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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...

Departing Libre Lounge

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Wed 13 May 2020

Over the last year and a half I've had a good time presenting on Libre Lounge with my co-host Serge Wroclawski. I'm very proud of the topics we've decided to cover, of which there are quite a few good ones in the archive, and the audience the show has had is just the best.

However, I've decided to depart the show... Serge and I continue to be friends (and are still working on a number of projects together, such as Datashards and the recently announced grant), but in terms of the podcast I think we'd like to take things in different creative directions.

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... and you can be sure you'll hear about it here and on my fediverse account and over at the birdsite.

In the meanwhile, I look forward to continuing to tuning into Libre Lounge, but as a listener.

Thanks for all the support, Libre Loungers!

Spritely's NLNet grant: Interface Discovery for Distributed Systems

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Wed 13 May 2020

I've been putting off making this blogpost for a while because I kept thinking, "I should wait to do it until I finish making some sort of website for Spritely and make a blogpost there!" Which, in a sense is a completely reasonable thought because right now Spritely's only "website" is a loose collection of repositories, but I'd like something that provides a greater narrative for what Spritely is trying to accomplish. But that also kind of feels like a distraction (or maybe I should just make a very minimal website) when there's something important to announce... so I'm just doing it here (where I've been making all the other Spritely posts so far anyway).

Spritely is an NLnet (in conjunction with the European Commision / Next Generation Internet initative) grant recipient! Specifically, we have received a grant for "Interface Discovery for Distributed Systems"! I'll be implementing the work alongside Serge Wroclawski.

There are two interesting sub-phrases there: "Interface Discovery" and "Distributed Systems". Regarding "distributed systems", we should really say "mutually suspicious open-world distributed systems". Those extra words change some of the requirements; we have to assume we'll be told about things we don't understand, and we have to assume that many objects we interact with may be opaque to us... they might lie about what kind of thing they are.

Choosing how to name interfaces then directly ties into something I wrote about here more recently, namely content addressed vocabulary.

I wrote more ideas and details about the interfaces ideas email to cap-talk so you can read more there if you like... but I think more details about the interfaces thoughts than that can wait until we publish a report about it (and publishing a report is baked into the grant).

The other interesting bit though is the "distributed" aspect; in order to handle distributed computation and object interaction, we need to correctly design our protocols. Thankfully there is a lot of good prior art to work from, usually some variant of "CapTP" (Capability Transport Protocol), as implemented in its original form by E, taking on a bit of a different form in the Waterken project, adapted in Cap'N Proto, as well as with the new work happening over at Agoric. Each of these variants of the core CapTP ideas have tried to tackle some different use cases, and Goblins has its own needs to be covered. Is there a possibility of convergence? Possibly... I am trying to understand the work of and communicate with the folks over at Agoric but I think it's a bit too early to be conclusive about anything. Regardless, it'll be a major milestone once Spritely Goblins is able to actually live up to its promise of distributed computation, and work on this is basically the next step to proceed on.

When I first announced Spritely about a year and a half ago I included a section that said "Who's going to pay for all this?" to which I then said, "I don't really have a funding plan, so I guess this is kind of a non-answer. However, I do have a Patreon account you could donate to." To be honest, I was fairly nervous about it... so I want to express my sincere and direct appreciation to NLnet alongside the European Commission / Next Generation Internet Initiative, along with Samsung Stack Zero, and all the folks donating on Patreon and Liberapay. With all the above, and especially the new grant from NLnet, I should have enough funding to continue working on Spritely through a large portion of 2021. I am determined to make good on the support I've received, and am looking forward to put out more interesting demonstrations of this technology over the next few months.

What should fit in a FOSS license?

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Mon 09 March 2020

Originally sent in an email to the OSI license-discuss mailing list.

What terms belong in a free and open source software license? There has been a lot of debate about this lately, especially as many of us are interested in expanding the role we see that we play in terms of user freedom issues. I am amongst those people that believe that FOSS is a movement thats importance is best understood not on its own, but on the effects that it (or the lack of it) has on society. A couple of years ago, a friend and I recorded an episode about viewing software freedom within the realm of human rights; I still believe that, and strongly.

I also believe there are other critical issues that FOSS has a role to play in: diversity issues (both within our own movement and empowering people in their everyday lives) are one, environmental issues (the intersection of our movement with the right-to-repair movement is a good example) are another. I also agree that the trend towards "cloud computing" companies which can more or less entrap users in their services is a major concern, as are privacy concerns.

Given all the above, what should we do? What kinds of terms belong in FOSS licenses, especially given all our goals above?

First, I would like to say that I think that many people in the FOSS world, for good reason, spend a lot of time thinking about licenses. This is good, and impressive; few other communities have as much legal literacy distributed even amongst their non-lawyer population as ours. And there's no doubt that FOSS licenses play a critical role... let's acknowledge from the outset that a conventionally proprietary license has a damning effect on the agency of users.

However, I also believe that user freedom can only be achieved via a multi-layered approach. We cannot provide privacy by merely adding privacy-requirements terms to a license, for instance; encryption is key to our success. I am also a supporter of code of conducts and believe they are important/effective (I know not everyone does; I don't care for this to be a CoC debate, thanks), but I believe that they've also been very effective and successful checked in as CODE-OF-CONDUCT.txt alongside the traditional COPYING.txt/LICENSE.txt. This is a good example of a multi-layered approach working, in my view.

So acknowledging that, which problems should we try to solve at which layers? Or, more importantly, which problems should we try to solve in FOSS licenses?

Here is my answer: the role of FOSS licenses is to undo the damage that copyright, patents, and related intellectual-restriction laws have done when applied to software. That is what should be in the scope of our licenses. There are other problems we need to solve too if we truly care about user freedom and human rights, but for those we will need to take a multi-layered approach.

To understand why this is, let's rewind time. What is the "original sin" that lead to the rise proprietary software, and thus the need to distinguish FOSS as a separate concept and entity? In my view, it's the decision to make software copyrightable... and then, adding similar "state-enforced intellectual restrictions" categories, such as patents or anti-jailbreaking or anti-reverse-engineering laws.

It has been traditional FOSS philosophy to emphasize these as entirely different systems, though I think Van Lindberg put it well:

Even from these brief descriptions, it should be obvious that the term "intellectual property" encompasses a number of divergent and even contradictory bodies of law. [...] intellectual property isn't really analagous to just one program. Rather, it is more like four (or more) programs all possibly acting concurrently on the same source materials. The various IP "programs" all work differently and lead to different conclusions. It is more accurate, in fact, to speak of "copyright law" or "patent law" rather than a single overarching "IP law." It is only slightly tongue in cheek to say that there is an intellectual property "office suite" running on the "operating system" of US law. -- Van Lindberg, Intellectual Property and Open Source (p.5)

So then, as unfortunate as the term "intellectual property" may be, we do have a suite of state-enforced intellectual restriction tools. They now apply to software... but as a thought experiment, if we could rewind time and choose between a timeline where such laws did not apply to software vs a time where they did, which would have a better effect on user freedom? Which one would most advance FOSS goals?

To ask the question is to know the answer. But of course, we cannot reverse time, so the purpose of this thought experiment is to indicate the role of FOSS licenses: to use our own powers granted under the scope of those licenses to undo their damage.

Perhaps you'll already agree with this, but you might say, "Well, but we have all these other problems we need to solve too though... since software is so important in our society today, trying to solve these other problems inside of our licenses, even if they aren't about reversing the power of the intellectual-restriction-office-suite, may be effective!"

The first objection to that would be, "well, but it does appear that it makes us addicted in a way to that very suite of laws we are trying to undo the damage of." But maybe you could shrug that off... these issues are too important! And I agree the issues are important, but again, I am arguing a multi-layered approach.

To better illustrate, let me propose a license. I actually considered drafting this into real license text and trying to push it all the way through the license-review process. I thought that doing so would be an interesting exercise for everyone. Maybe I still should. But for now, let me give you the scope of the idea. Ready?

"The Disposable Plastic Prevention Public License". This is a real issue I care about, a lot! I am very afraid that there is a dramatic chance that life on earth will be choked out within the next number of decades by just how much non-degradeable disposable plastic we are churning out. Thus it seems entirely appropriate to put it in a license, correct? Here are some ideas for terms:

  • You cannot use this license if you are responsible for a significant production of disposable plastics.

  • You must make a commitment to reduction in your use of disposable plastics. This includes a commitment to reductions set out by (a UN committee? Haven't checked, I bet someone has done the research and set target goals).

  • If you, or a partner organization, are found to be lobbying against laws to eliminate disposable plastics, your grant of this license is terminated.

What do you think? Should I submit it to license-review? Maybe I should. Or, if someone else wants to sumbit it, I'll enthusiastically help you draft the text... I do think the discussion would be illuminating!

Personally though, I'll admit that something seems wrong about this, and it isn't the issue... the issue is one I actually care about a lot, one that keeps me up at night. Does it belong in a license? I don't think that it does. This both tries to both fix problems via the same structures that we are trying to undo problems with and introduces license compatibility headaches. It's trying to fight an important issue on the wrong layer.

It is a FOSS issue though, in an intersectional sense! And there are major things we can do about it. We can support the fight of the right-to-repair movements (which, as it turns out, is a movement also hampered by these intellectual restriction laws). We can try to design our software in such a way that it can run on older hardware and keep it useful. We can support projects like the MNT Reform, which aims to build a completely user-repairable laptop, and thus push back against planned obsolescence. There are things we can, and must, do that are not in the license itself.

I am not saying that the only kind of thing that can happen in a FOSS license is to simply waive all rights. Indeed I see copyleft as a valid way to turn the weapons of the system against itself in many cases (and there are a lot of cases, especially when I am trying to push standards and concepts, where I believe a more lax/permissive approach is better). Of course, it is possible to get addicted to those things too: if we could go back in our time machine and prevent these intellectual restrictions laws from taking place, source requirements in copyleft licenses wouldn't be enforceable. While I see source requirements as a valid way to turn the teeth of the system against itself, in that hypothetical future, would I be so addicted to them that I'd prefer that software copyright continue just so I could keep them? No, that seems silly. But we also aren't in that universe, and are unlikely to enter that universe anytime soon, so I think this is an acceptable reversal of the mechanisms of destructive state-run intellectual restriction machine against itself for now. But it also indicates maybe a kind of maxima.

But it's easy to get fixated on those kinds of things. How clever can we be in our licenses? And I'd argue: minimally clever. Because we have a lot of other fights to make.

In my view, I see a lot of needs in this world, and the FOSS world has a lot of work to do... and not just in licensing, on many layers. Encryption for privacy, diversity initiatives like Outreachy, code of conducts, software that runs over peer to peer networks rather than in the traditional client-server model, repairable and maintainable hardware, thought in terms of the environmental impact of our work... all of these things are critical things in my view.

But FOSS licenses need not, and should not, try to take on all of them. FOSS licenses should do the thing they are appropriate to do: to pave a path for collaboration and to undo the damage of the "intellectual restriction office suite". As for the other things, we must do them too... our work will not be done, meaningful, or sufficient if we do not take them on. But we should do them hand-in-hand, as a multi-layered approach.

Terminal Phase v1.1 and Spritely Goblins v0.6 releases!

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Thu 05 March 2020

Hello all! I just did a brand new release of both:

So some highlights from each.

Terminal Phase

Okay, this is flashier, even if less important than Goblins. But the main thing is that I added the time travel debugging feature, which is so flashy I feel the need to show that gif again here:

Time travel in Spritely Goblins shown through Terminal Phase

Aside from time travel, there aren't many new features, though I plan on adding some in the next week (probably powerups or a boss fight), so another release should be not far away.

And oh yeah, since it's a new release, now is a good time to thank the current supporters:

Terminal Phase Credits

But yeah, the main thing that was done here is that Terminal Phase was updated for the new release of Goblins, so let's talk about that!

Goblins

For those who aren't aware, Spritely Goblins is a transactional actor model library for Racket.

v0.6 has resulted in a number of changes in semantics.

But the big deal is that Goblins finally has decent documentation, including a fairly in-depth tutorial and documentation about the API. I've even documented how you, in your own programs, can play with Goblins' time travel features.

So, does this mean you should start using it? Well, it's still in alpha, and the most exciting feature (networked, distributed programming) is still on its way. But I think it's quite nice to use already (and I'm using it for Terminal Phase).

Anyway, that's about it... I plan on having a new video explaining more about how Goblins works out in the next few days, so I'll announce that when it happens.

If you are finding this work interesting, a reminder that this work is powered by people like you.

In the meanwhile, hope you enjoy the new releases!