

For me, it’s not entirely surprising that ASF would make this move. I’ve always seen ASF as a more pragmatically-minded organization than, for example, the Free Software Foundation (FSF). I’d argue that the ecosystem benefits from having both ASF- and FSF-type organizations.

It’s not clear what savings ASF gets from this. Their blog post says they maintain their own mirrors, so there’s still some infrastructure involved. Of course, it’s probably smaller than running the full service, but by how much?

More than a reduced infrastructure footprint, I suspect the main benefit to the ASF is that it lowers the barrier to contribution. Like it or not, GitHub is the go-to place to find open source code. Mirroring to GitHub makes the code available, but you don’t get the benefits of integrating issues and pull requests (at least not trivially). Major contributors will do what it takes to adopt the tool, but drive by contributions should be as easy as possible.

There’s also another angle, which probably didn’t the drive the decision but brings a benefit nonetheless. Events like Hacktoberfest and 24 Pull Requests help motivate new contributors, but they’re based on GitHub repositories. Using GitHub as your primary forge means you’re accessible to the thousands of developers who participate in these events.

In a more ideal world, ASF would use a more open platform. In the present reality, this decision makes sense.

Releasing open source software is not immoral

Matt Stancliff recently made a bold statement on Twitter:

He made this comment in the context of the small amount of money the largest tech companies use to fund open source. With the five largest companies contributing less than a percentage of their annual revenue, open source projects would have two billion dollars of support. These projects are already subsidizing the large corporations, he argues, so they deserve some of the rewards.

This continues the recent trend of people being surprised that people will take free things and not pay for them. Developers who choose to release software under an open source license do so with the knowledge that someone else may use their software to make boatloads of money. Downstream users are under no obligation to remunerate or support upstreams in any way.

That said, I happen to think it’s the right thing to do. I contributed to Fedora as a volunteer for years as a way to “pay back” the community that gave me a free operating system. At a previous company, we made heavy use of an open source job scheduler/resource manager. We provided support on the community mailing lists and sponsored a reception at the annual conference. This was good marketing, of course, but it was also good community citizenship.

At any rate, if you want to make a moral judgment about open source, it’s not the release of open source software that’s the issue. The issue is parasitic consumption of open source software. I’m sure all of the large tech companies would say they support open source software, and they probably do in their own way. But not necessarily in the way that allows small-but-critical projects to thrive.

Toward a more moral ecosystem

Saying “releasing open source software has become immoral” is not helpful. Depriving large companies of open source would also deprive small companies and consumers. And it’s the large companies who could best survive the loss. Witness how MongoDB’s license change has Amazon using DocumentDB instead; meanwhile Linux distributions like Fedora are dropping MongoDB.

It’s an interesting argument, though, because normally when morality and software are in the mix, it’s the position that open source (or “free software” in this context, generally) is the moral imperative. That presents us with one possible solution: licensing your projects under a copyleft license (e.g. the GNU General Public License (GPL)). Copyleft-licensed software can still be used by large corporations to make boatloads of money, but at least it requires them to make source (including of derived works) available. With permissively-licensed software, you’re essentially saying “here’s my code, do whatever you want with it.” Of course people are going to take you up on that offer.

The Linux desktop is not in trouble

Writing for ZDNet earlier this month, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols declared trouble for the Linux desktop. He’s wrong.

Or maybe not. Maybe we’re just looking at different parts of the elephant. sjvn’s core argument, if I may sum it up, is that fragmentation is holding back the Linux desktop. Linux can’t gain significant traction in the desktop market because there are just so many options. This appeals to computer nerds, but leads to confusion for general users who don’t want to care about whether they’re running GNOME or KDE Plasma or whatever.

Fragmentation

I’m sympathetic to that argument. When I was writing documentation for Fedora, we generally wrote instructions for GNOME, since that was the default desktop. Fedora users can also choose from spins of KDE Plasma, LXQt, Xfce, plus can install other desktop environments. If someone installs KDE Plasma because that’s what their friend gave them, will they be able to follow the documentation? If not, will they get frustrated and move back to Windows or MacOS?

Even if they stick it out, there are two large players in the GUI toolkit world: GTK and Qt. You can use an app written in one in a desktop environment written in the other, but it doesn’t always look very good. And the configuration settings may not be consistent between apps, which is also frustrating.

Corporate indifference

Apart from that, sjvn also laments the lack of desktop effort from major Linux vendors:

True, the broad strokes of the Linux desktop are painted primarily by Canonical and Red Hat, but the desktop is far from their top priority. Instead, much of the nuts and bolts of the current generation of the Linux desktop is set by vendor-related communities: Red Hat, Fedora, SUSE’s openSUSE, and Canonical’s Ubuntu.

I would argue that this is the way it should be. As he notes in the preceding paragraph, the focus of revenue generation is on enterprise servers and cloud. There are two reasons for that: that’s where the customer money is and enterprises don’t want to innovate on their desktops.

I’ll leave the first part to someone else, but I think the “enterprises don’t want to innovate on their desktops” part is important. I’ve worked at and in support of some large organizations and in all cases, they didn’t want anything more from their desktops than “it allows our users to run their business applications in a reliable manner”. Combine this with the tendency of the enterprise to keep their upgrade cycles long and it makes no sense to keep desktop innovation in the enterprise product.

Community distributions are generally more focused on individuals or small organizations who may be more willing to accept disruptive change as the paradigm is moved forward. This is true beyond the desktop, too. Consider changes like the adoption of systemd or replacing yum with dnf: these also appeared in the community distributions first, but I didn’t see that used as a case for “enterprise Linux distributions are in trouble.”

What’s the answer?

Looking ahead, I’d love to see a foundation bring together the Linux desktop community and have them hammer out out a common desktop for everyone. Yes, I know, I know. Many hardcore Linux users love have a variety of choices. The world is not made up of desktop Linux users. For the million or so of us, there are hundreds of millions who want an easy-to-use desktop that’s not Windows, doesn’t require buying a Mac, and comes with broad software and hardware support.

Setting aside the XKCD #927 argument, I don’t know that this is an answer. Even if the major distros agreed to standardize on the same desktop (and with Ubuntu returning to GNOME, that’s now the case), that won’t stop effort on other desktops. If the corporate sponsors don’t invest any effort, the communities still will. People will use whatever is provided to them in the workplace, so presenting a single standard desktop to consumers will rely on the folks who make the community distributions to agree to that. It won’t happen.

But here’s the crux of my disagreement with this article. The facts are all correct, even if I disagree with the interpretation of some of them. The issue is that we’re not looking at the success of the Linux desktop in the same way.

If you define “Linux desktop” as “a desktop environment that runs the Linux kernel”, then ChromeOS is doing quite well, and will probably continue to grow (unless Google gets bored with it). In that case, the Linux desktop is not in trouble, it’s enjoying unprecedented success.

But when most people say “Linux desktop”, they think of a traditional desktop model. In this case, the threat to Linux desktops is the same as the threat to Windows and MacOS: desktops matter less these days. So much computing, particularly for consumers, happens in the web browser when done on a PC at all.

Rethinking the goal

This brings me back to my regular refrain: using a computer is a means, not an end. People don’t run a desktop environment to run a desktop environment, they run a desktop environment because it enables them to do the things they want to do. As those things are increasingly done on mobile or in the web browser, achieving dominant market share for desktops is no longer a meaningful goal (if, indeed, it ever was).

Many current Linux desktop users are (I guess), motivated at least in part by free software ideals. This is not a mainstream position. Consumers will need more practical reasons to choose any Linux desktop over the proprietary OS that was shipped by the computer’s manufacturer.

With that in mind, the answer isn’t standardization, it’s making the experience better. Fedora Silverblue and OpenSUSE Kubic are efforts in that direction. Using those as a base, with Flatpaks to distribute applications, the need for standardization at the desktop environment level decreases because the users are mostly interacting with the application level, one step above.

The usual disclaimer applies: I am a Red Hat employee who works on Fedora. The views in this post are my own and not necessarily the views of Red Hat, the Fedora Council, or anyone else. They may not even be my views by the time you read this.

Emoji in console output

Recently, my friend was talking about some output he got from running the minikub program. Each line included a leading emoji character. He was not thrilled, and I don’t think they did it well. But when used appropriately, emoji can add valuable context to the output.

root@test# minikube start
😄 minikube v1.0.0 on linux (amd64)
🤹 Downloading Kubernetes v1.14.0 images in the background ...
💡 Tip: Use 'minikube start -p <name>' to create a new cluster, or 'minikube delete' to delete this one.

💣 Unable to start VM: Error getting state for host: getting connection: looking up domain: virError(Code=42, Domain=10, Message='Domain not found: no domain with matching name 'minikube'')

😿 Sorry that minikube crashed. If this was unexpected, we would love to hear from you:
👉 https://github.com/kubernetes/minikube/issues/new
root@test# minikube delete
🔥 Deleting "minikube" from kvm2 ...
💔 The "minikube" cluster has been deleted

I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that I have written tools that include unhelpful emoji in the output. Some of the emoji are not helpful. The crying cat because it crashed? Doesn’t add anything. The broken heart when the cluster is deleted? I don’t have time for your guilt trips. But the light bulb for a tip and the bomb for a Big Bad Error help draw attention to what could be a wall of text.

Here’s what I see as some guiding ideas for using emoji in output:

  • Have a fallback, but not a stupid one. For the code above, there’s a fallback to ASCII. If you thought the emoji added no value, check out how un-valuable the fallback is. The fallback should probably be “print nothing and go straight to the text output”.
  • Don’t print emoji to logs. The console should be human-readable (and a well-placed emoji can help with drawing attention to the right places), but logs should be machine-readable (well, grep-readable). Log messages should be more structured anyway, so maybe it doesn’t really matter, but don’t rely on your user having an emoji keyboard available when they need to grep the logs.
  • Try to use unambiguous emoji. Pictograms are language-independent, which is nice, but if you’ve ever tried to communicate with A Youth via emoji, you know there’s a lot of room for nuance. Stick to well-understood characters and document them somewhere.
  • Use emoji to enhance context, not to replace text. Log parsing and screen readers are two reasons that you don’t want to get rid of text in favor of emoji. Use the emoji to draw attention to important messages and provide hints as to why they’re important, but make sure the messages still stand on their own.