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Spritely Goblins v0.7 released!

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Sun 13 September 2020

I'm delighted to say that Spritely Goblins v0.7 has been released! This is the first release featuring CapTP support (ie, "capability-secure distributed/networked programming support"), which is a huge milestone for the project!

Okay, caveat... there are still some things missing from the CapTP stuff so far; you can only set up a bidirectional connection between two machines, and can't "introduce" capabilities to other machines on the network. Also setting up connections is an extremely manual process. Both of those should be improved in the next release.

But still! Goblins can now be used to easily write distributed programs! And Goblins' CapTP code even includes such wild features as distributed garbage collection!

As an example (also mentioned in a recent blogpost), I recently wrote a short chat program demo. Both the client and server "protocol" code were less than 250 lines of code, despite having such features as authenticating users during subscription to the chatroom and verifying that messages claimed by the chatroom came from the users it said it did. (The GUI code, by contrast, was a little less than 300 lines.) I wrote this up without writing any network code at all and then tested hooking together two clients over Tor Onion Services using Goblins' CapTP support, and it Just Worked (TM):

Goblins chat GUI demo

What's interesting here is that not a single line of code was added to the backend or GUI to accomodate networking; the host and guest modules merely imported the backend and GUI files completely unchanged and did the network wiring there. Yes, that's what it sounds like: in Goblins you can write distributed asynchronous programs

This is the really significant part of Goblins that's starting to become apparent, and it's all thanks to the brilliant design of CapTP. Goblins continues to stand on the shoulders of giants; thank you to everyone in the ocap community, but especially in this case Michael FIG, Mark S. Miller, Kevin Reid, and Baldur Jóhannsson, all of whom answered an enormous amount of questions (some of them very silly) about CapTP.

There are more people to thank too (too many to list here), and you can see some of them in this monster thread on the captp mailing list which started on May 18th (!!!) as I went through my journey of trying to understand and eventually implement CapTP. I actually started preparing a few weeks before which really means that this journey took me about four and a half months to understand and implement. As it turns out, CapTP is a surprisingly simple protocol protocol in its coneptualization once you understand what it's doing (though implementing it is a bit more complex). I do hope to try to build a guide for others to understand and implement on their own systems... but that will probably wait until Goblins is ported to another language (due to the realative simplicity of the task due to the language similarities, the current plan is to port to Guile next).

Anyway. This is a big deal, a truly exciting moment for goblinkind. If you're excited yourself, maybe join the #spritely channel on irc.freenode.net.

OH! And also, I can't believe I nearly forgot to say this, but if you want to hear more about Spritely in general (not just Goblins), we just released a Spritely-centric episode of FOSS and Crafts. Maybe take a listen!

If you can't tell people anything, can you show them?

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Sat 29 August 2020

The other day I made a sadpost on the fediverse that said: "simultaneously regularly feel like people don't take the directions I'm trying to push seriously enough and that I'm not worth taking seriously". (Similarly, I've also joked that "imposter syndrome and a Cassandra complex are a hell of a combo" before.) I got a number of replies from people, both publicly and privately, and the general summary of most of them are, "We do care! The stuff you're working on seems really cool and valuable! I'll admit that I don't really know what it is you're talking about but it sounds important!" (Okay, and I just re-read, and it was only a portion of it that even said the latter part, but of course, what do I emphasize in my brain?) That was nice to hear that people care and are enthusiastic, and I did feel much better, but it did also kind of feel like confirmation that I'm not getting through to people completely either.

But then jfred made an interesting reply:

Yeah, that feels familiar. Impostor syndrome hits hard. You're definitely worth taking seriously though, and the projects you're working on are the most exciting ones I've been following.

As for people not taking the directions you're pushing seriously... I've felt the same at work, and I think part of it is that there's only so much one person can do. But also part of it is: http://habitatchronicles.com/2004/04/you-cant-tell-people-anything/

...it's hard to get ideas across to someone until they can interact with it themselves

So first of all, what a nice post! Second of all, it's kind of funny that jfred replied with this because out of everyone, jfred is one of the people who's picked up and understood what's happening in Spritely Goblins in particular the most, often running or creating demos of things on top of it using things I haven't even documented yet (so definitely not a person I would say isn't taking me seriously or getting what the work is doing).

But third, that link to Habitat Chronicles is right on point for a few reasons: first of all, Spritely is hugely influenced by the various generations of Habitat, from the original first-ever-graphical-virtual-worlds Habitat (premiering on the Commodore 64 in the mid 1980s, of all things!) to Electric Communities Habitat, especially because that's where the E programming language came from, which I think it's safe to say has had a bigger influence on Spritely Goblins than anything (except maybe this paper by Jonathan Rees, which is the first time I realized that "oh, object capability security is just normal programming flow"). But also, that blogpost in particular was so perfect about this subject: You can't tell people anything...!

In summary, the blogpost isn't saying that people aren't foolishly incapable of understanding things, but that people in general don't understand well by "being explained to". What helps people understand is experiences:

Eventually people can be educated, but what you have to do is find a way give them the experience, to put them in the situation. Sometimes this can only happen by making real the thing you are describing, but sometimes by dint of clever artifice you can simulate it.

This really congealed for me and helped me feel justified in an approach I've been taking in the Spritely project. In general, up until now I've spent most of my time between two states: coding the backend super-engineering stuff, and coding demos on top of it. You might in the meanwhile see me post technobabble onto my fediverse or birdsite accounts, but I'm not in general trying too hard to write about the structurally interesting things going on until it comes time to write documentation (whether it be for Goblins, or the immutable storage and mutable storage writeups). But in general, the way that I'm convinced people will get it is not by talk but by first, demonstration, and second, use.

Aside from the few people that have picked up and played with Goblins yet, I don't think I've hit a sufficient amount of "use" yet in Spritely. That's ok, I'm not at that stage yet, and when I am, it'll be fairly clear. (ETA: one year from now.) So let's talk about demonstration.

The first demo I wrote was the Golem demo, that showed roughly that distributed but encrypted storage could be applied to the fediverse. Cute and cool, and that turned the heads of a few fediverse implementers.

But let's face it, the best demo I've done yet was the Terminal Phase time travel demo. And it didn't hurt that it had a cool looking animated GIF to go with it:

Time travel in Spritely Goblins shown through Terminal Phase

Prior to this demo, people would ask me, "What's this Goblins thing?" And I'd try to say a number of things to them... "oh, its a distributed, transactional, quasi-functional distributed programming system safe to run in mutually suspicious networks that follows object capability security and the classic actor model in the style of the E programming language but written in Scheme!" And I'd watch as their eyes glaze over because why wouldn't their eyes glaze over after a statement like that, and then I'd try to explain the individual pieces but I could tell that the person would be losing interest by then and why wouldn't they lose interest but even realizing that I'd kind of feel despair settling in...

But when you show them a pew pew space lasers game and oh wow why is there time travel, how did you add time travel, is it using functional reactive programming or something? (Usually FRP systems are the only other ones where people have seen these kinds of time travel demos.) And I'd say nope! It doesn't require that. Mostly it looks like writing just straightahead code but you get this kind of thing for free. And the person would say, wow! Sounds really cool! How much work does it take to add the time travel into the game? And I just say: no extra work at all. I wrote the whole game without testing anything about time travel or even thinking about it, then later I just threw a few extra lines to write the UI to expose the time travel part and it just worked. And that's when I see peoples' heads explode with wonder and the connections start to be made about what Goblins might be able to do.

But of course, that's only a partial connection for two reasons. One is that the time travel demo above only shows off a small, minute part of the features of Goblins. And actually, the least interesting of them! It doesn't show off the distributed programming or asynchronous programming parts, it doesn't show off the cool object capability security that's safe to run in mutually suspicious networks. But still: it gave a taste that something cool is happening here. Maybe Chris hasn't just been blowing a bunch of time since finishing the ActivityPub standardization process about two and a half years ago. (Yikes, two and a half years ago!?!)

To complete the rest of that demonstration of the other things in the system requires a different kind of demo. Terminal Phase was a demo to show off the synchronous half of Goblins, but where Goblins really shines is in the asynchronous, distributed programming stuff. That's not ready to show off yet, but I'll give you the first taste of what's in progress:

Goblins chat GUI demo

(Actually a bit more has progressed since I've recorded that GIF, multiple chatrooms and etc, but not really worth bothering to show off quite yet.)

Hmm, that's not really all that thrilling. A chatroom that looks about the same level of featureful, maybe less, than IRC? Well, it could be more exciting if you hear that the full chat protocol implementation is only about 250 lines of code, including authenticating users and posts by users. That's smaller even than its corresponding GUI code, which is less than 300 lines of code. So the exciting thing there is how much heavy lifting Goblins takes care of for you.

But that's hardly razzle-dazzle exciting. In order for me to hint at the rest of what's happening here, we need to put out an asynchronous programming demo that's as or more interesting than the time travel demo. And I expect to do that. I hope soon enough to show off stuff that will make people go, "Oh, what's going on here?"

But even that doesn't complete the connection for people, because showing is one thing but to complete the loop, we need people to use things. We need to get this stuff in the hands of users to play with and experiment themselves. I have plans to do that... and not only that, make this stuff not intimidating for newcomers. When Spritely guides everyday people towards extending Spritely from inside of Spritely as it runs, that's when it'll really click.

And once it clicks sufficiently, it'll no longer become exciting, because people will just come to expect it. A good example of that comes from the aforementioned You can't tell people anything article:

Years ago, before Lucasfilm, I worked for Project Xanadu (the original hypertext project, way before this newfangled World Wide Web thing). One of the things I did was travel around the country trying to evangelize the idea of hypertext. People loved it, but nobody got it. Nobody. We provided lots of explanation. We had pictures. We had scenarios, little stories that told what it would be like. People would ask astonishing questions, like “who’s going to pay to make all those links?” or “why would anyone want to put documents online?” Alas, many things really must be experienced to be understood. We didn’t have much of an experience to deliver to them though — after all, the whole point of all this evangelizing was to get people to give us money to pay for developing the software in the first place! But someone who’s spent even 10 minutes using the Web would never think to ask some of the questions we got asked.

Eventually, if we succeed, the ideas in Spritely will no longer seem exciting... because people will have internalized and come to expect them. Just like hyperlinks on the web today.

But to get there, in the meanwhile, we have to get people interested. To become so successful as to be mundane, we have to first be razzle-dazzle exciting. And to that end, that's why I take the demo approach to Spritely. Because it's hard to tell someone something... but showing them, that's another matter.

PS: It's also not true that people don't get what I'm doing, and that's even been reflected materially. I've been lucky to be supported over the last few years from a combination of a grant from Samsung's Stack Zero and one from NLNet, not to mention quite a few donors on Patreon. I do recognize and appreciate that people are supporting me. In some ways receiving this support makes me feel more seriously about the need to demonstrate and prove that what I'm doing is real. I hope I am doing and will continue to do a sufficient job, and hope that the upcoming demos contribute to that more materially!

PPS: If, in the meanwhile, you're already excited, check out the Goblins documentation. The most exciting stuff is coming in the next major release (which will be out soon), which is when the distributed programming tools will be made available to users of the system for the first time. But if you want to get a head start, the code you'll be writing will mostly work the same between the distributed and non-distributed (as in, distributed across computers/processes) asynchronous stuff, so if you start reading the docs today, most of your code will already just work on the new stuff once released. And if you do start playing around, maybe drop by the #spritely channel on freenode and say hello!

Terminal Phase in Linux Magazine (Polish edition)

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Wed 12 August 2020

Terminal Phase featured in Polish version of Linux Magazine

Hey look at that! My terminal-space-shooter-game Terminal Phase made an appearance in the Polish version of Linux Magazine. I had no idea, but Michal Majchrzak both tipped me off to it and took the pictures. (Thank you!)

I don't know Polish but I can see some references to Konami and SHMUP (shoot-em-up game). The screenshot they have isn't the one I published, so I guess the author got it running too... I hope they had fun!

Apparently it appeared in the June 2020 edition:

June 2020 edition of Polish Magazine

I guess because print media coverage is smaller, it feels cooler to get covered these days in it in some way?

I wonder if I can find a copy somewhere!

Announcing FOSS and Crafts

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Tue 14 July 2020

I wrote recently about departing Libre Lounge but as I said there, "This is probably not the end of me doing podcasting, but if I start something up again it'll be a bit different in its structure."

Well! Morgan and I have co-launched a new podcast called FOSS and Crafts! As the title implies, it's going to be a fairly interdisciplinary podcast... the title says it all fairly nicely I think: "A podcast about free software, free culture, and making things together."

We already have the intro episode out! It's fairly intro-episode'y... meet the hosts, hear about what to expect from the show, etc etc... but we do talk a bit about some background of the name!

But more substantial episodes will be out soon. We have a lot of plans and ideas for the show, and I've got a pretty good setup for editing/publishing now. So if that sounds fun, subscribe, and more stuff should be hitting your ears soon!

(PS: we have a nice little community growing in #fossandcrafts on irc.freenode.net if you're into that kind of thing!)

Some updates: CapTP in progress, Datashards, chiptune experiments, etc

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Tue 30 June 2020

(Originally written as a post for Patreon donors.)

Hello... just figured I'd give a fairly brief update. Since I wrote my last post I've been working hard towards the distributed programming stuff in Goblins.

In general, this involves implementing a protocol called CapTP, which is fairly obscure... the idea is generally to apply the same "object capability security" concept that Goblins already follows but on a networked protocol level. Probably the most prominent other implementation of CapTP right now is being done by the Agoric folks, captp.js. I've been in communication with them... could we achieve interoperability between our implementations? It could be cool, but it's too early to tell. Anyway it's one of those technical areas that's so obscure that I decided to document my progress on the cap-talk mailing list, but that's becoming the length of a small novel... so I guess, beware before you try to read that whole thing. I'm far enough along where the main things work, but not quite everything (CapTP supports such wild things as distributed garbage collection...!!!!)

Anyway, in general I don't think that people get too excited by hearing "backend progress is happening"; I believe that implementing CapTP is even more important than standardizing ActivityPub was in the long run of my life work, but I also am well aware that in general people (including myself!) understand best by seeing an interesting demonstration. So, I do plan another networked demo, akin to the time-travel Terminal Phase demo, but I'm not sure just how fancy it will be (yet). I think I'll have more things to show on that front in 1-2 months.

(Speaking of Goblins and games, I'm putting together a little library called Game Goblin to make making games on top of Goblins a bit easier; it isn't quite ready yet but thought I'd mention it. It's currently going through some "user testing".)

More work is happening on the Datashards front; Serge Wroclawski (project leader for Datashards; I guess you could say I'm "technical engineer") and I have started assembling more documentation and have put together some proto-standards documents. (Warning: WIP WIP WIP!!!) We are exploring with a standards group whether or not Datashards would be a good fit there, but it's too early to talk about that since the standards group is still figuring it out themselves. Anyway, it's taken up a good chunk of time so I figured it was worth mentioning.

So, more to come, and hopefully demos not too far ahead.

But let's end on a fun note. In-between all that (and various things at home, of course), I have taken a bit of what might resemble "downtime" and I'm learning how to make ~chiptunes / "tracker music" with Milkytracker, which is just a lovely piece of software. (I've also been learning more about sound theory and have been figuring out how to compose some of my own samples/"instruments" from code.) Let me be clear, I'm not very good at it, but it's fun to learn a new thing. Here's a dollhouse piano thing (XM file), the start of a haunted video game level (XM file), a sound experiment representing someone interacting with a computer (XM file), and the mandatory demonstration that I've figured out how to do C64-like phase modulation and arpeggios (XM file). Is any of that stuff... "good"? Not really, all pretty amateurish, but maybe in a few months of off-hour experiments it won't be... so maybe some of my future demos / games won't be quite as quiet! ;)

Hope everyone's doing ok out there...