Of Tea Parties and Armchairs

I was a little taken aback today by Mark’s “tea party” comment on the Trusty Tahr release announcement today. To try and put it in as much context as possible:

Mir is really important work. When lots of competitors attack a project on purely political grounds, you have to wonder what THEIR agenda is. At least we know now who belongs to the Open Source Tea Party ;)  And to put all the hue and cry into context: Mir is relevant for approximately 1% of all developers, just those who think about shell development. Every app developer will consume Mir through their toolkit. By contrast, those same outraged individuals have NIH’d just about every important piece of the stack they can get their hands on… most notably SystemD, which is hugely invasive and hardly justified. What closely to see how competitors to Canonical torture the English language in their efforts to justify how those toolkits should support Windows but not Mir. But we’ll get it done, and it will be amazing.

I can tell you what the agenda of the Mir team is: speed, quality, reliability, efficiency. That’s it. From what I’ve seen on the smartphone, Mir is going to be a huge leap forward for gaming performance, battery life and next-generation display capabilities. So thank you for the many contributions we had to Mir, and to everyone who is testing it in more challenging environments than the smartphone. I’m enjoying it on my laptop and loving the gaming benchmarks for native Mir. So to that team, and the broader community who are helping test and refine Mir, thank you.

I was a little disappointed that this comment came out, since I really thought that the inevitable controversy that comes with any major direction-setting decision had come and gone. It was quite clear that it was aimed more broadly at Red Hat and Intel with the reference to systemd, which is unfortunate, because while there was a recent controversy surrounding Intel, I don’t think they are really the “tea party” that Mark wants to refer to.

For my non-Western or at least non-U.S based readers, the “tea party” is a far-right, decentralized and loosely associated political group that exists within the Republican party. They are (arguably) backed by some large and anonymous vested interests and have only performed the function of skewing debate about, and obstructing the implementation of some socially and economically “liberal” policies such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Their actions are largely the reason why the non-essential administrative services associated with the normal running of government went unfunded for the past two weeks and why we almost had the United States default on its foreign debt on Thursday. The “Tea Party” uses its small political power to its maximum extent in order to manufacture crisis after crisis in order to destabilize a democratically elected government and house.

It is no surprise then that calling a group of people within a community a “tea party” is a very deliberate attempt to categorize them as a group of people whose sole purpose is to destabilize, and no doubt insulting to that group of people.

There is a tea party, but just not who you expect

I think Mark did pick up on something though, which is that a tea party does exist. I’m not going to name them or imply who they are, because they are a disparate group of loosely-affiliated people, so it would be a rather pointless exercise.

One thing I think Mark got confused in his comments was the difference between those who are heavily involved in the development of open source software projects on one hand and their vocal proponents (or opponents) on the other. I tend to find that these groups are usually mutually exclusive and it is only on limited occasions that you’ll find some overlap between the two. The reality is that the vast majority of us are far too busy working on our projects, whether that be Wayland, Weston, Mutter, KWin, Mir or something else to really care all that much about coming out on top of a political crisis with words. And we know all too well that its very difficult to change taken direction with words alone.

The “tea party” does exist though. It exists in a loosely-associated group of people I like to call “armchair free software developers”. These people feel a kind of emotional closeness to the community and to particular projects but are not involved in the day to day development of those projects, either because they don’t feel that have the skills required to do so, don’t want to make the effort to do so, or simply don’t have time (because they are busy with other and probably more important things). In order to resolve this relevant inability to contribute, they create political debate and drum up support and opposition to things as an ostensible “contribution” in order to maintain their self-deception about their closeness to a community or project.

Now in jest I say – the irony in Mark’s statements is that he’s just fulfilled this exact criterion of being an “armchair free software developer”, and the irony in my statements is that I’ve also fulfilled this exact criterion of being such an armchair developer. Mark can’t be involved with the day to day running of these projects because he’s too busy trying to run a venture with a lot of external influences. I can’t be involved with the day to day running of these projects because I’m too busy with my Law degree.

If you watch the logs of the #wayland or #ubuntu-mir IRC channels on freenode or their respective mailing lists, you’ll notice that its very rarely that anybody there makes political commentary on, or let alone even talks about, the other project. It is also very rare that they talk about Windows’ Desktop Window Manager, or OS X’ Quartz Extreme, or Android’s SurfaceFlinger, or any other “competing” project. Usually whenever that happens it is some new person trying to start an argument and they usually get ignored.

On the other hand, if you watch the Phoronix forums, Reddit or various blog posts and their comments, lots of people who have hardly anything to do with these projects seem to have a lot to say about them as well as the constant capacity to talk about them. The political commentary is typically quite shallow, makes reference to blog posts published months ago and is usually just spreading misinformation and hearsay. It does appear to make up the vast majority of the debate.

At this point, you might be asking what my credibility is on this. After all, this is just a blog post. I’ll be the first to say that I’m not involved in the day to day running of either project. After all – I have more pressing things to do with my time. I speak here as a developer who has been somewhat involved with both projects. I’ve made (very limited) contributions to both Mir and Weston, wrote the client code to support both display servers for a large media center project. I helped to write the backend for an important graphical toolkit for one of the display servers. More importantly, I speak as a person who is a personal friend of developers from both projects. Which leads me nicely on to the next section.

Why do “tea parties” and “armchair developers” matter?

One fallacy is to equate a project’s proponents and opponents with its developers. Another fallacy is to assume that because somebody does not contribute to discussion and debate, then they are not engaged or affected by its contents. There’s a really depressing feeling that comes with scrolling through comment after comment about your project, the fruit of your hard labor by the politically insatiable minds of Reddit or one of Mark’s blog posts about your “hidden agenda”.

Seeing hateful comment after hateful comment about compiz in an attempt to “contribute” to the debate by comparing it with other similar projects is what made me effectively give up on it and move on to other completely different projects in the middle of this year. In fact, I almost did so at the end of 2011 and didn’t because I was being paid to work on it. Why put all your effort into maintaining something when people constantly rag on about how its “garbage” or “tainted” or “CLA riddled” or “a corporation’s hidden agenda” or … you get the picture. The positive comments sprinkled here and there in a sea of partisan criticism manifesting itself as “contribution to the debate” only made my imposter syndrome worse. Those who manage the affairs of Intel, Red Hat and Canonical should take particular note of this. You are demotivating your employees by engaging in constant crisis and debate.

Every project that is somehow involved in all of this each has its own unique and important merits. Both Wayland and Mir have substantially innovated in the protocol space, development methodology and flexibility of display servers. They are both good things. Let their developers create and refine the fruits of their labor and don’t punish them with partisan criticism and never-ending political debate and crisis.

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13 thoughts on “Of Tea Parties and Armchairs

    1. You completely missed the point of his well thought out and written article. It’s this kinda comments that he said was so damaging. Great job.

  1. I dont fully agree to your blog post.

    Why, because they fork the gnu/linux desktop. You can do that, if you have good reasons, and of course by law you can do it even for bad reasons.

    But you forget something, of course taking action based on your opinion is better, I switched away every desktop I manage for me and my familie to fedora or archlinux even I had not used both of them before. And thats a investment, I have to learn new stuff, a investment that was good, I learned how bad technicaly ubuntu really is (as example it doesnt use ramfs by default, or is not able to automaticly deinstall old kernels) so at least bad defaults. you can argue about that in rare seldom cases that defaults can produce bugs, but in 99% of the times it gives a way better experience for the users and their ssd/hd lives longer. But thats not the point.

    But the mail problem with this fights is Canonical, its not the haters every project have. Canonical really hurts activly their users. Its one thing to switch away from gnome(shell) or from wayland, but lieing about why wayland is bad is a attack against that project, of course you get the response to such a attack. Or how he did piss of a compiz developer (was that u? ^^) that they set last minute we did overthink it we dont need your work, you did work the last 6 month for nothing delete it. Or the best was the thing with the spyware a preinstallled keylogger that sends all input (on the primary input thing) to canonical, dont even care so much about amazon, but that it sends all stuff u typed in to canonical is outrages. Maybe thats a german thing, but one reason to use linux here to come away from nsa-spying a bit. To have no backdoor like in windows but here we have it again. No backdoor but spyware.

    And then ok everybody desites am I a ubuntufanboy, do I belive a fork of the linux deksotp can canonical alone manage, yes ok I use it, if not switched away… so ok no problem u do your thing canonical lets see how successful you are… maybe we all are kind of wrong and ok maybe you did go a bit evil but at least you can make many windows or android users switch to a closer gnu/linux fork than android is.

    We will see, but no, you talk about NIH Syndrome when you did this. Wayland was 1. so how can wayland be grounded by NIH and not mir? Systemd maybe ok… but you do your own NIH Stuff with mir as answer to NIH Systemd? ok maybe a reasonable response, but then dont call them NIH Tea Party anymore because u lost your right to judge them, when u did the same.

    So even if you are very ubuntu blinded it makes no sense.

    So if anybody he startet and kept this flames alive and produced them he and cononical nobody else, the shitstorm about mir did fire up after his developers lied about wayland. Not at the day they anounced mir.

    And even that, its not about what u do, you have to communicate it right, if you want to switch last minute away from wayland and you did push wayland hard before (as in speaking not developing) you do that carefully you say something like wayland is great but we think we need something different, and it was a hard desition but we desided to create now mir…
    But instead they lied.

    But again Mir is not the only thing, it comes so much together, and that when canonical got critisied before for not working with upstream.

    and it causes problems. people will send bug-reports to upstream as example gtk that are mir-related. so they have work to do for a project they dont want to. at least they have to toggle INVALID flags even that costs time.

    And it was kind of the linux-default-desktop-distri. So its important as a developer now if you primary support ubuntu or primary support not-ubuntu. in many cases thats a desition. at least what do you support first and is it worth for you to support both.

    So I think its ok to make a shitstorm so that its clear than many will not support this, and that a company or people who want to bring software to linux not will be able or its not a optimal aproach to just support ubuntu and with that you reach to the majority of linux users.

    So long talk short story, of course still much hate from users cannonical earn today but most dont talk much about it anymore… its ok they are on the bad company list now like microsoft (not that bad but on the same list) companies I will never work for or will never support them or buy stuff from them… basicly the switch should have been done earlier all the stuff they did with releasing exclusivly drivers and the firefox vs iceweasal things, all that little stuffs you could argue about… but if you are 100% ok the spywarething is for me the one thing that is clearly evil and if you dont use linux because macosx is to expensive for u what I think is not true for most develoopers ubuntu/canonical has burned itself, at least as long as this stuff is still active, they did not even react to the critics… so ok be the successful or unsuccesfull Microsoft 2.0 go ahead and of course I am glad to flame a bit about it, but it wasnt only forum-users, there are kde-developers there was bad blood from wayland devs when canonical lied about them… there was this compiz guys. its not a users only thing…

    and of course on a #wayland-dev group you dont talk about politics much… still the same persons can talk in other channels about that.

    so maybe not structured good my text and my english is not the best but I think you can get some of my points out of it if you want ;)

  2. btw how would you feel when canonical forked the kernel, I mean not distro-kernels include some patches that go into upstream anyway later on. But I mean a real fork… that is even incompatible, and you could only run X on it with a compatibilty-emulation and all stuff is slower.

    some developer start like nvidia only release drivers that work with that fork and not the linux kernel. it reduces freedom of choice not to mention more elementary freedoms.

    The problem what I have with Canonical is their extrem Mistimings they have. 1. gnome 3.0 comes out… of course such new projects creates some user fragmentation… and in this unstable phase they make it even more stable to creat their Unity. They could have done it earlier or later, but not at the same time. From day1 of gnome3 they lost their primary desktop (ubuntu was always the gnome desktop) now with wayland they hit exactly this timing.

    I cant imagine that that are just random timings. they planed to use this fragmentation and unclear phase to push their stuff. the use the weakness in transition phases to push their stuff. the years before they profited from this upstream projects much.

    So to backstap the people that you get much stuff before is very bad. They act like a company that fights against other companies. But Gnome is no Company, opensource or free software is supposed to be a community, its supposed to help that a wheel dont have to reinvented 1000x but they completly do the oposite.

    They just waste manpower for bad reasons. That alone is enough, for me to fight them… even trough doing nothing for them. I have a ubuntu ppa a build a package there from a programm I developed. So I am also not one of this non-tech guys. that dont feel to have the ability to do stuff and dont do stuff.

    I am not that extreme than stallman, but I kind of agree with his points I am just not always consequent, but at some points if a projects gets more evil month over month you have to switch and yes you have to fight it, more or less active. yes even political.

    And if a programmer is 0% political in that matter, he is no better person or something, the opposite is true.

    Linux is strong because it has 2 groups, like every political party, the “realists” and the ethical guys. and most of them are somewhere between this extremes, if you would only have the technical guys that dont care about freedom not at least a bit, we all could switch to bsd… so of course choosing gpl is a political statement. you care less or more about freedom but even if its not much you care a bit about freedom and politics if you choose this lisence… or as company you respond to your users that care…

    1. Just for the record, I didn’t read anything you wrote here, just as I never read any comment that doesn’t fit on my screen. Your two comments together are longer than the post you are commenting on! Either post it as an article on your own blog and leave a link here in the comments with a couple line summary of your opinion or learn to edit.

      Hint: If you can’t express an opinion within a paragraph or two, it isn’t a comment.

  3. It was quite clear that it was aimed more broadly at Red Hat and Intel

    I doubt that. Obviously the systemd part was about Red Hat but overall I think it’s about KDE.

    Just look at one of Mark’s comments:

    When a project says “we will not accept a patch to enable support for Mir” they are saying you should not have the option. When that’s typically a project which goes to great lengths to give its users every option, again, I suggest there is a political motive

    combined with the hint on Windows it’s clear that KDE is meant. Red Hat to my knowledge doesn’t care about Windows and Intel can hardly be blamed for supporting Windows. Also the point about the options makes it clear that it’s KDE. None of the other Mir critics is known to have lots of options. Anyway Mark wrote it wonderfully to make sure everybody is offended. I have seen Intel developers telling me it’s about Intel when I said it’s about KDE :-)

    Apart from that I just want to say that I agree with you and can totally understand why you were close to leaving a few years back and this year. I felt the same way this year due to the behavior of the Ubuntu community :-( It’s a very sad thing to see, I don’t understand why people are so religious about it.

    1. Nice to hear from you Martin! In terms of that particular quote you’ve referenced – I believe that’s a reference to the immediate removal of XMir support in xf86-video-intel with very little technical explanation, and indeed with a highly politicized explanation (“‘We do not condone or support Canonical in the course of action they have chosen, and will not carry XMir patches upstream’. -The Management”). I don’t know the surrounding context around the remark about Windows support, but I believe that applies more to toolkits and core frameworks than anything else.

      It is quite easy to take a remark that appears general in nature and perceive as though it was aimed at you. I often make this error – equating the negative feedback I get on the software I maintain with my own personal worth.

      Quick Edit: I just read your analysis on this and you could be right about the comment being about KDE. In any case –

      An analysis of who the remark was aimed at is probably not useful in the broader context of my post. It was inappropriate no matter whom it was aimed at. Regardless of who makes such comments, being deliberately being inflammatory or endlessly critical is highly damaging to those at the center of any controversy, even if the person who makes the remarks has no involvement in the issue at hand.

      I think that’s moreso the case with free software. Criticism that might be detached from the internal workings of a project is just as visible as criticism from within. The result, I think, is that we all need to be a little more careful about what we say and whom it might affect (and I say that having learned some lessons there myself!)

  4. Reblogged this on xpress-ubuntu and commented:
    Sam is a guy I much admire who has worked across projects, companies etc. In reblogging this, I share much if not all of his well thought through arguments, opinions and analysis. Its well worth a read and deserves resharing.
    While MS is rather blunt and sometimes a little insular with his thoughts (Ubuntu through and through), try to read between those thoughts. There has been misinformation from all sides – primarily from armchair critics. This year hasnt been a great year for FOSS due to its infighting. We should be all marching together – looking to take the demise of Windows XP as an opportunity to push the boundaries of Linux in what ever platform is available – phones, desktop, server etc.
    Be critical of Mir and you yourself are damaging this cause. Be critical of wayland, you yourself are damaging choice. Throw mud at all contributers from whatever angle they are delivering, you introduce a stain on all present and future aspiring developers that will not rub off easily in the rinse-cycle.
    Those in the real world want stuff that works – works great with polish, panache and verve. The whole open-source community should be running to that beat.
    Anyway – back to drinking my cuppa tea from this particular arm-chair.

  5. Two things, if I may:
    First, the TEA Party reference is unfortunate, as your characterization of the political group is somewhat inaccurate (WTG Wikipedia….), but likely similar to the OP’s opinion, based upon context.
    Second, and much more germane to this discussion, it seems to me that other than the direct invasion of privacy, most of the flame-war issues are about limiting functionality in order to create simplicity. i.e. destroying the fun and functionality of Gnome2, Mutter, Compiz and Emerald in order to mandate a new dock feature in Ubuntu, thereby severely limiting the user experience, followed up with ditching X…. If it had been left to me to design the changeover process, here’s how it would have gone instead:
    Gnome2 would have only been deprecated when Compiz was fully ready – but recognizable in the Gnome3 environment.
    Unity would have been a default, but entirely optional, except for the necessity of drawing and maintaining the home folder.
    X may eventually have to go, but should remain a persistent fallback for larger-than-phone devices.
    I know that each of these pose their own problems, but a logical progression instead of Shock ‘n Awe tactics that lack the Awe, would have served the user base much better than has been done.

    I want to thank you, smspillaz for all you do for the community. I know how hard it can be to work with the public all the time. Please remember, you never hear from people who never have a problem, so look at the numbers of users and enthusiasts who don’t complain!

    HAGD!!!!

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