Requesting features#

You’re disappointed that Crochet doesn’t do that thing you want it to. You think that it would be great if it did. You think it would be great for more users if it did. And so you want to tell us all about your idea. That’s great and very welcome, but we do have a process for this. The process isn’t here to add bureaucracy to everything—it’s here to ensure the feature is aligned with Crochet’s vision, and that it won’t cause unintended harm to other users.

This page describes this process.

Pre-requisites#

Crochet feature requests are made in the main repository’s issue tracker, on GitHub. In order to send one you’ll first need to have a GitHub account. You can create a GitHub account for free if you don’t have one yet.

You should make sure that the feature you’re requesting aligns with Crochet’s design philosophy. Some ideas might sound really cool—and may be perfect for other projects!—but Crochet has certain design principles that guide its features, so there’s a chance your idea might be a poor fit.

You should be willing to spend a considerable amount of time refining your proposal and working on identifying the risks and harms it may have from different points of view, as well as how to mitigate them. Requesting a feature is a significant investment of time from everyone involved, not just the people who will be implementing the feature. Making sure that the design makes sense and is socially reasonable (i.e.: it won’t cause unintended harm when considering different social groups, cultures, and threat models) is often where a lot of work the work lays.

Your request doesn’t need to be perfect on the first try (it’s very unlikely that any request would), but you will be spending time refining it, answering several questions, and doing your own research on certain issues. Think of it as a full project that you’re undertaking.

And even when you do all of the work, there is still a chance that your request may be rejected, if the maintainers consider that the risk is too high for its benefits.

Things that are nice to do#

Before requesting a feature, consider searching in the issue tracker to see if someone has had the same idea before. If you do find something that looks like your idea, try commenting in that ticket with the things going through your mind instead.

If you’re not sure if what you’re thinking of really matches what other people are, send your feature request anyway. It’s better to potentially cause some noise than to let these remain unknown. We can always redirect you to another ticket if that makes sense.

How to request a feature#

A feature request is a collaborative conversation to get an idea you have to fit in the Crochet’s design philosophy. The important things in this conversation are explaining what you expect the feature to achieve, and why it’s great for Crochet to be able to do that. The required parts of this conversation are making sure any potential harms for the feature are properly mitigated—adding new things is always risky, but Crochet has a process to manage these risks.

Here’s an example of a feature request that is helpful:

Whenever I’m writing Crochet code, there are cases where I want to understand better what’s happening to the program. But the debugging library currently only supports writing a piece of text to the transcript.

This means that, when I’m working on some model, I need to give my types some kind of command to turn them into a textual representation to look at them:

type point2d(global x is integer, global y is integer);

command point2d to-text =
  "point2d([self x to-text], [self y to-text])";

This is not that bad when I’m dealing with one or two types. I can live with the additional work. But when I’m dealing with, say, a hundred of types—especially when they come from something like a parsing grammar—, that becomes just too much.

And there’s the issue that complex nesting of these types requires a lot of work to convert them to text, and often don’t look readable. You also can’t inspect them interactively once you turn them into text, which is a related problem.

What I would like to be able to do is to just describe the type and get this representation for free. So if I have:

type point2d(global x is integer, global y is integer);

I should be able to do:

transcript inspect: [new point2d(10, 20), new point2d(20, 30)];

And get a readable (possibly interactive) representation on my transcript, with the x and y fields available, not just the name of the type.

It doesn’t address all of the requirements, but it is a good conversation starter. It includes a clear explanation of what frustrates the user, what they would like to be able to do, and why they think this would be important. Emotions and feelings are important in features, and this report has a fair amount of it—while still keeping the dialogue respectful. Always remember to keep things respectful.

This also goes for insulting other programming languages or technologies. Avoid doing that in your feature requests. It is against the code of conduct, and may result in a friendly warning.

Anyway! The maintainer may look at this initial request and reply:

Hey, thanks for the report. I whole-heartedly agree! The current way that the debugging library works, requiring text to be sent to the transcript, is not great. It causes a lot of friction to understand what’s happening with your types.

And the problem with the lack of interactive visualisations for the textual representation that you mentioned is really spot on. Once you go to a text form you just lose so much to be able to do more useful things with the transcript. Ideally we would like the transcript to work fully on structured data (we’re not there yet as you can see).

Now, as a bit of background. The reason we went with transcript only accepting text was that there is no way of expressing more granular intentions about when fields should and shouldn’t be visible, and to whom. So the only reasonable thing to do, even when using transcript inspect: _ was to not disclose anything.

But now that global annotations have been added, we could probably have that mean the same as “public”—they effectively are anyway. And we could show those fields by default.

The other problem is that I don’t think this really solves the whole issue. We could just show the (public) internal structure of a value in the transcript (that’s what a lot of Reflection-heavy languages do anyway), but many types simply make no immediate sense from their internal structure alone (e.g.: consider timestamps), and some types are just wrapping boxed values which Crochet can’t really disclose (e.g.: crochet.time/instant).

I think we’d need to come up with a way of providing default structured visualisations in the transcript which can be overriden by user code to provide something that makes more sense to expose. And I guess there you run into the other social problem: “what makes more sense to expose” is highly context-dependent. So values would need to expose multiple “views” somehow.

How would one even select them, though? That sounds like a long (and maybe separate) UX discussion…

Maybe the person who requested the feature is a bit overwhelmed at this point. Maybe they had not considered all of the implications of the feature. But that’s how things are—if you keep asking questions you’ll keep uncovering more things. Be that as it may, the person replies:

Oh! I hadn’t considered types that really do need a bit of visualisation magic to make sense in the transcript. I haven’t really run into many of them so far, so I can’t say that has been weighing on my mind lol

Maybe we should limit the feature a bit then? First try just making the transcript aware of public fields. Figuring out this “views” business seems like a lot more of work otherwise, and I’m not sure I’m up to that…

The maintainer replies:

Sounds good to me! Let’s try to keep it limited to making the transcript aware of public fields then. I think it works great with using the global modifier as an indication of the user’s intent of disclosing that value—they’re effectively public anyway.

There are a few problems here though. First is that the VM doesn’t really track the global modifier currently, it just uses it to generate the command for accessing that field. We would need to modify the VM to keep track of it—but you could argue we should’ve done that from the start, ahaha.

I guess otherwise the idea is that public fields would be recursively disclosed, whereas private ones would remain represented in the current “secret data” mode? That might actually work without any significant changes to code that depends on transcript. You can listen to transcript events, but if we just change the display semantics in the transcript writer itself then we don’t have to worry about code that is listening to transcript events and doing their own thing.

I’ll start a design document for this. Let’s move the discussion there :)

The maintainer then opens a pull-request targeting the issue with the following document:

# [#0032] - Disclose public fields in transcript

| **Authors** | Q., Max |
| **Last updated** | 3rd January 2022 |
| **Status** | Draft |

## Summary

Currently the transcript treats all fields in a type as secret data.
This means that if you have the following type declaration:

    type point2d(global x is integer, global y is integer);

And you try to write to the transcript as follows:

    transcript inspect: new point2d(10, 20);

You'll get the following (unhelpful) output:

    [inspect] (point2d from test-project) [
      x -> (***),
      y -> (***)
    ]

Since we've introduced the `global` modifier on fields, we can use
it as an intention of disclosing the field whenever we show somewhere.
So in this case we'd expect the transcript to include:

    [inspect] (point2d from test-project) [
      x -> 10,
      y -> 20
    ]


## Semantics

TODO


## Risks


### Leaking secrets

The primary reason fields are considered secret is due to concerns with
data privacy. Transcript events can be listened to by arbitrary code, and
transcript outputs can be redirected anywhere (e.g.: to files or other
disk storage). We want to make sure we don't accidentally disclose any
secret information.

This is mitigated by restricting the output of this information to
fields marked as `global`, which are effectively public in any case.


### Poor UX

This proposal is only concerned with allowing `global`-marked fields to
be represented as public data in the transcript, but any data will be
shown as-is. And this is not always what one wants.

For example, if there's a timestamp, we might want to show it as the
human-readable instant in time it refers to in some calendar. We might
even want to show it in different ways depending on some context. As
a result, this proposal does not solve all of the problems uncovered
by the summary of this document, and they'll need to be handled in a
follow-up proposal.

Still, this does improve the current experience slightly for some common
types, particularly the ones generated from e.g.: Lingua grammars.

The maintainer and the feature requester then continue their discussion by moving this document forward, talking about the precise semantics and implementation plans, highlighting more social problems (e.g.: how do users migrate to this feature once it’s released? Does it break any existing code? Can they be provided with automated upgrade tools to mitigate this breakage?), etc.

A proposal is considered finished once an implementation for it is merged, tested, released, and reaches a stable release. The last part is important because features may still evolve (and have their design document changed) while in their experimental phase. There may always be use cases that were not considered, or issues that were not foreseen.