Armin Ronacher's Thoughts and Writings

April 1st Post Mortem

written on Saturday, April 3, 2010

This year I decided to finally do what I planned for quite some time: an April's fool joke. (I did contribute a bit to PEP 3117, but that does not count). This year I decided to make a little joke about Python microframeworks (micro-web-frameworks?) and wrote a little thing, and created a website and screencast for it:

I did expect some responses to that, but I was a little bit surprised by some of them though. So here my full disclosure of the april's fool prank, what people thought of it and what my conclusion is.

The Motivation

It seems like everybody likes microframeworks. Not sure what caused that, but there are plenty of them. (Python) and camping (Ruby) where the first of their kind I think. Later others followed and it seemed that people love the idea of software that does not have dependencies and comes in a single file. So I thought, I can do the same and make fun of it, so let's just create a framework based on existing technology and throw everything together in a large single file: denied was born. I just bundled a Werkzeug, simplejson and Jinja2 into a single file and added a bit of code that glues them together.

The Implementation

Denied consists of 160 lines of code that implements a very basic WSGI application based on Werkzeug and Jinja2 that incorporates really stupid ideas into the code:

  • it stores state in the module and uses implicitly defined data structures
  • there is a function that accepts both a template filename or a template source string as the same parameter and guesses based on the contents of the string.
  • it introspects the interpreter frame to figure out the name of the function that called a template render function to automagically guess the name of the template.
  • it uses automatic function registration and decorators to register URL rules.

I don't want to go into details why I hate everything there, that would be a blog post of its own, but I want to point out that nearly all of these "features" were inspired by existing microframeworks.

I did not expect anyone to detect from these things that the framework was an April's fool joke, but I thought that the obfuscated sourcecode and the fact that it was basically just a zipfile would be obvious. However I got more than one mail asking me to release the sourcecode of it because people want to hack on it. Right now it has more than 50 followers and 6 forks on github which is insane if you keep in mind that Jinja2 and Werkzeug have less than 30 on bitbucket.

Thinking about it a bit more made me realize that camping back in the days was in fact delivered as obfuscated 2K file of Ruby code. Not sure why _why did that, but he was a man of mysteries so probably just because he thought it was fun.

The Screencast

To make the joke more obvious I created a screencast that would showcase the framework and do pretty much everything wrong. For that I created a persona called "Eirik Lahavre" that implemented the framework and did the screencast. Originally I wanted that person to be a Norwegian web developer but unfortunately the designated speaker disappeared so I had to ask a friend of mine (Jeroen Ruigrok van der Werven) to record it for me but he told me he can't do a norwegian accent so he went with French and Eirik Lundbergh became Eirik Lahavre. I lay flat on the floor when I listened to the recording for the first time because he's actually Dutch :)

The Website

For the website I collected tongue-in-cheek fake endorsements from popular Python programmers and added one for myself that was just bashing the quality of the code. I'm afraid I sort of made myself popular by bashing other people's web frameworks, at least reading reddit, hacker news and various mailinglists leaves that impression so I thought it would be fun to emphasize that a bit more on that website. This also comes very close to the website of which shows a few obviously bad comments from popular Python hackers.

Furthermore the website shows a useless and short hello world example which shows nothing about how the framework works. This was inspired by every other microframework website out there. It claims RESTfulnes and super scaling capabilities, kick-ass performance and describes the developer of the project (the fictional Eirik Lahavre) as god of Python code and coming from an professional company.

The Details

For everything in the joke I did what I would never do. I even went so far to create the HTML of the website against my own code style, to use deprecated HTML tags in the presentation, claim to use XHTML even though the doctype and mimetype was wrong. The screencast also claims that flat files were a scalable NoSQL database and that missing form helpers were something positive because it means full flexibility.

The Impact

The screencast was downloaded over 10,000 times and the website got more than 50.000 hits. The link is still tweeted and I never got that many retweets for anything related to my projects so far. The fake project on github has more than 50 followers and 6 forks. Quite a few people took the project serious from the few comments on reddit and the emails I got.

What I learned

  • It does not matter how good intended or well written a project is, the bold marketing is king. Being present on github is huge. As much as I love bitbucket and mercurial, but there is an immense difference between having your project on github or bitbucket, and I'm afraid that no matter what bitbucket does or what the mercurial people do, they will never even come close to github in terms of user base people following your code and contributing.
  • Small snippets of code on the website are killer. Werkzeug tries to be honest by not showcasing a small "Hello World" application but something more complex to show the API, but that does not attract users. Jinja2 does not even try to show anything at all, you have to look at the documentation to see how it looks like. That drives potential users away.
  • Don't be honest: be bold. Nobody will check your claims anyway and if they don't live up to the promise, you can still say that your test setup was or your understanding of the problem is different.
  • There is no such thing as a "bad endorsement". People took it as a good sign that I did not give the project my blessing.

The Small Library

I'm currently trying to learn everything about game development and 3D graphics I possibly can. I found out that the best way to learn that is to write a minimal engine from scratch. Right now I'm doing that by looking at other source code and reading books and writing the most minimal code I can. I always try to prove to myself: existing code is way to complex, that has to be easier. After the third refactoring and improvements I usually end up with something as complex as the original code or the explanation from the book.

There is a reason why things are as complex as they are and not easier. I think the same is true for microframeworks. The reason why everybody is that crazy about having a single file implementing whatever is necessary to implement a web application is because you can claim it's easy and you can understand it. However things are not that easy in reality. I am pretty sure that other framework developers will agree. is the perfect example for that. It started as a library in 1000 lines of code in a single file, and look at what it became. It's not that simple any more. Many of the initial design decisions that were plain wrong were reverted. Such as abusing the print statement for outputting values to the browser. There were good reasons why nobody before used print to output strings, yet did it that way. And a few versions later it disappeared again for good.

What will Change?

For one I will put small example snippets on the Werkzeug and Jinja2 website. Also for the fun of it I will publish one of the projects on github just to see how that works out. In general though, I will try to keep things low profile because I just feel more comfortable with that.

Obviously, denied will stay the April's fool joke it was and not get further attention. The "promised" documentation will not come :) However I will probably blog about "how to create your own microframework based on Werkzeug" because right now people base their microframeworks on the standard library which I think is a terrible idea. One dependency might not be as good as no dependency, but with Tarek Ziade's tremendous work on packaging with Python that should not be a problem in the near future.

This entry was tagged flask and python