14 Oct 2023, 21:23

Talk about the Basics

Whenever I send around a Call for Papers for an open source conference, some people reply something like

Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to present right now. My work on XYZ is simply not far enough along.

Or similar. However, this does not matter.

I’ll let you in on a secret: When I was in academia, when someone was talking about their results at a conference, I mostly did not give a shit about the results themselves. (Unless I was working on something narrowly related, which was rare.)

Instead, what I was really interested in was the Intro and the Conclusion. Why did you do this research? What is the bigger picture? What have you learned?

What to talk about in an (open source) conference

The idea for this post came to me after EuroBSDCon 2023, where this type of conversation happened more than once, with different NetBSD and other developers. (I hung out mainly with the NetBSD crowd, as expected.)

Many of the successful presentations in the conference weren’t all that much about own work, the work of developing some driver, subsystem or whatever. They were about cool stuff they do with the OS. What cool stuff can I, the person watching your talk, do with this OS, or with some other OS? What are you using your operating system, or programming language, or whatever, for? Surely you are using it for something? So you are running some web services behind a firewall? You could talk about that! Explain how, say, npf in NetBSD helps you with that.

You are fiddling with your OS on a tiny single-board computer? Bring it into the talk, connect it to your laptop and boot it live!

Example: OccamBSD

One of the more inspiring talks that I watched at EuroBSDCon 2023 was the excellent Michael Dexter explaining OccamBSD. At its core, OccamBSD is a minimal FreeBSD – you build the world and disable all the knobs that can be disabled, so you get a system that’s minimal in size. Why?

  • as a study object, to take apart and see what you can do without
  • for jails, where you don’t need a mailer daemon to run your webserver

And more. I thought the idea was neat, and I am now experimenting with doing something similar on NetBSD.

So what, I hear you object, but this was presenting the author’s own, finished development work! Well yeah. But development work is never finished. Don’t be afraid of showing things which are not quite ready for prime time. You might find people that like the idea and want to help you.

Example: “NetBSD, not just for Toasters”

At FOSDEM 2020, I gave a somewhat generic talk introducing NetBSD and pkgsrc. Its title was “NetBSD: Not just for Toasters”. To be honest, when I started writing the talk, I was a bit worried that it would be too generic and hence boring.

But to my great surprise, this was my most successful FOSDEM talk ever. The hall was packed, and I had about an hour’s worth of audience questions in the hallway outside. It turns out that people who are not from the BSD community were coming in to this talk to find out what cool things your can do with this, just as I alluded to above.

And I did have some cool things in there, mentioning various emulation and cloud support layers, plus some fun ARM hardware that you can run NetBSD on. And clearly, even if you are never going to try this OS, maybe you got inspired to buy a Pinebook Pro and use an open hardware laptop?


It is hard to judge from your own perspective how interesting your topic will be for the audience. You, as the author, tend to overindex on your own work and take the context in which your work happens totally for granted. Yet, the audience perspective is very different.

  • The audience is looking for ideas and inspiration.
  • The audience might be looking for a cause that they can join and that sounds fun. It doesn’t have to be finished.
  • Even if they will not use the exact combination of things you present, they are looking for an aspect that translates to their own world.

I hope this gives you some ideas for when you are feeling writer’s block when the next call for papers arrives.

PS: The Twitter button is gone from this blog.

15 Jul 2019, 20:44

A Tale of Two Spellcheckers

This is a transcript of the talk I gave at pkgsrcCon 2019 in Cambridge, UK. It is about spellcheckers, but there are much more general software engineering lessons that we can learn from this case study.

The reason I got into this subject at all was my paternal leave last year, when I finally had some more time to spend working on pkgsrc. It was a tiny item in the enormous TODO file at the top of the source tree (“update enchant to version 2.2”) that made me go into this rabbit hole.

A short history of spellchecking


The oldest spellchecker, spell, appeared in version 6 AT&T Unix, but it was actually written before that, in 1975. The great Doug McIlroy (who is also the inventor of the concept of a “pipe”, by the way) worked on spell, added it to UNIX and wrote a 1982 paper. Today, NetBSD still contains a version of spell(1) in the base system.

To say that spell is not user-friendly is an understatement. You give it a text (or troff!) file to check, and it outputs a list of all the misspelled words on stdout. It supports both kinds of languages, British and American. In American mode, it flags all British spelling as incorrect, and vice versa. This includes verbs ending in -ize needing to be written with an -ise ending, which is highly questionable from a linguistic point of view too.

ispell and aspell

Next came a program called ispell, which stands for “interactive spell”. Its main innovation was interactive operation: it would stop when it found a misspelled word and present you with suggestions for what you meant. You choose the correct spelling, and ispell replaces it in the text. It supports different languages, and there is a comprehensive set of dictionaries.

aspell (advanced spell?) set out to replace ispell as the standard spellchecker. Its main distinctive feature was that its suggestions are far better than the ones that ispell provides (“even better than Word 97!”, its documentation claims). It also understands encodings, including UTF-8, which is a big deal for most languages.

Both ispell and aspell are in active use today. Their dictionary formats are different.

A digression on agglutinating languages

Imagine that you would like to spellcheck a text that is written in Finnish. The problem with writing a dictionary for Finnish though is the near-infinite number of words that it would need to contain. It is an agglutinating language, which means that you can stick words together without a space. As an example, consider the word “kasvihuoneilmiö”, which is composedof the individual words for “plant”, “room” and “phenomenon” and means “greenhouse effect”. Such composites do not obey vocal harmony rules (indeed, this is one way to see where the separation is). In addition, there are about 15 different cases for the noun, as a number of prepositions is replaced by a case (as in, a suffix). Some cases use the strong stem, some the weak stem of the word. Et cetera.

So what do you do if you would like to keep the dictionary as small as possible? Easy: you take a team of linguists and have them carefully model all the rules of word construction as a library! Such a thing exists in fact for Finnish (voikko), for Turkish (zemberek) and for Hungarian (hunspell).

Hunspell is particularly interesting: while it does contain special word formation rules for Hungarian, it is also an excellent spellchecker for other languages. It can use aspell dictionaries but is faster and gives even better suggestions, apparently. So using hunspell is a fairly popular choice among users, no matter what language.

Needs more abstraction

The consequence of the previous section is:

  • multiple spellcheckers are in active use;
  • users would like to be able to choose which one to use;
  • that choice may depend on the language of the document.

So what should you do as an application developer? You need an abstraction library over all these different programs. Such a library exists, and it is called Enchant.

Enchant gives you a uniform interface over all spellcheckers (including the system one on macOS, and a few more), handles the user choice of backend and the user dictionaries.

The messy Enchant 2 transition

Enchant 2.0.0 was released in August 2017. Its release notes contain this (emphasis mine):

The major version number has been incremented owing to API/ABI changes, but in practice upgrading from 1.6.x should be easy.

Previously-deprecated APIs have been removed.

The little-used enchant_broker_get/set_param calls have been removed.

Some trivial API changes have been made to fix otherwise-unavoidable compilation warnings both in libenchant and in application code. This is strictly an ABI change (although the ABI may not actually have changed, depending on the platform).

So there is a new major release, and it is incompatible with the previous release for ABI and API. In a surprising development, uptake of the new version was extremely low. For someone to adopt the new version, they have to replace the old version with it, at which point all programs that use Enchant stop working until you fix them. Thus, the developers have created a chicken-and-egg problem.

They spent the next couple releases re-adding bits that had been removed and declared that the new release was now API-compatible to 1.x, “except for some really deprecated calls”. It just so happened that many Enchant-using programs actually used these calls, since they were more convenient than their non-deprecated replacements!

Then, in November 2017, Enchant 2.1.3 had this in its release notes (again, emphasis mine):

This release adds support for parallel installation with other major versions of Enchant, and fixes a crash in the Voikko provider when it has no supported languages.

2.2.0 fixed parallel installation fully. You can now install Enchant versions 1 and 2 in parallel, since they go into different subdirectories and have different pkg-config files (enchant.pc vs. enchant-2.pc).

Adoption by other software is still really low: no one checks for the enchant-2 package, and for an application developer, there has never been a compelling reason to use version 2 rather than 1.

Enchant in pkgsrc

Back to pkgsrc. I tried to make Enchant 2 the only Enchant version in our tree.

And failed.

As stated above, almost no software has explicit support for checking enchant-2.pc, so I resorted to a trick to not have to patch all those configure scripts. textproc/enchant2/buildlink3.mk has this bit:

# Lots of older software looks for enchant.pc instead of enchant-2.pc.
        ${MKDIR} ${BUILDLINK_DIR}/lib/pkgconfig
        cd ${BUILDLINK_DIR}/lib/pkgconfig && ${LN} -sf enchant-2.pc enchant.pc

buildlink-enchant2-cookie: ${BUILDLINK_DIR}/lib/pkgconfig/enchant.pc

What this does is symlink enchant-2.pc to enchant.pc within the buildlink tree that is created for a single package build. We can do that because no enchant1 files are present in that tree.

But what broke the whole thing was PHP. Of course.

php-enchant supports only enchant1. Worse, it translates the entire API, including those deprecated bits, to PHP. So there is no way to make it use the newer version: if you were to remove the APIs that are no longer provided, software using php-enchant might break, at runtime. This is not acceptable for web applications.

So this is where I am stuck.

General advice for library authors

In lieu of a conclusion, I would like to offer some general advice if you are the author or maintainer of a library.

The most important is this: An incompatible V2 of a library is like a new product.

Importantly, this means that if you stop maintaining V1 the moment you release V2, it is as if you had abandoned your library and created a new one.

Think of other projects that depend on you as customers. Think about migration paths. Think about the cost-benefit ratio of an upgrade by your customers.

Consider sending pull requests to your customers! If you look at pkgsrc, Debian, etc., it is easy to see what other projects depend on your library. Many of them are on github. All of them probably have a way of sending patches. Send them a patch to upgrade the dependency. Do the work for them.

Otherwise, you are developing for no one.