Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Archive for February, 2024

How to deal with Wikipedia’s broken graphs and charts by avoiding Web technology escalation

Thursday, February 15th, 2024

Almost a year ago, a huge number of graphs and charts on Wikipedia became unviewable because a security issue had been identified in the underlying JavaScript libraries employed by the MediaWiki Graph extension, necessitating this extension’s deactivation. Since then, much effort has been expended formulating a strategy to deal with the problem, although it does not appear to have brought about any kind of workaround, let alone a solution.

The Graph extension provided a convenient way of embedding data into a MediaWiki page that would then be presented as, say, a bar chart. Since it is currently disabled on Wikipedia, the documentation fails to show what these charts looked like, but they were fairly basic, clean and not unattractive. Fortunately, the Internet Archive has a record of older Wikipedia articles, such as one relevant to this topic, and it is able to show such charts from the period before the big switch-off:

Performance evolution of the Archimedes and various competitors

Performance evolution of the Archimedes and various competitors: a chart produced by the Graph extension

The syntax for describing a chart suffered somewhat from following the style that these kinds of extensions tend to have, but it was largely tolerable. Here is an example:

{{Image frame
 | caption=Performance evolution of the Archimedes and various competitors
 | content = {{Graph:Chart
 | width=400
 | xAxisTitle=Year
 | yAxisTitle=VAX MIPS
 | legend=Product and CPU family
 | type=rect
 | x=1987,1988,1989,1990,1991,1992,1993
 | y1=2.8,2.8,2.8,10.5,13.8,13.8,15.0
 | y2=0.5,1.4,2.8,3.6,3.6,22.2,23.3
 | y3=2.1,3.4,6.6,14.7,19.2,30,40.3
 | y4=1.6,2.1,3.3,6.1,8.3,10.6,13.1
 | y1Title=Archimedes (ARM2, ARM3)
 | y2Title=Amiga (68000, 68020, 68030, 68040)
 | y3Title=Compaq Deskpro (80386, 80486, Pentium)
 | y4Title=Macintosh II, Quadra/Centris (68020, 68030, 68040)

Unfortunately, rendering this data as a collection of bars on two axes relied on a library doing all kinds of potentially amazing but largely superfluous things. And, of course, this introduced the aforementioned security issue that saw the whole facility get switched off.

After a couple of months, I decided that I wasn’t going to see my own contributions diminished by a lack of any kind of remedy, and so I did the sensible thing: use an established tool to generate charts, and upload the charts plus source data and script to Wikimedia Commons, linking the chart from the affected articles. The established tool of choice for this exercise was gnuplot.

Migrating the data was straightforward and simply involved putting the data into a simpler format. Here is an excerpt of the data file needed by gnuplot, with some items updated from the version shown above:

# Performance evolution of the Archimedes and various competitors (VAX MIPS by year)
Year    "Archimedes (ARM2, ARM3)" "Amiga (68000, 68020, 68030, 68040)" "Compaq Deskpro (80386, 80486, Pentium)" "Mac II, Quadra/Centris (68020, 68030, 68040)"
1987    2.8     0.5     2.1     1.6
1988    2.8     1.5     3.5     2.1
1989    2.8     3.0     6.6     3.3
1990    10.5    3.6     14.7    6.1
1991    13.8    3.6     19.2    8.3
1992    13.8    18.7    28.5    10.6
1993    15.1    21.6    40.3    13.1

Since gnuplot is more flexible and more capable in parsing data files, we get the opportunity to tabulate the data in a more readable way, also adding some commentary without it becoming messy. I have left out the copious comments in the actual source data file to avoid cluttering this article.

And gnuplot needs a script, requiring a little familiarisation with its script syntax. We can see that various options are required, along with axis information and some tweaks to the eventual appearance:

set terminal svg enhanced size 1280 960 font "DejaVu Sans,24"
set output 'Archimedes_performance.svg'
set title "Performance evolution of the Archimedes and various competitors"
set xlabel "Year"
set ylabel "VAX MIPS"
set yrange [0:*]
set style data histogram
set style histogram cluster gap 1
set style fill solid border -1
set key top left reverse Left
set boxwidth 0.8
set xtics scale 0
plot 'Archimedes_performance.dat' using 2:xtic(1) ti col linecolor rgb "#0080FF", '' u 3 ti col linecolor rgb "#FF8000", '' u 4 ti col linecolor rgb "#80FF80", '' u 5 ti col linecolor rgb "#FF80FF"

The result is a nice SVG file that, when uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, will be converted to other formats for inclusion in Wikipedia articles. The file can then be augmented with the data and the script in a manner that is not entirely elegant, but the result allows people to inspect the inputs and to reproduce the chart themselves. Here is the PNG file that the automation produces for embedding in Wikipedia articles:

Performance evolution of the Archimedes and various competitors

Performance evolution of the Archimedes and various competitors: a chart produced by gnuplot and converted from SVG to PNG for Wikipedia usage.

Embedding the chart in a Wikipedia article is as simple as embedding the SVG file, specifying formatting properties appropriate to the context within the article:

[[File:Archimedes performance.svg|thumb|upright=2|Performance evolution of the Archimedes and various competitors]]

The control that gnuplot provides over the appearance is far superior to that of the Graph extension, meaning that the legend in the above figure could be positioned more conveniently, for instance, and there is a helpful gallery of examples that make familiarisation and experimentation with gnuplot more accessible. So I felt rather happy and also vindicated in migrating my charts to gnuplot despite the need to invest a bit of time in the effort.

While there may be people who need the fancy JavaScript-enabled features of the currently deactivated Graph extension in their graphs and charts on Wikipedia, I suspect that many people do not. For that audience, I highly recommend migrating to gnuplot and thereby eliminating dependencies on technologies that are simply unnecessary for the application.

It would be absurd to suggest riding in a spaceship every time we wished to go to the corner shop, knowing full well that more mundane mobility techniques would suffice. Maybe we should adopt similar, proportionate measures of technology adoption and usage in other areas, if only to avoid the inconvenience of seeing solutions being withdrawn for prolonged periods without any form of relief. Perhaps, in many cases, it would be best to leave the spaceship in its hangar after all.

How does the saying go, again?

Monday, February 12th, 2024

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging? It wasn’t hard to be reminded of that when reading an assertion that a “competitive” Web browser engine needs funding to the tune of at least $100 million a year, presumably on development costs, and “really” $200-300 million.

Web browsers have come a long way since their inception. But they now feature absurdly complicated layout engines, all so that the elements on the screen can be re-jigged at a moment’s notice to adapt to arbitrary changes in the content, and yet they still fail to provide the kind of vanity publishing visuals that many Web designers seem to strive for, ceding that territory to things like PDFs (which, of course, generally provide static content). All along, the means of specifying layout either involves the supposedly elegant but hideously overcomplicated CSS, or to have scripts galore doing all the work, presumably all pounding the CPU as they do so.

So, we might legitimately wonder whether the “modern Web” is another example of technology for technology’s sake: an effort fuelled by Valley optimism and dubiously earned money that not only undermines interoperability and choice by driving out implementers who are not backed by obscene wealth, but also promotes wastefulness in needing ever more powerful systems to host ever more complicated browsers. Meanwhile, the user experience is constantly degraded: now you, the user, get to indicate whether hundreds of data surveillance companies should be allowed to track your activities under the laughable pretense of “legitimate interest”.

It is entirely justified to ask whether the constant technological churn is giving users any significant benefits or whether they could be using less sophisticated software to achieve the same results. In recent times, I have had to use the UK Government’s Web portal to initiate various processes, and one might be surprised to learn that it provides a clear, clean and generally coherent user experience. Naturally, it could be claimed that such nicely presented pages make good use of the facilities that CSS and the Web platform have to offer, but I think that it provides us with a glimpse into a parallel reality where “less” actually does deliver “more”, because reduced technological complication allows society to focus on matters of more pressing concern.

Having potentially hundreds or thousands of developers beavering away on raising the barrier to entry for delivering online applications is surely another example of how our societies’ priorities can be led astray by self-serving economic interests. We should be able to interact with online services using far simpler technology running on far more frugal devices than multi-core systems with multiple gigabytes of RAM. People used things like Minitel for a lot of the things people are doing today, for heaven’s sake. If you had told systems developers forty years ago that, in the future, instead of just connecting to a service and interacting with it, you would end up connecting to dozens of different services (Google, Facebook, random “adtech” platforms running on dark money) to let them record your habits, siphon off data, and sell you things you don’t want, they would probably have laughed in your face. We were supposed to be living on the Moon by now, were we not?

The modern Web apologist would, of course, insist that the modern browser offers so much more: video, for instance. I was reminded of this a few years ago when visiting the Oslo Airport Express Web site which, at that time, had a pointless video of the train rolling into the station behind the user interface controls, making my browser run rather slowly indeed. As an undergraduate, our group project was to design and implement a railway timetable querying system. On one occasion, our group meeting focusing on the user interface slid, as usual, into unfocused banter where one participant helpfully suggested that behind the primary user interface controls there would have to be “dancing ladies”. To which our only female group member objected, insisting that “dancing men” would also have to be an option. The discussion developed, acknowledging that a choice of dancers would first need to be offered, along with other considerations of the user demographic, even before asking the user anything about their rail journey.

Well, is that not where we are now? But instead of being asked personal questions, a bunch of voyeurs have been watching your every move online and have already deduced the answers to those questions and others. Then, a useless video and random developer excess drains away your computer’s interactivity as you type into treacle, trying to get a sensible result from a potentially unhelpful and otherwise underdeveloped service. How is that hole coming along, again?