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Traveling with The Bag #indieweb

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I might have to POSSE manual for a while, for Twitter already blocked me once when following a few people at once, but: got a new Twitter account to talk and read about codes and web! #indieweb #manualuntilithurts

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Ik heb zojuist een broodje afgerekend met mijn horloge. Welkom in 2014! #applepay #blij #ing

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GraphQL Stitching versus Federation

Recently, I started working on a project that uses GraphQL Stitching, to bring multiple GraphQL Schema's from backend servers into one central Schema to consume for clients. Sadly, I cannot say I'm a fan of it. In researching how it all works, I found out that it was actually deprecated, and by digging a bit deeper, I found out that that happened last Thursday. I happily investigated the proposed alternative of Apollo Federation.

What's wrong with Stitching?

Let's first dive into what I don't like about Schema Stitching. I must admit that I'm no expert on the subject: I am still trying to grasp what's possible. And it seems like a lot is possible. One can grab fields from one service, enhance them with fields from other services, leave fields out, all kinds of things.

For example. If I have a backend service that does books, it could have a Schema like the following:

type Query {
  books: [Book]
  book(id: ID!): Book
}

type Book {
  id: ID!
  isbn: String!
  title: String
}

If you then have a backend service that does reviews of books, it could have a Schema like the following:

type Query {
  reviewsForIsbn(isbn: String!): [Review]
}

type Review {
  text: String
  stars: Integer
}

The thing you can do with Stitching, is that you can add a reviews field to the Book type, by using the isbn field on Book and using reviewsForIsbn(isbn:) to grab it. And this is already the part where I should leave out the details of how to do it: I have no idea, but I know it's possible, and even in weirder setups than this one.

The nasty thing about it is that it creates a dependency on both the isbn and reviewsForIsbn fields. This dependency is not visible from either backend service, only in the code of the stitching service. And since GraphQL is all about callbacks and resolver functions, that code in the stitching service can become difficult to read, especially if you do a lot of stitching.

I think the term stitching is excelent: if you keep stitching Schemas together, you will get a giant stitchwork full of yarn and everything will be connected to everything. And that's a bad thing, because it ties you down: you can't move a thing, if you pull one cord out, the whole thing might become undone.

With great power comes great responsibility. I think stitching is very powerful, but it's also very easy to shoot yourself in the foot with. As said: I was happily surprised to find out I wasn't alone and that it has been deprecated by Apollo. (Who, by the way, are the only GraphQL library that supported it.)

The new fancyness: Apollo Federation

How to bind multiple GraphQL Schemas together if you can't stitch them? Apollo's new answer is Apollo Federation, which is a pattern of defining Schemas, and a service called Apollo Gateway. Short summary: the Gateway reads the federated Schemas, and based on the information they provide, it stitches it all together, without you having to write any code in the stitching layer.

This information is given in the form of type anotations and some callbacks, that are described in a specification. For Javascript, you can just use the @apollo/federation package. For libraries (such as Absinthe for Elixir) you have some work to do.

But let's review the previous two services again, but now using Federation. Federation makes use of a few directives, which are designed to give more information to the query executor. They begin with an @ sign and can have parameters.

Consider the Books service again:

expand type Query {
  books: [Book]
  book(id: ID!): Book
}

type Book {
  id: ID!
  isbn: String!
  title: String
}

Not much changed here, other than the expand keyword in front of the Query type. The Books service, in this simple example, does not need any external data. The Reviews service, however, does:

expand type Query {
  reviewsForIsbn(isbn: String!): [Review]
}

type Review {
  text: String
  stars: Integer
}

expand type Book @key(fields: "isbn") {
  reviews: [Review] @external
}

There is some stitching here. The Reviews service knows about Books, but that is fine: a review would not makes sense without an object to review, in this case, books. Notice how, in the Schema, it is defined that, in order for the Reviews service to resolve the Book type, it needs an isbn. Seen from the existing Book type, the Review is then an @external type, which is provided by the Review service. Note that we could drop the reviewsForIsbn entirely now, but still maintain reviews on Book.

Some questions I think I have answers for but am not sure about:

  • Why add a Book type to the Reviews service? Because someone has to know, and I prefer it to be the service that has the other entity next to it's domain.
  • How does the Gateway know to call reviewsForIsbn? Well it doesn't: given the type and the requested @key(fields:), and some underwater endpoint, the Reviews service is now responsible to find reviews that match that type (Book) and key, and it can have a resolver for that.
  • Why can't the Books service just provide the full Book type? Because then knowledge about the link between Books and Reviews is in both services.

I don't pretend to understand all the implications of both approaches, but intu¬tively, this second approach seems better to me. There is no code that we have to write in the Gateway anymore, and the Schema is split up between the services, that only know their own part about the shared entities.

Downsides: gotta bring it to Absinthe

Unfortunately, like with Stitching, Apollo for Javascript is the only library that supports this thing at the moment. As mentioned, there is a spec describing what to do to support this elsewhere (still using the Apollo Gateway), but it is very early days.

I tried some stuff with Absinthe, and was happy to see macros for directives. After some exploration, however, I came to the conclusion that the directives you can define with these, are only useable in the Schema you put out, and thus in your queries. Since the Schema itself is defined with macros in a DSL, I cannot use the directives there. I will have to set up my own macros for it, and that is it's own rabbit hole.

Moreover: in the current release of Absinthe, there is not yet a way to get your parsed Schema out. This Schema, however, has to be send to the Gateway, for it to work. I tried working around it by defining the Schema twice (by hand and with the DSL), but there are still a lot of rabbit holes in the union _Entity (which consists of all types that use the @key directive) and scalar _Any (which maps to all @external types).

With Stitching, all the work is done in the external service, so your backend services do not have to know about it. With Federation, all your backend services have to be aware that they are part of something bigger in order to participate in that bigger picture.

Still, I really like the idea, and I think it will hold better than stitching all the things manually.

Private posts: the move of the checkins

Can I tell you a secret about writing software? We all just wing it. We all try to write the code as beautiful, readable and maintainable as we can, but in the end of the day, the business wants our projects to be done yesterday, not in three weeks. So despite best intentions, corners are cut and things that should not know about other things are calling each other. Some call this spaghetti.

I will also not lie to you: the codebase of this here weblog, at least in it’s current form, is not free of spaghetti or mess. Corners were cut in a time where I did not know there even were corners to begin with. I improved the code many times, all in different directions, because you’re always learning better ways to do it (and I still do). Some call this a legacy codebase.

Because of the shape the code is in, I did not want to add large features anymore. I wanted to rewrite it, of all of it. But as Martin Fowler said somewhere: the only thing you will get from a Big Bang Rewrite, is a big bang. It’s better to incrementally improve your application, so I tried. I tried to come up with clever strategies to do so, to keep parts of my site running on old code while the rest was fresh and new. In all those strategies, my blog entries would be last, because they are with 9000+ and need to be moved all at once.

In order to support private posts, however, it is precisely the code that serves my blog entries that needs work. This means that, while I have private posts very high on my wishlist, I postponed it to after The Rewrite. And I kept attempting to get there, but since it’s a big project for sparetime hours, private posts where impossible for a long time.

The year of the private posts?

Recently, the call for private posts became louder again. Aaron Parecki is trying to get a group of people together to exchange private posts between Readers. I would like to be one of them. In some regard I’m already ‘ahead’ of the game, because I do support private posts on my site already since 2017. The thing is: you need to know the URL of the post to actually read it.

I’ve attended both IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf and Utrecht last month. At the first one, we had a very good session about the UI side of private posts. The blogpost I wrote about it unfortunately stayed in draft. The summary: I used to denote private posts by adding the word ‘privé’ in bold below the post, next to the timestamp. Since the hackday I now show a sort-of header with a lock icon, and a text telling you that only you can see the post, or you and others, if that’s the case.

A big takeaway from Düsseldorf was that I don’t need to do it all at once. To me, the first step to private posts is letting people login to your site. This can be done with IndieAuth, or by using IndieAuth.com (which will move to IndieLogin.com at some point). The second step is to mark a post as private in your storage, and only serve it to people who are logged in. The third step is to add a list of people who can see the post, and only show it to those people. This is the place where I was at.

The fourth step should then be: show those private-for-all posts in your feed, for anyone logged in. The fifth step is to also show those private-for-you posts in their feed, which is tricker but not impossible. The sixth step would then finally be letting the user’s Reader log into your site on their behalf. I feel like I have seen that sixth step as the next step for way to long. By making it the sixth step, it is now only about authentication / authorization, not about what to show to who (because you got that already).

A bonus step could then be to add groups, so you can more easily share posts with certain groups of people. I have wrote about the queries involved before. This is a bonus step, because it’s making your life easier as maintainer of the site, but it is invisible to the outside world. (I would prefer not to share to people which groups they are in, nor the names of the groups the post was shared with. Those groups are purely for my own convenience.)

Of course, you can take different steps, in a different order. But to me, this is the path to where I want private posts to be.

Channeling my inner Business Stakeholder

After breaking it down into these nice steps, I’m still left with a legacy codebase. My biggest takeaway from Utrecht, was that I should be more pragmatic about it. The code quality of my site is only visible to me, what matters is the functionality. And I want this private post functionality.

I still did some refactoring that could be useful to future versions of this site, but I won’t bore you with that. I decided that it was not worth the wait, and that private post feeds should be part of this version of my blog.

Last Tuesday, there was yet another chat about private posts and how to do it. There was a question about the progress, whether or not something was decided at the recent EU-IWCs. But there is no decision, there is no permission, there is no plan to be carried out. There is just us, wanting to use this feature that does not exist yet. The only way to actually get there, is to build it ourselves and see what works and what doesn’t.

So I hacked it together, in my existing code. I believe I broke things, but I have fixed some. If you see more, please tell me. But I got the functionality, and that is what counts.

Marking all my checkins private

There is this app called Swarm. Some members of the IndieWeb Community use it, because it’s fun. I would call it the Guilty Pleasure of the IndieWeb, the last Silo. I use it too, especially when I’m in a city for IndieWebCamp. It’s almost impossible not to use it then: the people I’m with are checking me in anyway.

I like having a log of every bar, restaurant, shop I have been, and I see value in sharing it. But it also creeps my out to have all that information about me on a public place like this. Even on Swarm, checkins are only shared with friends (and advertisers), not the public. It seems to me that my checkins, then, are the perfect place to start with private posts.

So that is what I made: I marked all my checkins as private-for-all. This means they are still public at the moment, but you need to log in, which currently rules out bots and practically every visior. But chances are you know how to use IndieAuth, or have a Twitter account. You can then login to my site by clicking the link in the upper right corner. After you logged in, you will see all my checkins appear in the main feed, each of them with a message that it’s only visible to logged in users.

In addition, there is a new page: /private. The link will appear in the menu when you are logged in. This page shows you all the private posts that are specificly shared with you. Some of you might actually see a post there.

Steps

One part of me says “but is private-for-all private enough for my checkins?” Another part of me says “it’s nice that you support the feature, but no-one is going to log into your site.” Yet another part of me says “what is it worth, writing more code in this codebase you want to get rid of anyway?” But it’s fine. I made a step, that’s what’s important. From here, I can look into AutoAuth, and maybe, maybe, we can get some private feed fetching to work before IndieWebSummit.

But in the worst case: I own my checkins, and I control who sees them. And that’s a very nice place to be in.

Seb vindt dit leuk.

Het jammere aan Vim is: het heeft een enorme leercurve, en de eerste keer dat je daadwerkelijk een paar seconden hebt bespaard omdat je je het perfecte commando herinnerde, ben er je minutenlang over aan het opscheppen tegenover andere Vim-gebruikers. #vim

Het leuke aan stemmen is dat je nog eens ergens komt, paar honderd meter van je huis, waar je nog nooit geweest bent.

So of course your editor does this too, but I just ran ag -l Hidden: | xargs vim and :argdo %s/^Hidden: true/Visibility: hidden/ and :argdo write (and the same for ag -l Private: | xargs vim and :argdo %s/^Private: true/Visibility: private/) on my content/ folder and it feels great.

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Traveling with The Bag #indieweb

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Bovenkomen

Ik probeerde een blogpost te schrijven over afgelopen weekend, en ik kwam best een eind, maar ik ben nu opeens heftig onzeker over mijn Engels. Het is onzinnig, waarschijnlijk, maar ik vrees dat ik ratel en de blogpost dus onleesbaar is. Dus lees ik maar blogposts over het web en user experience design terwijl ik eigenlijk al naar bed had moeten gaan.

Ik heb het gevoel dat ik afgelopen anderhalf jaar heel diep in de computer heb gezeten. Het is heel onwennig om weer gebruikers te zien, mensen die computers gebruiken, maar dan aan de oppervlakte. Mensen die de command line niet eng vinden, maar gewoon niet weten waar je het over hebt.

Als je een taal leert op school en die daarna jaren niet meer gebruikt, vergeet je de woorden en heb je er niets aan als je eens op vakantie gaat. Als je op een bepaalde taal gaat studeren, vergeet je een andere. Het voelt alsof ik mensentaal voor programmeertaal aan het ruilen ben geweest. Het is fijn om weer eens mensentaal te spreken, maar ik ben ook bang, stiekem, om de programmeertaal los te laten. Het is gek dat ook deze taal een deel van je identiteit lijkt te worden.

Ik heb niet het idee dat deze blogpost zo veel beter is, maar het ding met blogposts is dat je de slechte moet tegengaan door steeds nieuwe te schrijven, niet door slechte niet te schrijven. Maar aan de blogpost over IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf wil ik toch nog wat sleutelen, dus die houden jullie nog van me tegoed.

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pointercheck-in bij sipgate GmbH, Dusseldorf
699311_506iwiawjduuvgftke98d1szmvd7l5ivorxdwluhcks

Gewoon even kijken of mijn Micropub het nog doet. Indien ja: ik ben succesvol verhuisd van server! 🎉

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