Oct 29

The future of software forges

I’m still not going to talk about my attack on the forge infrastructure problems quite yet; the software is coming along nicely, but I intend to announce only after it handles its fourth forge type (yes, that was a tease). But I will say this: I now think I know what the future of forges looks like. It’s called Roundup, and it is astonishingly elegant and potentially more powerful than anything out there. Anything, not excluding the clever decentralized systems like Fossil or Bugs Everywhere.

Here are the big wins:

1. Mailing lists, issue trackers, and online forums unify into *one* message queue that can be filtered in various ways.

2. Scriptable via XML-RPC or an email responder ‘bot.

3. Small base system with good extensibility – just three base classes (User. Msg, File) and the ability to define new classes. ‘Issue’ is a class built on top of these.

4. Arbitrary attributes per issue is basically free, with baked-in support for defining controlled vocabularies.

5. There’s a uniform way, called “designators”, for messages and other objects to refer to each other in text.

6. Small, clean implementation written in Python.

There are some things it needs, though… (Read the Roundup design document before continuing.)

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Oct 26

Hacker superstitions about software licensing

Hackers have a lot of odd superstitions about software licensing. I was reminded of this recently when a project maintainer asked me whether he needed to get a sign-off from each and every one of his contributors before switching from Apache v1 to Apache v2. Here’s what I told him:

My opinion is this. Under U.S. law — and I believe European codes are not different in this respect, because both are controlled by the Berne convention — a license change on a collection is grounds for protest or legal action only if the rights of the contributors are materially affected by the change. That is, a court would have to be persuaded that the change caused a monetary loss or at least damage to a contributor’s public reputation. If there is no such possibility, then there is no harm and no grounds for complaint.

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Oct 23

Fearing what might be true

I am not generally unhappy with my model of how the universe works. Yes, it would be pleasant if there really were a beneficient creator-god and an afterlife; it would be nice if “good government” were actually a sustainable possibility rather than a fond but deluded hope in the minds of statists; it would be just peachy if wishes were horses and everybody could be happy and rich. But I’m reconciled to these things being not true because it seems to me they are necessarily not true – that is, for example, I cannot imagine a universe in which the actual existence of an intervening creator-god is actually compatible with the observed regularity of natural law, nor a universe in which scarcity and agency problems do not imply that governments are subject to the iron laws of political economics.

Other people can imagine theism or statism to be true, and so could I at one time – before I understood enough to grok the contradictions they would entail. But I’m not actually writing to argue for anarchism or atheism today; I brought those up as examples to make a more subtle point. It seems to me it’s actually more difficult to deal with unpleasant possible truths that are only contingent, because you can imagine how things could be different if you lived in a universe that was slightly different but recognizable.

I’ll give two examples of this that I’m still struggling with. One: I fear feminism may be dangerously wrong. Two: I fear that the crowd calling for the abolition of all forms of intellectual property may be dangerously right.

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Oct 21

Public Space in Cyberspace

Following my post Condemning Censorship, Even of Werewolves, a great many people took me for task for trying to make a principled distinction between public space and private space, and tangled that up with a lot of confusion about the distinction between “public” and “state-owned” space. Here I’ll attempt to shed some light on the matter. In doing so, I will not actually be retailing a private theory of mine, but touching on principles with a long history in ethics and Anglo-American common law.

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Oct 19

Condemning Censorship, Even of Werewolves

Thomas Paine once wrote: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Paine’s truth is not idealistic handwaving, it is brutal pragmatism. Justifications for censorship, even the best-intentioned kind, have a way of expanding until they become instruments of abuse. Therefore, if we truly care about freedom of speech, it is not sufficient to defend that freedom when it is comfortable to do so — when the censors are ugly and the victim is appealing. It is necessary, sometimes, to speak up in defense of ugly victims of censorship.

I have found myself placed under that necessity in the last week. A member in good standing of the open-source community, one Beth Lynn Eicher, had sought and achieved the suppression of public speech by one Mikhail Kvaratskhelia, aka ‘mikeeeUSA’, aka serveral other aliases. When I first approached her privately on the matter, she refused to apologize or retract. In my judgment, she was committing a crime against our community’s future by setting a precedent which might one day reach to all of us.

This put me in a difficult position. I had received an explicit appeal for redress in my capacity as one of our tribal elders, and I felt the appeal was in the right and Ms. Eicher in the wrong. But I knew — for various reasons which will become very clear — that making that case would involve me in a batter and divisive wrangle. I was prepared to do it anyway, because my conscience would not permit otherwise, but I knew it was going to be hell.

Fortunately, after several days of debate among myself and some friends of mine who leapt to Ms. Eicher’s defense, Ms. Eicher proved to be cleverer than either them or me. While Ms. Eicher’s defenders were still flaming me for intransigence on the free-speech issue, she designed a solution which I consider totally appropriate, and which I actually hope will set a precedent.

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Oct 12

How Not To Tackle the Mess around Forges

In my previous two posts I have diagnosed a significant weakness in the open-source infrastructure. The architecture of the code behind the major SourceForge-descended hosting sites is rotten, with all kinds of nasty consequences — data seriously jailed, poor or completely absent capabilities near scripting and project migration. I said I was going to do something about it, and I’m working the problem now — actually writing code.

The rest of this post is not an announcement, because it will be mostly about things I’ have figured out I should not try to do. Yet. But it is a teaser. I see a path forward, and shortly I expect to have some working code to exhibit that shows the way. Actually, I have working code that attacks the problem in an interesting way now, but I’m still adding capabilities to make it a more impressive demonstration.

Here are some approaches I’ve considered, or had suggested to me by others, and rejected:

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Oct 09

Looking Deeper into Forges, And Not Liking What I See

In my previous post, Three Systemic Problems With Open-Source Hosting Sites I identified some missing features that create serious brittleness in or project-hosting infrastructure. The question naturally arises, why don’t existing hosting systems already have these facilities? I have looked into this question, actually examining the codebases of Savane and GForge/FusionForge, and the answer appears to go back to the original SourceForge. It offered such exciting, cutting-edge capabilities that nobody noticed its internal architecture was a tar-pit full of nasty kluges. The descendants — Savane, GForge, and FusionForge — inherited that bad architecture.

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Oct 08

Three Systemic Problems with Open-Source Hosting Sites

I’ve been off the air for several days due to a hosting-site failure last Friday. After several months of deteriorating performance and various services being sporadically inaccessible, Berlios’s webspace went 404 and the Subversion repositories stopped working…taking my GPSD project down with them. I had every reason to fear this might be permanent, and spent the next two days reconstructing as much as possible of the project state so we could migrate to another site.

Berlios came back up on Monday. But I don’t trust it will stay that way. This weekend rubbed my nose in some systemic vulnerabilities in the open-source development infrastructure that we need to fix. Rant follows.

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