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Mark S. Miller keynoting at ActivityPub Conf 2019

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Wed 24 July 2019

I am extremely pleased to announce that Mark S. Miller is keynoting at ActivityPub Conf 2019!

It's hard for me to understate how huge this is. Mark S. Miller works at Agoric which is leading the way on modern application of object capabilities, which is convenient, since exploration of how to apply object capabilities to federated social networks is a major topic of interest on the fediverse.

But just leaving it at that would be leaving out too much. We can trace Mark's work back the Agoric papers in 1988 which laid out the vision for a massive society and economy of computing agents. (And yes, that's where the Agoric company got its name from.)

For 30 years Mark has been working towards that vision, and social networks continued to intersect with its work. In the late 1990s Mark was involved in a company working on the game Electric Communities Habitat (it's hard to find information on it, but here's a rare video of it in action). (Although Mark Miller didn't work on it, Electric Communities Habitat has its predecessor in Lucasfilm's Habitat, which it turns out was a graphical multiplayer game which ran on the Commodore 64!(!!!) You can see the entertaining trailer for this game... keep in mind, this was released in 1986!)

People who have read my blog before may know that I've talked about building secure social spaces as virtual worlds: part of the reason I know it is possible is that Electric Communities Habitat for the large part built it and proved the ideas possible. Electric Communities the company did not survive, but the ideas lived on in the E programming language, which I like to describe as "the most interesting and important programming language you may have never heard of".

While the oldschool design of the website may give you the impression that the ideas there are out of date, time and time again I've found that the answers to my questions about how to build things have all been found on erights.org and in Mark Miller's dissertation.

Mark's work hasn't stopped there. Many good ideas in Javascript (such as its promises system) were largely inspired from Mark's work on the E programming language (Mark joined the standardization process of Javascript to make it be possible to build ocap-safe systems on it), and... well, I can go on and on.

Instead, I'm going to pause and say that I'm extremely excited that Mark has agreed to come to ActivityPub Conf to help introduce the community to the ideas in object capabilities. I hope the history I laid out above helps make it clear that the work to coordinate cooperative behavior amongst machines overlaps strongly with our work in the federated social web of establishing cooperative behavior amongst communities of human beings. I look forward to Mark helping us understand how to apply these ideas to our space.

Has this post got you excited? At the time of me writing this, there's still space at ActivityPub Conf 2019, and there's still time (until Monday July 29th) to submit talks. See the conference announcement for more details, and hope to see you there!

EDIT: I incorrectly cited Mark Miller originally as being involved in Lucasfilm's Habitat; fixed and better explained its history.

ActivityPub Conf 2019

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Mon 22 July 2019

ActivityPub Conf flier

This flier also available in PDF and ODT formats.

UPDATE: As of August 5th, registrations have now filled up! See all of you who registered at ActivityPub Conf!

That's right! We're hosting the first ever ActivityPub Conf. It's immediately following Rebooting Web of Trust in Prague.

There's no admission fee to attend. (Relatedly, the conference is kind of being done on the cheap, because it is being funded by organizers who are themselves barely funded.) The venue, however, is quite cool: it's at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, which is itself exploring the ways the digital world is affecting our lives.

If you plan on attending (and maybe also speaking), you should get in your application soon (see the flier for details). We've never done one of these, and we have no idea what the response will be like, so this is going to be a smaller gathering (about 40 people). In some ways, it will be somewhere between a conference and a gathering of people-who-are-interested-in-activitypub.

As said in the flier, by attending, you are agreeing to the code of conduct, so be sure to read that.

The plan is that the first day will be talks (see the flier above for details on how to apply as a speaker) and the second day will be an unconference, with people splitting off into groups to work through problems of mutual interest.

Applications for general admission are first-come-first-serve. Additionally, we have reserved some slots for speakers specifically; the application to get in submissions for talks is 1 week from today (July 29th). We are hoping for and encouraging a wide range of participant backgrounds.

Hope to see you in Prague!

Racket is an acceptable Python

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Tue 09 July 2019

A little over a decade ago, there were some popular blogposts about whether Ruby was an acceptable Lisp or whether even Lisp was an acceptable Lisp. Peter Norvig was also writing at the time introducing Python to Lisp programmers. Lisp, those in the know knew, was the right thing to strive for, and yet seemed unattainable for anything aimed for production since the AI Winter shattered Lisp's popularity in the 80s/early 90s. If you can't get Lisp, what's closest thing you can get?

This was around the time I was starting to program; I had spent some time configuring my editor with Emacs Lisp and loved every moment I got to do it; I read some Lisp books and longed for more. And yet when I tried to "get things done" in the language, I just couldn't make as much headway as I could with my preferred language for practical projects at the time: Python.

Python was great... mostly. It was easy to read, it was easy to write, it was easy-ish to teach to newcomers. (Python's intro material is better than most, but my spouse has talked before about some major pitfalls that the Python documentation has which make getting started unnecessarily hard. You can hear her talk about that at this talk we co-presented on at last year's RacketCon.) I ran a large free software project on a Python codebase, and it was easy to get new contributors; the barrier to entry to becoming a programmer with Python was low. I consider that to be a feature, and it certainly helped me bootstrap my career.

Most importantly of all though, Python was easy to pick up and run with because no matter what you wanted to do, either the tools came built in or the Python ecosystem had enough of the pieces nearby that building what you wanted was usually fairly trivial.

But Python has its limitations, and I always longed for a lisp. For a brief time, I thought I could get there by contributing to the Hy project, which was a lisp that transformed itself into the Python AST. "Why write Python in a syntax that's easy to read when you could add a bunch of parentheses to it instead?" I would joke when I talked about it. Believe it or not though, I do consider lisps easier to read, once you are comfortable to understand their syntax. I certainly find them easier to write and modify. And I longed for the metaprogramming aspects of Lisp.

Alas, Hy didn't really reach my dream. That macro expansion made debugging a nightmare as Hy would lose track of where the line numbers are; it wasn't until that when I really realized that without line numbers, you're just lost in terms of debugging in Python-land. That and Python didn't really have the right primitives; immutable datastructures for whatever reason never became first class, meaning that functional programming was hard, "cons" didn't really exist (actually this doesn't matter as much as people might think), recursive programming isn't really as possible without tail call elimination, etc etc etc.

But I missed parentheses. I longed for parentheses. I dreamed in parentheses. I'm not kidding, the only dreams I've ever had in code were in lisp, and it's happened multiple times, programs unfolding before me. The structure of lisp makes the flow of code so clear, and there's simply nothing like the comfort of developing in front of a lisp REPL.

Yet to choose to use a lisp seemed to mean opening myself up to eternal yak-shaving of developing packages that were already available on the Python Package Index or limiting my development community an elite group of Emacs users. When I was in Python, I longed for the beauty of a Lisp; when I was in a Lisp, I longed for the ease of Python.

All this changed when I discovered Racket:

  • Racket comes with a full-featured editor named DrRacket built-in that's damn nice to use. It has all the features that make lisp hacking comfortable previously mostly only to Emacs users: parenthesis balancing, comfortable REPL integration, etc etc. But if you want to use Emacs, you can use racket-mode. Win-win.
  • Racket has intentionally been built as an educational language, not unlike Python. One of the core audiences of Racket is middle schoolers, and it even comes with a built-in game engine for kids. (The How to Design Programs prologue might give you an introductory taste, and Realm of Racket is a good book all about learning to program by building Racket games.)
  • My spouse and I even taught classes about how to learn to program for humanities academics using Racket. We found the age-old belief that "lisp syntax is just too hard" is simply false; the main thing that most people lack is decent lisp-friendly tooling with a low barrier to entry, and DrRacket provides that. The only people who were afraid of the parentheses turned out to be people who already knew how to program. Those who didn't even praised the syntax for its clarity and the way the editor could help show you when you made a syntax error (DrRacket is very good at that). "Lisp is too hard to learn" is a lie; if middle schoolers can learn it, so can more seasoned programmers.
  • Racket might even be more batteries included than Python. At least all the batteries that come included are generally nicer; Racket's GUI library is the only time I've ever had fun in my life writing GUI programs (and they're cross platform too). Constructing pictures with its pict library is a delight. Plotting graphs with plot is an incredible experience. Writing documentation with Scribble is the best non-org-mode experience I've ever had, but has the advantage over org-mode in that your document is just inverted code. I could go on. And these are just some packages bundled with Racket; the Package repository contains much more.
  • Racket's documentation is, in my experience, unparalleled. The Racket Guide walks you through all the key concepts, and the Racket Reference has everything else you need.
  • The tutorials are also wonderful; the introductory tutorial gets your feet wet not through composing numbers or strings but by building up pictures. Want to learn more? The next two tutorials show you how to build web applications and then build your own web server.
  • Like Python, even though Racket has its roots in education, it is more than ready for serious practical use. These days, when I want to build something and get it done quickly and efficiently, I reach for Racket first.

Racket is a great Lisp, but it's also an acceptable Python. Sometimes you really can have it all.

Libre Lounge

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Fri 08 February 2019

Did I somehow not blog here that I started co-hosting a podcast named Libre Lounge with my friend Serge Wroclawski? We're talking about all sorts of topics facing user freedom. Take a look at the archive and you might find something you like!

At the time of writing we've also had on one guest, Karen Sandler. This was a really nice treat since the show Free as in Freedom, which Karen co-hosts, is clearly a big influence on Libre Lounge. Anyway, we plan to have on lots more guests in the future.

Hope you enjoy!

I've been awarded the Samsung Stack Zero Grant

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Thu 31 January 2019

Good news everyone! I've been awarded the Samsung Stack Zero Grant. But why not quote them?

Christopher Lemmer Webber is the co-editor and co-author of the now-ubiquitous ActivityPub protocol. While it provides a great framework for creating, updating, and deleting content across applications, it doesn’t provide any standardised mechanism for secure authorisation. With Spritely, Webber will work on extending the protocol in a backward-compatible manner, while at the same time building tools and applications that showcase its use. This will enable developers to build applications that enable richer interactions through a federated standard.

This should fund my next couple of years of work on full time advancement of the fediverse.

You may remember that I've talked about Spritely before. In fact I am finally in launch-mode... I am currently sitting in a wizard's tower at a hackathon, getting out the first release of Golem, a Spritely artifact.

Anyway, I'll be at FOSDEM 2019 giving a talk and on a panel. And after that I'll be speaking at CopyleftConf. Maybe I'll see you?

More news soon...