Gutenberg on trial (again)

Will the “new editor” plugin forever change WordPress (for the better)?

Here’s one of my favorite Free Software moments:

No, thanks, I’ll stick to Windows.

If you’ve never heard anyone telling you that before, it means you probably answered this way in the past and, if that’s the case, relax: this is not going to be the snob-ish comment (that you would actually deserve) about it.

It doesn’t matter if you tried to talk someone out of their iOS for compatibility sake, wanted to install something ethical in your school’s computers or took a chance at convincing your boss to switch to other software for your own survival, I bet the results were often pretty much the same:

No, thanks, I/we will stick to [insert the nerve wracking software of your choice here].

Frustration can reach new heights if you happen to be involved in an activity that requires an high level of IT systems reliability: a person I know quit a good job at an airport’s air traffic control tower due to the stress of having continuous blackouts on their systems.

You can see that’s bad.

No, that’s actually REALLY bad.

So bad in fact, I’m compelled to start a quick philosophical rant: I often find myself thinking that conservatism is the worse among our cognitive biases because it runs deep in all of us. The implication that I find more dangerous about it is that it basically stifles scientific and cultural processes which would normally arise way faster: to be clear, progressive minded people are included in the equation.

While you ask yourself how did we get into politics, I’ll get back to my topic: the Gutenberg plugin.

The vision

The Gutenberg Team describes their project as such:

The goal of the block editor is to make adding rich content to WordPress simple and enjoyable.

OK, that’s kinda catchy and all but, how about the details on how to make it happen? More info are available:

The new post and page building experience will make writing rich posts effortless, making it easy to do what today might take shortcodes, custom HTML, or “mystery meat” embed discovery. WordPress already supports a large amount of “blocks”, but doesn’t surface them very well, nor does it give them much in the way of layout options. By embracing the blocky nature of rich post content, we will surface the blocks that already exist, as well as provide more advanced layout options for each of them. This will allow you to easily compose beautiful posts like this example.

So, Gutenberg has been written with the aim of helping WordPress users publish richer content, faster: a “text editor restyle”, if you wish, for the moment. But with so many more changes under the hood than they meet the eye and, especially, with even greater plans for the future.

The landscape

At the time of writing, WordPress dominates the CMS (Content Management System) scene, with a staggering 60% for a global Web usage of almost 30%, while Joomla and Drupal are solid in second and third position.

Such huge numbers have become a permanent target for all the other competitors, which include big companies with even bigger budgets: Google, Adobe, Squarespace, Wix and a few others. These are competitors that neither like nor support the license that the major three systems share: the GNU GPL.

Nothing new, of course: there have always been companies which despise users freedom and try to seduce their “useds” with pretty interfaces that require development costs which are not sustainable for most of the companies working in GPL environments.

You might now be asking yourself:

“How did these GPL CMSs become such a success if they were competing against such big budgets?”

You also did answer “No thanks, I’ll stick to Windows” before, didn’t you? Answering that would require me to write the aforementioned snob-ish comment, which is not what this article is about. As previously stated, this post is about the Gutenberg plugin.

The interface

I have been testing Gutenberg since a few months now: mainly on local installs but I did briefly tried it on some live sites, despite its clear warning by the Gutenberg Team:

Meant for development, do not run on real sites!

But I am that kind of a maverick, you know…

Being based on Calypso, there’s no surprise the Gutenberg UI closely resembles the Jetpack / WP.com experience but it does so by integrating pretty seamlessly in the familiar WordPress UI standards. I do reckon some users might need some time to get used to the new dispositions but the interface did not shock me neither surprised me: it felt to me like a natural evolution of the platform.

Gutenberg is, for the moment, pretty much a “block” editor so perhaps the single most obvious UI characteristic is its content preview window: we can from there move our blocks of content up / down by clicking on simple arrows as well as editing, managing or deleting each block.

I believe Gutenberg’s most relevant new concept to get acquainted with is the “Insert” mechanism: as we said, all our content becomes now several blocks which can all be “inserted” and configured one by one.

our beloved manual editor…

It is still possible to switch to the classic HTML text editor which, I believe, is not going to go away anytime soon, but I can guarantee you that after writing with Gutenberg for a while you won’t really miss it unless of course you need to manually add in-line CSS and / or to work with custom elements or such.

The code

Gutenberg is mostly written in javascript (ES6), which is not (admit it, already!) traditionally welcomed in hardcore PHP environments like WordPress: that being said, the Gutenberg Team is built around many different kinds of programmers and this coding melting pot is something encouraged by the Team itself. The result is pretty amazing to me: despite the huge work, the code seems simple, well structured and comprehensive.

The plugin is in active development at the moment and the Team left a few placeholder options but at its actual size of 2.6 Mb and all its functionalities, it seems to be a reasonably well-thought piece of software. Nonetheless, we enter now a territory  where logic does not apply: Web Comments.

The ratings

This is the aspect that led me to write this article in the first place. Gutenberg reviews are, I believe, emblematic of the conservatism I was talking about earlier: 2.5 stars out of 5. Reading the different reviews, you can have a sense of how groundbreaking this plugin is perceived to be: developers seem to be especially concerned and vocal, expressing all sorts of hopes, fears and uncertainties.

Actually, almost EXCLUSIVELY developers: and the discussions run deep, from json to jsx, REST API and all the other unpronounceable things we like to talk about. But, wait a sec: what was the aim of this project, again…?

The goal of the block editor is to make adding rich content to WordPress simple and enjoyable.

Right. Gutenberg should mostly help the ones who need more help building web pages content. And that category does not include web developers… does it?!

Summary

Gutenberg feels like a first step of a future deeper integration with the WordPress core, passing by the Customizer.

The aim of the whole project seems pretty clear to me: to try to guarantee WordPress dominance for the medium period by offering an interface which makes sense to the Minimum Common Denominator kind of WP user. And it does that by delivering a concept which certainly makes sense and it’s enjoyable to use. Something that, as I said, is really important in order to preserve the community, since Big Buck would always really love to dismantle it.

Not so many people realize that Gutenberg and Calypso seem to be the reason Facebook released its beloved React under an MIT license, forgetting about the previous “friends-with-benefits” agreement: kudos to Automattic’s consistency and foresight.

My take

I do not cheer for any team in software beside the Freedom one. With Free Software, the user is king and I do like Gutenberg because I believe it will bring more power to the community, and that is a good thing. But you know what comes with big powers, right? Exactly, so let’s be responsible by beginning to see this plugin for what it is: a small step into the future. Embrace the discomfort, swear for an healthy 5 minutes and move on and discover your new software.

And, how about taking a chance and stop “sticking to Windows”?

Because what really remains to be seen is of course the users reaction to the new concept. Remember the conservatism I was talking about? It slows down adoption of otherwise logical and obvious things when we would instead need the furthest away possible jump into the future.

Which is exactly what Gutenberg (the publisher) did and, apparently, keeps doing…

Rainbow Of Goodness

‘I really love it, thank you!’

These are the actual words that came out of my mouth when someone handed me a broom as Christmas gift, a few years ago: surely I would have used the same words in case I would have received, let’s say, an empty CD or a jar of expired peanut butter.
If my reaction doesn’t sound so absurd to you, chances are you -like me and so many others- are in the ‘White Club’: the less exclusive club in the world.

PAID ADVERTISEMENT:
Here at the White Club, we emphasize the fact that we say lies in order to save humanity.
That’s why we don’t say lies but “White Lies”, even if that name might create confusion: we indeed do not mean “Pure BS” but instead “Harmless Smarts”. I have been told it is an important difference to make.
Being smart by definition, we apply our ancient techniques to our modern day society, so that everyone can harness all the benefits, known for millenniums: we do all of it just for the love we have for others. Yes, we are heroes and our words are the light in the darkness, the power of wisdom against the forces of evil… or something like that: each member has its own personal view because we are also an open and equal opportunity entity. We make it ultra easy for anyone of any culture and race to join.

It sounds neat, I know, but it is mostly marketing hype. Truth is, there are plenty of clubs of this sort and each one has its own strong logic. For instance:
– The Black Club, which underlines the importance to put all your potential in what you do;
– The Red & Blue Club, standing at the heart of our decision making process, its philosophy precisely describes the amazing dance-like steps that so many beloved politicians use in their vital day-to-day operations;
– The Big Club which, as the name suggests, is followed by the smarter ones among the smart ones: the most exclusive of the bunch and an evergreen for heads of states, presidents and VIPs.
Whichever you have chosen, one thing is clear: we all do it for the Greater Good. Never give up.

Certainly you won’t mind the ‘broom for gift’ anecdote never actually happened: it is raining outside but we might truly find the rainbow at the end of the storm.

The Waterfall Chart

How do you know if you’ve become a statistics fanboy?

Yes, it’s a vested-interest question: apologies if you were looking for a vested-interest answer.
I mean, I know I could list some absurd stats which both you AND I compulsively have to check while watching sports or on election day (which seem more and more alike to me): TV producers strive to make these data look as sexy as possible, with all the help of their colored 3D pie charts. The fact that we want statistics on our screens is, of course, proven statistically: that’s why they bother making those cheese wheels in the first place. We just love them and crave them.

And how about our working environments? These bubbly graphs seem to be porn, in these contexts: as soon as someone draws one, workers unions and corporate CEOs alike start to forget about ‘rights and stuff’ and begin thinking with their genitals, arguing about who’s got the biggest spike. So let’s admit it, being statistics-freaks is among the essence of the being human experience, at least today.
I feel I need to admit it at least to myself: I think I’m addicted. How productive can it be thinking about the fact that modern humans have been on this planet for less than 0.12% of the time dinosaurs were? Yes, that’s the kind of stats I go after. Yes! Less than 0.12% is also how much you care about it, too! It is insane!

But there always have been those who opposed this love we all share: Winston Churchill was one.

I only believe in statistics that I doctored myself

It is mean, I know, and our love has got to be strong in order to overcome it.

Anyway, touché: we need to recognize that certain statistical data might be ‘noise’ (or junk, if you wish) but, in that case, shame on the person that applies the method, not on the method itself. This same falsifiable dynamic is also often found in scientific communities, which I find amusing since many people seem to perceive scientists to be agreeing with each other all the times. Fact is: it is possible to manipulate people by exploiting their statistical fetish. That’s why it’s important to remember that we are easily seduced by percentages and, therefore, we should keep the pants on next time the news channel show the GDP growth mountain graph.

Regardless, there are stats that seem to be dangerously overlooked, like the ones regarding global warming or arms industry: continuing the previous analogy, these numbers seem to have the same sex appeal of a bank you owe money to.
Why is that? Is it because we just need confirmations? Or because they threaten our convictions and/or force us to take action? Do they just need a waterfall chart, maybe..?

The facts revolution

I just released the first version of Visual Chap. Here’s the punchline, find my comments below.

Visual Chap is a WordPress Plugin which treats your readers by providing a unique experience  for your content.
A quick, animated, graphical, Wikipedia-powered search for everything you write… or just specific words.


It truly is a time in which we are all deeply scrutinized and many informations about us are easily available throughout the planet: my (and your) family and friends expect me (and you) to have a ‘clean’ on-line presence and applying for a job means making sure no embarrassing details about yourself are shared on the Internet. Ever.

And yet, somehow, the world’s most relevant players seem to be able to get away with any factual lie, among other things.

I believe the best antidote to a ‘post-truth’ era is ‘extreme fact-checking’ and machines all around us can help out with that: Visual Chap is my first attempt in that direction. I’m actually surprised something like this seems to have been flying a bit below the radars so far and many seem to not realize that the lack of correct informations inevitably leads to wrong choices in any field.

I think I can hear you saying: ‘Do you really think Wikipedia is infallible?’.
Never wrong? I believe there’s no such thing. And I also believe it’s valid for anything and anyone. Furthermore, the evaluation of what’s right or wrong changes accordingly to the amount of accurate informations received and therefore evolves over time.
But I will argue that Wikipedia is our best shot, at the moment: if we are expecting big companies to fact-check against themselves, we might be delusional.

Time will tell: in the meanwhile, please enjoy Visual Chap and make sure to spread it around!

Squealing Drake

I don’t especially like extra-terrestrials: let me start here.

I believe they are way over-rated and it’s quite surprising seeing so many people, which usually dislike even a mere contact with their foreigner neighbors, saying so many great things about them. Hollywood certainly didn’t help improve my general impressions by usually depicting aliens as ugly humans. And, by the way, since when we do like ugly people?
Glad if I missed a meeting in which it has been collectively decided that we won’t discriminate against these anymore, but I don’t think that’s the case: the latest Elle issue confirms my suspicions.

Proudly offbeat, these intergalactic hipsters always seem to win: UK leaves the EU but would join the AU in a snap.

640px-Techno_alien,_Techno_parade_2011

However, what really bothers me about ET’s is the lack of evidence supporting their existence: being unable to see them somehow damages their credibility. But, most importantly, might damage our credibility. I would LOVE to find evidence of intelligent alien life because I’m somehow optimistic by nature and the idea of the Great Filter ‘in the future’ being right clashes with my hippie philosophies.

A lot.

Problem is, I’m also rational and there must be an answer to the -what else- Fermi Paradox. Of course, I might miss a billion of factors which I may never even be able to grasp but I believe we can all agree that we built most of the means for our own destruction before we figured out a way to live together. And of course anyone can point out to the violence in nature and in our history everywhere. While recent findings about the number of possible habitable exoplanets begin to shed some light on our dark ignorance on the subject and the Drake Equation seems weirder than ever.

Two minutes to midnight, baby.

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I admit I don’t have any good argument against the ‘self-destruction’ theory besides the fact that it feels a bit like fate… But  it also feels odd, unpleasant and uncomfortable, which are all typical symptoms of scientifically true facts: I’m sure the biggest fans of the theory hate it as well. It’s like recognizing your drunk uncle exists: you wouldn’t deny his existence but wouldn’t really want to be bragging about it either.

Finding aliens would disprove the whole thing and so would a ban on weapons and solutions to global climate change. So let’s keep looking up for extra-terrestrials of course, but let’s as well remember we might want to look closer: in each other’s eyes.

flake_equation

 

Photo credits:

ESO, xkcd, tangi bertin