Recently

Preface: this time Recently isn’t just a collection - it includes ‘thinking’ sections. This presumes you’re interested in my thoughts and that I’m qualified to write about the topics: feel free to skip these sections.

Reading

Listening

Thinking about Ownership

At MapBox there’s a recurring question of how open source software works once you have written more than you can maintain on a personal level. I think I have gotten there, with some degree of responsibility over more than 10 active projects.

There are examples of ‘benevolent dictators’ who stay on in a strong role, like DHH with Ruby on Rails, but the more recent trend is letting those projects go: Ryan Dahl leaving node.js, Jeremy Resig leaving jQuery, and many of _why’s projects resuscitated and reworked by Steve Klabnik.

Open source doesn’t work the way I thought it would: spontaneous contributors are rare, and there’s a continuum among users and coders in terms of understanding, maturity, interest, and expectations.

A goal in 2013 is to find new ways to make this work. I didn’t realize until late 2012 the importance of project-materials like well-thought-out README files, and I think there’s more low-hanging fruit in terms of contributability.

Sam Stephenson’s article also hit home - I’ve worked on a mix of projects founded (CartoCSS, Wax, etc.) and adopted (Modest Maps, iD). Some have succeeded beyond what I expected - CartoCSS was originally intended to be equivalent to Cascadenik, and now likely has many more users. But others are slowly falling into question - three years ago, OpenLayers was the kind of Javascript libraries and Modest Maps held a lot of promise. Now Leaflet is far in the lead, with 3.5k stars in comparison to OpenLayers’s ~700 and Modest Maps’s ~310.

You could draw multiple lessons from this - that certain code styles are more easily accepted, or that there was a lack of accessibility in terms of documentation and examples that could have been improved.

Momentum and identity in open source is funny - the ubiquity of jQuery being a great example of something that’s so thoroughly adopted that the $ is expected and provides a sort of cargo-cult ignorance of advanced Javascript idioms and native browser behavior.

You could distill it into a versus. Last month, this blog received the following search queries: ‘openlayers vs leaflet’, ‘javascript object literal vs module pattern’, and ‘cartocss vs mapcss’. I’ll never write these articles.

I’m also realizing how attachment can come and go. A few years ago, I was strongly invested in my work on the Drupal OpenLayers module, and even defended Drupal from time to time. Now it is a distant glimmer in the past and, one could say, a source of ‘life lessons’ on how to manage code and people. I also wrote TileLive, the server that powered huge sites and explored the ‘dynamic generation’ angle, is two or three years stale, superceded in every way by newer technology.

Thinking about Digital-Physical

There is a recent trend to incarnate the digital - printing code history like Craig Mod or the BERG Little Printer, or designing complex infographics like and producing them as beautifully laser-cut paper, or even 3D-printing a vinyl record.

I think it is primarily a smart way to feel scale in the way we are used to, to comment on potential versus physical permanence, and to play with the differences in representation, like accuracy and resolution, between digital and analog forms.

In some ways, this is inspiring: I have a printed book of my tweets from Etherpress which I treasure. Reading months of sentences, with fads, breakups, projects, and all life’s junk is interesting. But I have concerns.

Digital-Physical items are for rich people. The Little Printer is £199. Everyone Ever in the World is a limited edition, no longer available. And although Craig Mod doesn’t give their costs for the Flipboard book, their main reference point is Christo and Jean-Claude’s Umbrellas, a $26 million art project. To print your own vinyl record, you need a high-end 3D printer that costs $250,000.

But at the same time there are less-lauded and more popular projects like printstagr.am and Apple’s Cards which have surprisingly wide reach.

And when proponents of book-scale and 3D printed visualizations talk about digital scale, there’s a sense of uniformity that doesn’t match up to the experience. Where a hundred gigabyte hard disk is the same size as a disk with thirty times more storage, let’s not forget about the popularity of Google’s server farm tours, in which journalists walk past aisle after aisle of polished servers in A/C controlled basements somewhere in rural America. Miniaturization is in everyone’s pocket because it is accompanied the displacement from your person to the sitting army of storage.

I wonder about these principles, like the idea of physical substance as proof. Novels are printed on thick paper with rough-cut edges to assert their substance. And substance as a sort of scarcity: the physical world has limited editions, online we have sites where you can only post once a week or your photo fades in a few seconds.

Posted Jan 03, 2013 Tweet / Follow me on Twitter

Tom MacWright

I'm . I work on tools for creativity at Mapbox. This is where I write about technology and everything else.