Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Open Source Software

792 words

All right, that post title just sounds too promising. I could probably rant about open source software for hours. And go on how it’s a great idea - until you have to use the results. Then I’d turn up my cynicism and wonder how much of the code in open source projects is actually checked by the proverbial ‘many eyes’; and, if so, how many of those eyes are competent at doing so. While I was at it, I’d take a stab at the abysmal documentation open source code has. Where when saying ‘documentation’, I’ll take the liberty of thinking about a meaningful narrative about what the code is supposed to do, why the implementation does that and which details of it are important rather than comments à la ‘increase i by 1’.

As an example I might refer to a moment many years ago when I wanted to convince ssh to read passwords for a connection from an external tool. ssh can do that; but it only works when the tool is not running from a terminal. Of course I wanted ssh to automatically connect in terminal sessions as well. The beauty of open source meant I could dig into the source code, find out that some if branch explicitly makes stuff work in non-terminal sessions only, change that branch to meet my needs and voilà! However - this put me in the uncomfortable situation of having to re-compile my ssh client with my own change for every update there was to it or the libraries it uses. Which of course sucked. Furthermore, from reading the code, it was completely unclear to me whether programmer stupidity [why should anybody want automatically entered passwords except when using cvs] or some relevant security considerations led to the behaviour seen in ssh. Clearly documented code would have been helpful for that.

But I digress; In the past days hoardes of geeks hang out in our department for some geeky ‘conference’. It featured loads of activity on some of the shittest (if ‘funnest’ is a word, I guess this should be as well) web systems I had the displeasure to use. Studip (not coincidentally an anagram of stupid…), a system they use for registering people for lectures. Its most outstanding feature is that pretty much every single page on the system comes with its own ‘forum’ and that you get a score according to how much used it. Over all that excitement, they forgot to make it easy to use. Of course if you have thousands of users you need to invent a method for downloading files that requires three mouse clicks and waits, you need not have interaction with outside calendaring systems and when making a tool for educational institutions you want a tool for making reading lists that’s a royal pain. But hey, it’s open source! So I’m not allowed to complain…

The other system which is even worse is ILIAS. It can be used for ‘e-learning’. It’s a royal pain to put courses in there because, in these days of the interactive web, they made sure to require at least two complete page reloads from their slow PHP/MySQL solution to edit a paragraph and see the results of that. The system is downright user-hostile in more places than I can list. And it’s a complete waste of time (although arguably the decision to use such a stupid system, instead of a PDF file, say, which is by far easier to create, maintain and access while looking better may need to take a share of the blame). It can do a few things like automatic marking of multiple choice test that can come handy. But I’m sure that convenience could have been had with less red tape and mud around it.

To add insult to injury both those ‘open’ systems are mostly closed. It seems impossible to actually access content buried in them without having an account on the system. From what I was told that’s in part intentional as too much traffic would burn the servers or something (quality programming, I presume), but it’s also completely inconvenient. Back in the computer ‘stone age’ of the 1990s, people could simply create a folder in their account and drop all the exercise sheets in there for downloading. This gave you any of the sheets within two clicks and put everything into search engines. In those ‘modern’ systems you need countless clicks, bookmarking is hard, and search engines are excluded.

As I worked on e-learning stuff last term, it was suggested that I could go and mingle with the people who made the systems. All I could do was ask to ensure that I don’t cross their ways. It wouldn’t have been pretty.

September 25, 2008, 23:46

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