Reading comprehension is a big problem in open-source


Updated: February 24, 2016

Houston, we have a problem. Linux users can't read good [sic]. Zoolander reference. Word. What am I on about, and where can you buy some of the stuff, you be asking? You can't, it's all au naturale, Dedoimedo freerange extract.

To be serious, this topic is about the flow of information in the Linux world. After having a rather horrible autumn season of distro testing, I happened to come across commentary about my reviews on various forums and portal. It's always when the negative is being discussed, because articles that praise products never ever get any reaction from the wider community. To put it bluntly, the message was not coming across.

Teaser

The reason why we gathered here

Going through comments and rants by other people is always a worthy intellectual exercise. It teaches so you much about how information travels, changes, mutates, becomes something else. No example is ever more indicative of the problem we are discussing than my openSUSE Leap 42.1 review.

One of the chief complains I had was about codecs. Indeed, to be able to play anything in any sort of proprietary file formats and such, you will need additional components that are not provided in the official repositories, for a variety of legal restrictions. This means adding some community sources, like I showed you in my openSUSE Nvidia guide.

Of course, this was one of the first things I did, and then went about ranting how openSUSE still refused to play music. The technical problem is quite elaborate, in fact. First, the community repositories provide a number of similar YET conflicting packages that cannot coexist, and you may end up with issues that may prevent you from installing or updating your software. Finding the right codecs is very difficult. For example, you need to know what gstreamer or fluendo is before you can get MP3 to play - maybe. Now, how are honest new users ever to guess that gstreamer of the ugly sort is going to give them what they expect? Why not have a simple transitional package called mp3-codecs that solves all the problems automatically? How nerdy does the implementation have to be? This is true for all distributions, btw.

To make things worse, even armed with codecs, Leap refused to play proprietary formats. Complicating matters still, the VLC player, which ought to be our salvation, provided by third-party repositories, does not come with its own codec stack, so it is useless. A critical component that actually makes VLC useful is not a dependency for the main binary, causing much stupidity to ensue. To say nothing of package conflicts.

In the end, the simple action of listening to some music comes down to several critical obstacles that normal users will never be able to solve, nor should they: 1) The inclusion of undocumented third-party sources 2) Package conflicts in the unofficial software channels 3) Practical inability to search for relevant content 4) Missing dependencies for core functionality 5) Even with the right codecs provided, the default music player cannot play MP3 songs. All of these are the state in which Leap ships and eventually delivers the multimedia experience to whoever is brave and willing enough, with partial, missing and inadequate, downright dangerous results.

How does this relate to reading comprehension?

Ah, yes. So one of the first and prominent comments (on a social network, mind) to my frustration with the broken music stack in Leap was:

Wow. Sad to think that the reviewer only needed to add Packman to "fix" most of the issues he faced.

No. It is sad that whoever wrote this comment didn't bother reading the review and paying attention to my message. Adding Packman was probably the FIRST thing I did. Not that Packman means anything to 99.999999% of people out there. But let's break it down.

Look at the screenshot below. It is the YaST2 wizard that shows a list of unofficial community repositories that have NOT been added yet. Those that have been added are not shown here anymore. Can you see OSS, Non-OSS, Updates, Mozilla, LibreOffice, or Packman in this list? No you cannot, because they have been added already.

Repos added

This means, my system already has Packman, and it is Packman and friends that offered me an ambiguous choice of music codecs that eventually led me to resolve a stupid package conflict:

Install MP3 files

MP3 conflicts

Spot the difference? You can't? Noob! You should be hung, drawn and quartered. XO, Lunix community.

And it is this third-party repo that did not offer me VLC codecs for VLC, because of course, it is so unexpected to expect a media player to actually need codecs to be able to play music. Go figure.

VLC error

VLC codecs

Five screenshots, hundreds of words of text, and yet, the comment completely and utterly blindly ignores the provided information. In turn, a whole discussion follows on what sort of distributions are suited for what kind of audience, and the focus switches from technical pain points, of which there are many - see the list above - to personal traits of the reviewer and how he/she may be suited to using Linux.

That, my dear readers, is called reading comprehension. And it is one of the leading causes of confusion in the Linux world. Because people don't see reviews, they see personal criticism for some reason. People do not see technical bugs and problems - all beautifully documented with tons of words, snippets of errors and bloody screenshots - they see users and how nooby or not they might be in handling these bugs. It's a moral question, not one of convenience not to fiddle with technical nonsense that shouldn't exist in the first place. In other words, the accountability for providing excellent, stable software is transposed onto the end user. That won't do. Nopey nope.

Another case of reading comprehension ... NOT

Let's ponder some more. The second item for today would be my Netrunner Rolling 2015.11 review. After all, the screenshots of ugly Python errors would probably be sufficient to indicate there might be a wee problem with the system installer, and that it should somehow be fixed. Right? Well, can you guess what the main topic of discussion on the Manjaro forum was around this?

Installer failed for the second time

It was around the fact some people are more suited for Ubuntu, and that they should leave Arch alone to the REAL and mighty heroes of Linux, who are willing to spend hours in futile pursuit of bugs so they can eventually claim to be able to achieve the simple task of playing an MP3 song. Paraphrasing of course. Reading comprehension, right!

If you struggle to see my point, imagine a shopping mall with escalators only. No elevators, and no access ramps for disabled people. As an analogy, if we were to follow the example of the wider community, should someone in a wheelchair need to use the facilities in the mall, we ought to send them away to a disabled-friendly mall. That's probably the best way to describe the reaction to the article.

Physical or virtual

Then, another goldie that never fails to amuse me:

Is this on hardware or VM?

The fact it reads Lenovo G50 somewhere in the beginning of the article, plus the link, or the fact I invoked concepts like UEFI, Secure Boot and GPT ought to be a clue. Let us not forget the half a dozen distros residing on the disk, Windows 10, or maybe Wireless, which often very heavily hints at a physical setup. Or the fact I have not used virtualization for testing save for half a dozen isolated cases in the last five years or so. It makes me wonder if these kind of people ever bother reading anything at all, or if they are firing semi-coherent responses just because a title of a post or something along those lines caught their attention. And rage.

Very humane, very accepting, very forgiving, very embracing, very tolerant, very patient, very mature. Also, an indication of higher emotional intelligence, willingness to cooperate, and finally, acceptance of other people and their ways of doing things and coping with problems. But let's be fair. It could just be reading comprehension. The fact people comment on things without reading. After all, all those words. So difficult.

The last thing is, people usually cave in under pressure. Which means, over time, you end up with software reviewers who are too scared to discuss bad things, controversial topics or problems in products, lest they provoke the wrath of the Righteous Brigade. They go away, do something else, give up, while the technological issues remain behind. That won't do either. Nope.

What am I saying?

Very simple. Being emotional and passionate about software is perfectly acceptable. But there's a fine line between love and zeal. Once you cross it, no sane, reasonable discourse of information is possible. Unfortunately, for some people, once they have typed more than a thousand commands in a terminal window, there's no going back. Software and persona become one. I fully understand the response, but I also fully reject it.

Technology is not the goal. It's a means to an end. It's there to help us achieve objectives and satisfy our personal and business needs. Music players should play music. They should not be an exercise in RPM packaging, licensing restriction of the US Government and FTC, patent violations, software compilations, and operating system management. The fact a user might need to dabble in these is a testament of how lousy computer products still are, Year 2016 and counting. Linux is not exempt from this, and in fact, it is probably leading the wild pack.

Reading comprehension - the key to understanding. You cannot solve problems until you understand them. And if you are not willing to embrace criticism, there cannot be a change. Physics-bound systems remain in a steady state until energy is added to the system. Alarmingly, the cycle of feedback in the Linux world often revolves around technical difficulty -> personal transposition of the problem, matrix style -> resolution on the basis of individual inadequacy or decision to cope with the technical difficulty. Problem solved. Unfortunately, it is far from being solved. And it's getting worse. Because Linux is growing in popularity, and it is attracting simple, innocent people who don't give a shit about the kernel, package signing, repos, codecs, or anything of that sort.

Coincidentally, and 100% unintentionally, I derive perverted pleasure from this, as it affirms my long-standing decision not to have comments on Dedoimedo. While the original intention was entirely around aesthetics and overhead of managing comments, in sweet retrospect, not giving stage to random outbursts of public outcry to people who have not diligently done their homework, i.e. actually read my articles before deciding to be offended, the added bonus of intellectual silence is quite soothing.

Conclusion

Linux isn't about who has a bigger e-peen. Things that normal people need should work in a normal way. It is one hundred billion million kajillion percent developers' fault for not providing the right solution. If I want to listen to MP3 songs, then I bloody want MP3 to play, and I don't care how you do it. And if a user wants to find the stuff what plays MP3 songs, they'd better find it without spilling blood and tears. The fact this still hasn't been resolved in 2016 is a direct consequence of reading comprehension in the Linux community. Or rather, the lack thereof.

When people complain about technology, they are not attacking YOU. They are attacking lousy products. They want shit done. As long as the commentary diverges into discussions about noobs, someone's ability to gstreamer their sister and such, Linux will NEVER rise mighty as a consumer product. If your first instinct is to discuss the reviewer, you should shift-delete your Internet. It's all about being able to receive constructive feedback. Once that happens, we might actually end up with some decent software. Kapish?

Cheers.

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