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The hurt of this moment, hopes for the future

By Chris Lemmer-Webber on Wed 31 March 2021

Of the deeper thoughts I might give to this moment, I have given them elsewhere. For this blogpost, I just want to speak of feelings... feelings of hurt and hope.

I am reaching out, collecting the feelings of those I see around me, writing them in my mind's journal. Though I hold clear positions in this moment, there are few roots of feeling and emotion about the moment I feel I haven't steeped in myself at some time. Sometimes I tell this to friends, and they think maybe I am drifting from a mutual position, and this is painful for them. Perhaps they fear this could constitute or signal some kind of betrayal. I don't know what to say: I've been here too long to feel just one thing, even if I can commit to one position.

So I open my journal of feelings, and here I share some of the pages collecting the pain I see around me:

The irony of a movement wanting to be so logical and above feelings being drowned in them.

The feelings of those who found a comfortable and welcoming home in a world of loneliness, and the split between despondence and outrage for that unraveling.

The feelings of those who wanted to join that home too, but did not feel welcome.

The pent up feelings of those unheard for so long, uncorked and flowing.

The weight and shadow of a central person who seems to feel things so strongly but cannot, and does not care to learn to, understand the feelings of those around them.

I flip a few pages ahead. The pages are blank, and I interpret this as new chapters for us to write, together.

I hope we might re-discover the heart of our movement.

I hope we can find a place past the pain of the present, healing to build the future.

I hope we can build a new home, strong enough to serve us and keep us safe, but without the walls, moat, and throne of a fortress.

I hope we can be a movement that lives up to our claims: of justice, of freedom, of human rights, to bring these to everyone, especially those we haven't reached.

Spritely Goblins v0.7 released!

By Chris 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 Chris 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!

Departing Libre Lounge

By Chris 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 Chris 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.