Oh, sweet! The Sugar learning environment

I did my talk in TOG tonight. I think it went quite well! I certainly got some positive feedback afterwards. Lots of room for improvements still, of course, many "um"s especially at the beginning, and it probably would have been better if I had rehearsed more, to remove the attachment to my notes for prompts when I got stuck, but otherwise it flowed well and people seemed clear and happy on what Sugar was, what it looks like and the type of learning it tries to encourage. Very nice audience, smallish and I knew most people! Many interesting questions, and having 4 laptops running Sugar (2 XOs with 0.82, 2 Eee with Mirabelle) for people to try out afterwards was a hit, I was delighted to see people rushing toward them and trying out all sorts of activities. (Delightful, noisy Tam Tam!)

The "Presentation Zen" style of presenting worked well too, I think, and I got a few questions about this and the pictures I used. I still need to practice more and become a stronger speaker to support this style better, though. (Motivated!)

Here are the presentation slides, for the curious. In true "Presentation Zen" style they are much less useful without me chatting in front of them, but you'll find most of the information I used for content on http://sugarlabs.org and http://wiki.sugarlabs.org ! :)

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Hackerspaces Week

There hasn't been much public info about it yet, but inspired by Cheryl's Hackerspace Week teaser I'm going to start speaking about it too! The first Irish Hackerspaces week will happen soon in August, from the 14th to 22nd, and I'll be talking about Sugar.

My talk will last about 30 minutes, in the evening of the 17th in Tog.

Come and learn about Sugar, the learning platform for children. Sugar offers an innovative desktop environment designed to encourage collaboration and critical thinking through Activities. Initially developed as part of the One Laptop Per Child project, Sugar is now community led and can run on any machine thanks to Sugar on a Stick.

There will be plenty of other interesting talks, workshops, demos and more... that I will happily link to once more information starts surfacing!

EDIT: It's alive! Full schedule of the week now available.

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Contributing to an open-source project: Sugar, a newcomer's perspective.

It's proven difficult to write up a summary of my experience as someone-who's-not-a-hardcore-open-source-contributor-yet-but-certainly-plans-on-becoming-one. There's an easy dialogue-killing answer to any anecdote I relate: "suck it up." I'm still trying to find a way to express all this though, because I'm sure there's something to learn from any newcomer's attempt to join a project, and also for my future self, when I'll be the one encouraging others to get involved with open-source and won't remember what it's like to stand on the edge, trying to understand how a community functions and how to find a space that fits you in there.

So. Two anecdotes on contributing to Sugar, then a description of the incredible level of confusion I've been experiencing looking at the development process overhaul, followed by some ponderings on "what's next" which I better follow up on in the future :)

Anecdote 1: Fixing a bug (InfoSlicer)

Sugar (and the XO!) had been on my radar for a while. Last summer I finally made the time to set up sugar-jhbuild on my laptop and start trying it out for myself. I was enthusiastic but despite the very good wiki I wasn't sure where I could make myself the most useful (Sugar core? Making a new activity? Fixing activity bugs?). I find fixing bugs to be a fantastic way to get familiar with a project and a code base, however I wasn't sure how to pick one because every ticket in bugs.sugarlabs.org is already assigned to someone. It wasn't obvious to me whether I was welcome to work on any or if there was some sort of "please may I work on this bug" process or if assigned people might be protective of their code (I've met a few virulent "It's my code/my bug!" people before, albeit mostly in college.) The sugar-love bugs were few.

Enters OSS BarCamp in September 2009, where I met Laura Cowen (thanks Jaime for pushing me to introduce myself!) who presented a lightning talk on a Sugar activity, InfoSlicer. Having met with a real person who was enthusiastic and sort of involved with Sugar, I thought I'd take a look at InfoSlicer. There was only one bug filed against it at the time, that quite seriously limited the capabilities of the activity. I set out to fix it. A few weeks later, I was attaching my patch to the ticket, discreetly sweating over the associated comment. Someone replied less than a day later, suggesting a different approach inspired after another activity I hadn't heard about and before I had come back from work that same day, the current maintainer had accepted my patch and also suggested another way to do it that we could work on together. I was double-elated and thanks to the "we" felt very welcome.

Unfortunately I hadn't enjoyed a lot working on the parsing code for InfoSlicer and despite promising myself I would update the activity with the new toolbar "soon" I didn't get back to it (yet, shall we say. I'd still like to do the toolbar thing sometime.)

Anecdote 2: Fixing bugs (Pippy)

'round the same time I had volunteered to show cool engineering things to a transition year (high school) student spending a few "work experience" days in my workplace. Although he was a bit older than the Sugar usual demographics, I gave him a usb stick with Sugar on it anyway: Sugar is cool and we all had unrealistic expectations of what a student could accomplish in a week. I thought perhaps he could get familiar with the project then investigate a bug. After he showed some curiosity about programming, I stirred him toward Pippy which he enjoyed greatly despite the occasional stracktraces some examples were invariably throwing up.

Most of these issues had already been reported so I thought, "I love Pippy, I'm gonna try to fix as many as I can." Along the way someone I know got a bit hyped up by my enthusiastic chanting of "Sugar Sugar Sugar" and had set out to fix a serious display bug in Pippy, #347, despite not being particularly fond of Python. I fixed a couple of other bugs, attached the patches to the relevant reports and hopped away, waiting for a review or update. Months went by. My friend lost interest. I began to pep myself up to ask about the Pippy maintainer on IRC. At the time I was trying to build up some confidence by getting my work accepted first before going about and expressing opinions or asking questions in public places (not the way people usually prefer things to be done in open-source, I realise.)

A series of coincidences happened and I suddenly was offered commit access to the Pippy repository (I mentioned that before.) Despite the best intentions, I wasn't comfortable pushing my patches to the mainline merely because I had the power to do so ; I find it preferable and better for patches to be looked at and approved by people who know what they're doing. Eventually I pushed #843 myself into the mainline, as Chris Ball kindly reviewed it as part of an email thread. I still didn't feel so good about it, managing the statuses in Trac was unclear (both status + resolution must be marked as fixed/resolved?) and the bug never ended up assigned to me (it looked like Trac's button would change both the status and assignee so I wasn't sure and then it was too late, I didn't want to revert the status back.) Basically, as I've stated before, I was still in dear need of a mentor, and I still didn't reach out. I fully understand and accept that this is my fault for not communicating well enough with the community.

Another bug I had worked on, I didn't fix correctly the first time around. When this was brought up I responded quickly, explaining where I thought the issue was and submitting a second patch a few days later. I won't be pushing this to mainline until someone else confirms it works, but I'm still happy with it because I proved (to myself, too) that in case of problems I am responsive and able to correct issues within a decent timeframe.

Meanwhile, I was also getting fidgety about #347 as without it, Pippy is impossible to use on my Eee and likely on other netbooks. Eventually I asked, still within the bug tracker, if people would mind if I pushed the current (working) patch to the mainline. Other unrelated requirements had come up in the bug report discussion, much less serious than does-not-work-at-all-unless-patch-is-applied so it felt fair to push the partial patch. Lots of people had popped up the first time around and subscribed to that bug, but there was no answer.

Not long after, someone submitted a duplicated patch to fix #347 as well as the other unaddressed aesthetic issues, using a new process still being defined. The patch got reviewed, no one mentioned the duplication (I didn't either) and soon after the patch was pushed to the mainline and the submitter became Pippy maintainer (yay! At least Pippy now has a more active maintainer, hopefully!)

It's great to see movement on the Pippy front but I felt so disheartened by the duplication of that patch that had been sitting there for 7 months and that I had to install manually on every stick I made for the past 7 months. I invested so much energy running in circles like a headless chicken, trying to do things right with my shiny commit access and waiting for feedback. I was very discouraged, the basic lesson being: I shouldn't have cared so much, especially when I knew I hadn't fully groked all the processes yet. This only (mostly?) happened because I did not reach out to the community through other channels than the bug tracker.

The new process

While I'm at it, I'd like to mention what's going through my mind with regard to development process changes that SugarLabs has been setting up lately. Sugar is basically moving toward a mailing-list only style of communication to submit patches and I've been endlessly confused since this started. I'm not sure it's the most inclusive process either though I understand the problems it's trying to solve -- mostly lack of code reviews as illustrated by anecdote #2 :)

I think it's more confusing than it used to be and makes the barrier to entry higher because as far as I can tell, now if I or anyone want to fix a bug:

  • I go browse trac and find something interesting/that I care about to work on
  • Now I also have to search through my inbox and patchwork (a new system I haven't totally figured out yet either, but it doesn't look any less confusing than my inbox with every patch/email thread thrown in there together) to see if the bug is already being worked on
  • I need to join the mailing list to submit my patch (I'm assuming, but it's probably necessary if you want to be sure to get the answers) -- that's quite intimidating and a commitment for "just" a patch. The process should also be easy for passersby if you want people to stick around.

Reading the mailing list and the patches as they get submitted is also confusing because it's difficult to link a patch to a bug and understand the background/context. In most cases you'd have to go and dig it back up from the bug tracker.

I know people are working on it at the moment, so I will wait for the wiki to be updated with clear instructions on how to effectively use the new process and systems, as the wiki still only describes how to work with trac. For now I'm watching perplexedly and wondering if really, the mailing list will be the only way for people to contribute in the future? I worry that the new process is inspired from projects that focus on hardcore technical people (Linux kernel) rather than others that also welcome passionate beginners (Dreamwidth).

Other valid solutions were proposed to fix the patch review problem and I wish I had found the bug on re-creating a "patch need review" automatic weekly email so I could have tried to do my bit to help. Great Sugar contributors believe in the new process though, enough to invest their time setting it up and setting up the tools to make it work more conveniently. Now that I've finally written this post and digested what happened and where I messed up, I should be able to focus on how I can help the project with other contributions.

What now?

Step back, start from scratch with a clean state of mind. Probably stay away from code contributions for a bit. Talk with the community. Stop messing up brilliant opportunities when introduced to cool people by email ;) Be more pushy when it comes to asking for feedback.

Looking at the releases notes surrounding Fedora 13 and Mirabelle make me hopeful: the Sugar on a Stick (Mirabelle) wiki pages are awesome, vibrant with optimism and that sub-community within the community sounds like a great way into main Sugar. Quote from their wiki I love: "When you're stuck, and have spent more than 15 minutes trying to figure out what to do next [, email the mailing list / ask on IRC]." The weekly meetings where newcomers are welcome sound like a good idea as well, it gives some structure rather than let new people break into the main group on their own (or so I imagine, I wasn't able to attend the first meeting last Monday.)

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Commit access Contributing to Sugar

Through a series of kinda mind boggling coincidences, meeting people and talking about what I have in mind and am passionate about, earlier this month I ended up with commit access to the Pippy activity (a Sugar application). Wow! Awesome. A few weeks back, I had decided to fix as many of the broken examples as I could after getting a bit embarrassed showing off Sugar to a teenager, last October. He was very interested but as we were using Pippy it felt like we were getting stack traces a bit too often (they weren't that many really, they just happen to be more memorable.)

So I fixed them and the patches sat there for weeks (I didn't set the "need review" flag to be fair, which I just discovered in a corner of the wiki last week), along with a patch not-from-me in #347 which I think should really-really make it into the next release because Pippy is completely unusable on my (all?) netbook without it.

Now, I've been granted the Power Of The Commit so it should all be fine, with me committing away and happily making the world a better place... but it's not so simple, because really, I'm still living too far away from the community to understand how they work and notably here, the interactions with and within the bug tracker. For instance, I didn't realise you were supposed to add the "r?" keyword when submitting a patch, I found it accidentally when looking for something else in the wiki. I'm not a maintainer either, so it's not entirely clear what I should be doing with the bug report after submitting a patch or the process to follow.

Although my patches are tested and too small (I believe!) to actually do great damage, I didn't commit them... which ended up being a good idea since one of them was incorrect :) Someone kindly commented on the bug report saying it didn't work, with details. Turns out I was so keen on removing the stack traces I didn't check if the error messages provided by other Pippy examples were actually correct (so I display "install this" instead of showing a stack trace, but the "install this" doesn't actually solve the issue for that example, nor for the example I took it from.) I've now attached a new, better patch to the report (...and set the proper review flag!)

It's probably a tad too early for me to have those commit rights, just yet. I need a mentor still, except individually everybody is incredibly busy being awesome already, which is fair. The truth is, I already have a mentor if I reach out to it: the community. So this is always something I will be working on in parallel, I really want to integrate with the community. It just takes time for someone not so comfortable with the "public speaking effect" of pouring thoughts, mistakes and ideas on public, sometimes archived mailing lists and channels. I'll figure it out, at my own pace. I have access to some pretty cool people individually in the meantime if I really need help. My first area of focus is grokking the bug tracker so I can contribute effectively there.

Sugar stuff I want to figure out:

  • How to know when a patch is big enough to warrant the "r?" flag, or really should they all have it?
  • The complete process for submitting a patch. Right now, I think, a lot of the information I am looking for is under the "Code review" wiki page which makes it not obvious to find, and it's still not a clear step-by-step process. As I progressively get a better understanding of how things work I'd like to improve on it and/or eventually make a case for a "Submitting patches" page aimed at brand-new contributors, ideally "drive by" contributors too. I'm thinking of something along the lines of Gnome's "Submitting patches" page, or Gnome's project specific guidelines, which I found really useful when I was getting ready to make my first open-source contribution.
  • Find out what developers do with bug reports, the best practices. How keywords and the 5.000 status/milestones/etc fields are being used and who gets to set them. I suspect there's probably an established set of guidelines for Sugar core, and that activity maintainers kinda do their own things, but still, I'm sure a set of best practices has emerged, somehow, somewhere. Usually triaging guides are pretty good at indicating how the status field should be used and what it means up to a certain point (usually, up to when the developer takes charge of the bug which is when I started getting stuck) but for Sugar, what I've seen so far doesn't seem to match the wiki (for instance there are a lot of bug marked assigned that aren't being worked on, and I suspect they just automatically get assigned to the maintainer or something like this. To be investigated further.) Also for the non-creator/non-main-maintainer of a component, is it ok to simply close off a bug after pushing a patch, even if no one else confirmed it worked? (I guess any problem will bubble back up to the bug tracker anyway, eventually...)
  • Code freezes. We're in one now, but I'm not sure how this impacts activities or if this is mostly about Sugar core, and when/which/how a version of an activity is selected to be shipped with the current release (and does that differ for "main"/fructose activities like Pippy?)
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This article is about a year old, but it doesn't matter:

(Diaries of a Core Maintainer #6:) A tale of two developers

Re-reading that story is always a bit scary and cause for self-reflection because my approach is so similar to Pat's, particularly when starting out with a new idea.

I could say I'm posting this now for people considering getting involved with an open-source project but afraid to jump in, or ask questions, or wondering if they're good enough, and that's usually what I send it to people for but... this time, what I really want if for more people to know about it, so they can send it back to me when I really need it! It's okay not to know everything or get things perfectly right the first time. It's ok to learn new things along the way.

For nearly two weeks, I've been sitting on a (tested!) Sugar patch because I don't fully understand the intricacies of "why it actually works" (xterm magic, there'll probably be a post about that soon!). I probably still would be digging into the entrails of xterm, tty and whatever other dead-ends I keep losing myself into for this bug, had someone not reminded me of this story. The patch is now submitted, right beside a comment explaining where I'm stuck and asking for help. Looking forward to the next step :)

And if you know why a xterm control sequence documented since at least 1994 could be sending back an abridged output on a different (but recent) hardware / software stack, please do let me know...

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