Reopening Accounts on MDN

May 22, 2016

MDN has paid writing staff, but is also supported by community contributions. Much like Wikipedia, anyone can see a problem, create an account, and fix it. Some of the most valuable community contributions are translating content into non-English languages, which would be very expensive to do with paid staff.

MDN assumes users want to be helpful, and publishes changes immediately. This openness leaves MDN vulnerable to spam. Over the years, new features have been added to monitor changes, revert unwanted ones, and ban users with ill intent. These small mitigations were enough for the small volume of spam, about 1% of all edits.

On February 12th, a new phase in the spam fight started. Over 50% of the new accounts created that day were used to create spam, and spam was being created faster than staff could handle it. We responded by shutting down new accounts, which stopped the problem, but also shut the door on legitimate new contributors for almost three months.

There’s a few things we tried but didn’t work:

  • Adding reCAPTCHA to account creation. The spammers were able to bypass it and create as much spam as before. This suggests humans are in the spam creation loop.
  • Turning on our first Akismet integration. We had developed custom code to send edits to Akismet, but hadn’t had a chance to train it on our content before the attack. Too much spam was published, and too many legitimate edits were blocked.

After some further mitigations, we turned on account creation on April 26th, and have been able to manage the amount of new spam. Here’s what did work:

  • Analyzing the attack. With some scripting, I was able to gather data about the attack, make some calculations, and create some graphs. We were able to reject some planned mitigations, such as delaying the time to the first edit (it turns out legit editors are just as fast as spammers).  The time we saved not implementing bad fixes meant more time for the fixes that worked.
  • New users can no longer create pages by default. During the spam attack, over 90% of new pages were spam. Removing this ability has cut spam back down to manageable levels. The page creation privilege can be added when requested, but the spammers don’t bother.
  • Content training is improved. At first, we trained Akismet on historical spam and historical “good” edits. We rolled out training on live edits, and then turned on edit blocking, with further training for incorrectly blocked edits.
  • Removing spam magnets from profiles. Some fields on the user profiles are used more by spammers than legitimate users, and have been removed.

Spam is back down to less than 2%. There’s still more to do. I expect that the spammers are temporarily blocked, and will return once they have a new strategy. I want to be ready.

It’s good to have account creation open. Many new pages have been translated, many small typos fixed. We’re starting to see ambitious new changes as well. It also has increased MDN staff workload, monitoring all the changes, finding bugs, and keeping a busy site working.  The increased workload broke my one-a-week blog habit.  Still, better than one post every two years.





This is not XP

April 25, 2016

Today is day 1 of iteration 1 of the new MDN durable team. There’s a lot of new vocabulary, including the agile vocabulary that means something different on every team. We did prep work last week. Some of the team took classes in user stories and formulating tasks. We went over some of the tasks as a team, and broke up into smaller groups for the other tasks. This gives us a backlog for our first 3 week iteration.

My experience is on co-located development teams, using Extreme Programming (XP). In the past, I’ve used Shore and Warden’s The Art of Agile Development, which describes the authors’ 37 practices modeled after XP and Scrum. It was very useful when I first led an agile team, and I’ve used it in agile teams since.

Chapter 4, “Adopting XP”, includes some prerequisites for using XP. Here’s how the MDN durable team measures up:

  1. Management Support – The marketing organization is mandating the agile process. We have to work with other Mozilla organizations who don’t.
  2. Team Agreement – The team attitudes range from acceptance to hostility.
  3. A Colocated Team – No two people share an office. The team members are all remote and cover US and European time zones.
  4. On-Site Customers – We have a product manager, who is new to MDN this year. MDN has many customers, from internal Mozilla teams that use MDN to document their interfaces to code schools that use MDN as a reference.
  5. The Right Team Size – There are 10 team members: 2 developers, 5 content creators, and 3 managers (Product, Project, and Program). We’re augmenting this with contractors and volunteers.
  6. Use all the Practices – It’s not being run as an XP project, and we couldn’t if we wanted to.

I’d rate us around 50% for the prerequisites. We can’t overcome some of these without big changes in the team.

The chapter also includes some recommendations:

  1. A Brand-New Codebase – Kuma is 6 years old, and forked from another project. Some of the content goes back to 2005.
  2. Strong Design Skills – I’m good when I start from scratch, like BrowserCompat. An existing code base takes a different set of skills, and I have some experience here too. The legacy content is a different problem, both working with it and convincing others to prioritize tackling it. I’m also not in charge, so my skills are often irrelevant.
  3. A Language That’s Easy to Refactor – Python wins. KumaScript loses, but maybe is fixable.
  4. An Experienced Programmer-Coach – I think everyone is new to the Marketing org’s process. We have lots of agile experience as individuals, but this seems like this is neutral at best at working with the new process.
  5. A Friendly and Cohesive Team – Most of the team members still think of themselves as either on the content team or the development team.

I rate us below 50% on being able to follow the recommendations.

I wouldn’t recommend this as an XP project. But it’s not. It’s adopting this other process, new to me. I’m realizing how irrelevant my experience is, other than learned trust that we’ll adjust as we go. There’s time for 11 iterations this year, 11 chances to adjust.

It will be an interesting 3 weeks, and quite a year.

Starting a new phase at MDN

April 18, 2016

At the start of 2016, I was the API designer and back end developer for the BrowserCompat  project, with the goal of serving Mozilla Developer Network’s (MDN’s) compatibility data from an API.  I had been doing this for a while, one year as a part-time contractor, and six months as a Mozilla employee. Technically, I was an MDN web developer, but I was happy to let the other four developers do the bulk of the MDN work while I focused on implementing BrowserCompat.

It’s four months later, and everything has changed.

MDN development has moved from the Firefox organization to the Marketing organization.  Marketing developers work on important codebases, such as bedrock, which runs, and snippets, which has to quickly serve content for the Firefox Start Page.  MDN will benefit from their expertise in moving these services to modern cloud infrastructures.

While MDN development moved, the three other back end developers stayed in the Firefox organization. This makes me the sole back end developer on MDN. I had some light experience with Kuma, the MDN engine, mostly reviewing other’s pull requests. I’ve dived into the deep end of Kuma development for about a month.

Moving MDN to Marketing puts it in the same organization as the writers, allowing the formation of the MDN durable team.  I’m not 100% sure how “agile marketing practice” works (I haven’t read the book yet). We’ve gained some new management, and will start learning the new processes in earnest this Week. It will be interesting to see what MDN goals looks like, as opposed to separate content and development goals.

Our first goal was decided for us. In February, MDN was attacked by automated spammers, creating hundreds of pages advertising garbage that has nothing to do with the open web.  Stopping the spam required halting new account creation. I’ve been working on spam mitigations since March, and we hope to open account registration again soon.

This has been a hard transition. I really liked my job in January, and was very comfortable with the next steps to success. This new job is a lot more confusing, and changes every week. It is also a lot more important to Mozilla than my little experiment ever was. I’m sure it will take a few months for me to get comfortable with the code, the infrastructure, the new processes, and the new co-workers.  There’s no time for a gentle transition, since the site is under attack, and everyone is trying to figure out how MDN and its millions of visitors fit in the new organization.

I still get to develop open-source software every week, at a company dedicated to openness.  Being open means showing off stuff before it is 100% ready. That includes me. I hope blogging about this next phase of MDN will help me figure it out for myself.

multigtfs 0.4.0 released (and 0.4.1, and 0.4.2)

August 2, 2014

I released multigtfs 0.4.0 on June 21, 2014, then 0.4.1 on July 11th, and 0.4.2 on July 20th.

multigtfs is a Django app that supports importing and exporting of GTFS feeds, a standard format for describing transit schedules. multigtfs allows multiple feeds to be stored in the database at once.

These releases are a big step forward. The highlights are:

  • Much faster imports and exports. For one large GTFS feed, the import went from 12 hours to 41 minutes. In a more typical feed, the import went from 29 minutes to 1 minute, and export from 5 minutes to 24 seconds.
  • Support for extra columns, used by many agencies to extend GTFS.
  • Extra configuration to make the Django admin usable after importing lots of data.
  • Python3 support

Read the rest of this entry »

Django management commands and out-of-memory kills

June 19, 2014

tl;dr: Smart developers run database-heavy operations as management commands or celery tasks.  If DEBUG=True, you’ll be recording each database access in memory.  Ensure DEBUG=False to avoid running out of memory.

I’m working on issue 28 for django-multi-gtfs, speeding up importing a GTFS feed.  My experience has been with Tulsa Transit’s GTFS feed, a 1.3 MB zip file, which takes about 30 minutes to import on my laptop.  arichev was importing the Southeast Queensland’s GTFS feed, a 21 MB feed which takes 9-12 hours to import.  It shouldn’t take half-a-day to import 3 million rows, even if many of them include PostGIS geometries.  So, it is time to optimize.

My optimization procedure is to:

  1. Measure the performance of the existing code against real-world data, to establish the benchmark,
  2. Create a representative data set that will demonstrate the problem but allow for reasonable iteration,
  3. Make changes and measure improvements against the test data, until significant improvements are gained,
  4. Measure against the real-world data again, and report the gains.

I was having a lot of trouble with step 1.  First, I had to clear ticket 10, which was preventing me from importing the Southeast Queensland data at all.  Next, I started an import on my MacBook Pro (2.4 GHz Intel Core i7 w/ 8 GB RAM) overnight, and woke to find my laptop unusable, requiring a hard reboot.  I spent some pennies and moved to the cloud.  A t1.micro instance was unable to import the Tulsa feed, killed by the out of memory killer.  That seemed odd, but I knew the free tier instances were memory constrained (600 MB RAM), with no swap.  I then moved to a m3.medium instance (3.75 GB RAM).  The Tulsa feed imported in 50 minutes (vs. 30 minutes on my laptop, which isn’t surprising).  However, importing the Southeast Queensland feed also trigger the OOM killer.

How can importing 165MB of text use up almost 4 GB of memory?

My suspicion was a memory leak, or some out-of-control caching.  Memory leaks are rare in Python, but possible.  Caching is a more likely danger – some helpful code that speeds up a web request could cause an offline task to eat up memory.  I remembered a recent Planet Python post on memory leaks, and quickly found mem_top.  There’s a few variations that all do the same basic thing, asking Python about current memory usage and identify the top memory users.  mem_top is an easy pip install, and easy to call:

from mem_top import mem_top

I added this code in several places, tested it against a small sample feed, and then ran it against a small but real feed. The output looks like this:

multigtfs.models.base - DEBUG - Memory hogs: 
102371	<type 'list'> [{u'time': u'0.003', u'sql': u'SELECT postgis_lib_version()'}, {u'time': u'0.001', u'sql': u'INSERT 
2510	<type 'dict'> {'_multiprocessing': <module '_multiprocessing' from '/Users/john/.virtualenvs/explore/lib/python2.7
444	<type 'dict'> {'SocketType': <class 'socket._socketobject'>, 'getaddrinfo': , 'AI_N
440	<type 'dict'> {'WTERMSIG': , 'lseek': , 'EX_IOERR': 74, 'EX_N
437	<type 'list'> [,  {'SocketType': <type '_socket.socket'>, 'getaddrinfo': , 'AI_NUMERICS
364	<type 'dict'> {'SocketType': <type '_socket.socket'>, 'getaddrinfo': , 'AI_NUMERICS
330	<type 'dict'> {'WTERMSIG': , 'lseek': , 'EX_IOERR': 74, 'EX_N
330	<type 'dict'> {'WTERMSIG': , 'lseek': , 'EX_IOERR': 74, 'EX_N
328	<type 'dict'> {'empty_provider': <pkg_resources.EmptyProvider instance at 0x105781ab8>, 'ExtractionError': 
5067	 <type 'tuple'>
4765	 <type 'dict'>
2736	 <type 'list'>
1862	 <type 'cell'>
1857	 <type 'weakref'>
1423	 <type 'builtin_function_or_method'>
1326	 <type 'wrapper_descriptor'>
1200	 <type 'type'>
1072	 <type 'getset_descriptor'>

The top memory consumer, which grew as the feed was imported, was that list of dictionaries, with timing and SQL queries.  There’s not enough here to nail down the issue, but it was enough to trigger my memory of the common advice to never run Django with DEBUG=True in production.  They’ve listed it in the FAQ under “Why is Django leaking memory?”, which then links to “How can I see the raw SQL queries Django is running?”  When DEBUG=True in your settings, you can access the SQL queries used by the connection:

>>> from django.db import connection
>>> connection.queries
[{'sql': 'SELECT, polls_polls.question, polls_polls.pub_date FROM polls_polls',
'time': '0.002'}]

This is done in db/backends/__init__py:

    def cursor(self):
        Creates a cursor, opening a connection if necessary.
        if (self.use_debug_cursor or
            (self.use_debug_cursor is None and settings.DEBUG)):
            cursor = self.make_debug_cursor(self._cursor())
            cursor = util.CursorWrapper(self._cursor(), self)
        return cursor

make_debug_cursor returns CursorDebugWrapper from db/backend/, which does some extra work:

class CursorDebugWrapper(CursorWrapper):
    def execute(self, sql, params=None):
        start = time()
            return super(CursorDebugWrapper, self).execute(sql, params)
            stop = time()
            duration = stop - start
            sql = self.db.ops.last_executed_query(self.cursor, sql, params)
                'sql': sql,
                'time': "%.3f" % duration,
            logger.debug('(%.3f) %s; args=%s' % (duration, sql, params),
                extra={'duration': duration, 'sql': sql, 'params': params}

When you are running Django as a web server, the request_started signal will reset the queries to an empty list, so you’ll get fresh data for the next request. This is exactly what you want for single-machine debugging, and it’s how tools like debug toolbar give you valuable information about your SQL queries. Lots of SQL queries are usually the thing making your requests slow. The solution is usually to add smarter indexes, combine similar queries to reduce total database requests, read from a cache instead of the database, and defer writes to an async task runner like celery. I usually leave these optimizations until I’m pretty sure the business team is happy with the design.

This same query caching logic runs in offline tasks. Loading an image from disk into a BLOB? The base64-encoded version is in memory. Crunching usage data for engagement metrics? Here’s a handful of SQL queries for every instance in the system. And, surprising to me, running a management command also logs all of the SQL queries.

Setting DEBUG=False will disable this behavior. I suspect New Relic acts like DEBUG="Yes and lots of it". For one project, I was running my celery tasks under the New Relic Python agent, but I’m going to stop doing that, and see if some memory issues around stats crunching go away.

I want DEBUG=True for local testing, but I want to be able to run database-intensive management commands without having to remember to turn it off.  My solution is to add this snippet to the management command:

        # Disable database query logging
        from django.conf import settings
        if settings.DEBUG:
            from django.db import connection
            connection.use_debug_cursor = False

This uses the undocumented use_debug_cursor attribute, so it may not work with exotic database backends. It only disables debugging on the default connection, so you’ll have to do more work if you use multiple database connections. Iterating through django.db.connections should do the trick (see the reset_queries code).

Also, it looks like changes are in progress for Django 1.7. The “memory leak” question has been removed from the FAQ, and the queries code has recently been updated to use a limited queue, and to always turn on database query recording when DEBUG=True. Maybe this change will take care of the issue, but I’ll miss the ability to disable this for management commands, since I just discovered it last night.  I’ve added ticket #22873, we’ll see if they agree with my patch.

Update: The Django developer doesn’t want to change the behavior back.  The attribute use_debug_cursor should probably be named force_debug_cursor, since the intention is to force SQL logging for support of assertNumQueries.  I’ve got ideas for supporting my use case in Django 1.7, but the code will get more complex.  Oh well.

This Week

June 13, 2014

It’s been a busy week.

Scott Philips is presenting in Pittsburgh, PA today (June 13th).  Civic Ninjas was awarded a grant from the Knight Prototype Fund back in January, and this is a chance for the projects to show what they’ve built.  I imported Pennsylvania census data, so that the visualizations would show live data in Pittsburgh.  I also failed to learn AngularJS in an evening, so it’s on the to-do list.  The rest of the team did amazing work on the front end, visualizations, wristbands, and fleshing out metric descriptions.  Scott will report back next week on how the demo went, and we’ll figure out next steps.

I’m on the Cultivate918 team investigating “building an online resource center with an actively managed calendar of events”.  I’m suspicious.  Why does the community need the calendar?  Is it a marketing site for event promotion?  Is it for picking events based on speakers and topics?  Is it for facilitating networking?  I’m a fan of Portland’s Calagator, which aggregates calendars for hundreds of tech events, but this feels like a poor fit for Tulsa.  There are some Oklahoma City efforts, Made in OK and Sivi, which might be part of our solution.

Step one for me is lots of discussions with different people around town, to identify the core needs and desires.  I feel that the solution has to excite and engage entrepreneurs (and not just support orgs), or it will be dead on arrival.  And, when we do start work, I want have analytics in the first release.

For django-multi-gtfs, I’m tackling some long-standing tickets on the path to 0.4.0.  I converted the code to run under both Python 2.7 and 3.4, which took a few nights.  I got a lot of useful advice from Brett Cannon’s post on his experience with caniusepython3, Django’s docs on porting to python 3, and the six docs.  The biggest pain point was the built-in csv module.  In Python 2.7, you read and writes bytes, but in Python 3.4, you read and write unicode.  I should have converted the Python 2.7 code to unicodecsv first, and I still might.  For now, I’m ready to move on to the next ticket.

In the indefensible project, I’m working through a d3 book, learning about layouts.  I’m almost done with the book, but it still feels like a tour of d3 rather than a tutorial.  I’ll have to cut my teeth on a real project before I get d3.  Or, maybe I picked the wrong book, and should read a different one.

It’s not all work.  It’s my daughter’s tenth birthday this weekend, and she’s having a sleepover.  It’s been a week of getting the house in order, assembling presents, and getting ready.  I’m reading A Feast for Crows, and I’m worried Cersei is really screwing things up.  I haven’t seen the Apple keynote yet, but boy have I heard all about it.

And, I’m trying to make my company a real thing, and regularly blog again.  You’ll know if I succeeded this time next week.


The Tulsa Transit Project at 20 months

October 12, 2012

Back in March 2011, the Tulsa Web Devs started a simple project – get the Tulsa Transit (aka MTTA) data on Google Maps. By July 2011, we had a working GTFS feed. We had some well-deserved drinks to celebrate, and I put together a presentation of the progress. It felt like we’d have the bus schedule on Google Maps by the Fall.

Well, it’s over a year later, and Tulsa is still not on the list. If you go to Google Maps and try to get transit directions, it looks a lot like Tulsa doesn’t have a bus system.

The data is ready. It’s not perfect, not 100%. It was at 75% in July 2011, it’s at 95% today. There is plenty I’d like to improve, but at any point in the last year, Google would have accepted the data and put Tulsa’s bus schedule on their maps. It is not on Google Maps because Tulsa Transit has not taken the next steps to sign up for Google Transit. There is no cost to join – MTTA just needs to provide a free license to Google for the data. We’ve recently met with the MTTA staff, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see some progress in the next 30 days.

While we haven’t met our main goal, there has been a lot of progress over the last year. Here are the highlights:

  • Tulsa Transit launched MILES, their online trip planner. It’s better than the paper or PDF schedules. It’s not as useful as Google Maps.
  • The Tulsa Web Devs launched the Tulsa Trip Planner, using OpenTripPlanner to display the GTFS data. This came with some interesting analysis tools. It’s not as useful as Google Maps, but we get to show what we’ve been working on for the last 18 months.
  • I’ve decoded the MTTA pattern data. This means that the bus appears to drive down streets and take turns at intersections. Last year, it looked like buses cut through parking lots and buildings to get from stop to stop.
  • I’ve added additional data to the GTFS feed, like the holiday schedule, so that the feed is more accurate.
  • I’ve converted the parsing code from a bunch of command-line Python scripts to a Django 1.4 web application. I still have to type on the command line to parse the data, but I get Django’s awesome admin interface as well. The code is available on github. The web app is only on my laptop. I hope to change that soon.
  • I’ve moved the GTFS code to a stand-alone project, django-multi-gtfs. This is the place for all the non-MTTA bits, which are potentially useful for other projects.

We’re going into a 24-hour Hackathon this weekend, and I hope to improve the Tulsa Transit project. My personal goals are:

  • Improve the web app:
    • Get the Django app hosted, so that others can see a running
      version for themselves.
    • Support parsing the MTTA signup data from the web interface rather
      than the command line, so that MTTA staff can use it.
  • Improve the trip planner:
    • Update to the latest OpenTripPlanner code (and keep it updated).
    • Add features like street lookup and mobile support.
  • Improve the data:
    • Show data parsing issues in the web app, so that MTTA can fix
      issues in the signup data.
    • Add an interface for linking stop data to schedule data, when it can’t
      be done automatically.
    • Add support for ‘fixups’ that can be re-applied to new MTTA

However, my goal for the weekend is:

  • Get other people involved in the project

So, I’ll be focused on getting people up to speed – get a copy of the source
code, install all the dependencies, and get it running on their laptop.
After that, I’ll find out what they think is interesting, and get started.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Where the time goes

November 2, 2009

I want to share a new thing I started today: I’m keeping a record of where my time goes. When I start a new task, I write down the time and what I’m doing. It is quite simple, but I’m seeing benefits already.


A few months ago, I was listening to the Manager Tools podcast One Less Thing, and they had a useful idea for anyone – use your calendar to record what you’ve done, and review it monthly to check that you are doing what is important, and find something to stop doing. It seemed almost like an engineering process – by measuring where the time went, you can adjust where the new time goes, and create a feedback loop.

I thought of how to do it electronically, using Google Calendar and my new work-provided Blackberry. I could use colors to designate what I considered important and unimportant. I could add notes for future searching. I could write an app to extract a summary of my month. I could write an app to automatically add entries based on the window where I was using the mouse the most!

Yeah, none of that happened.

As I was watching Merlin Mann’s latest monologue on productivity, I remembered the idea, and decided right now was the time to start, and I needed to start low-tech.

I grabbed a legal pad, and wrote “3:23 Play w/ Issac”, because my kid was crying and I was the only parent around. Also, I don’t know how to spell his name (sorry, Isaac). After a minute, I realized this was going nowhere, and decided instead to put him in the stroller and walk him and the dog down the street to get some coffee. Maybe he’d go to sleep?

It was a very nice Fall day, just the right level of chill and absolutely beautiful. Lots of people were out walking their babies and much better behaved dogs. Isaac enjoyed it all, and fell asleep on the walk back. Mission accomplished! However, I was a bit distressed to discover that it took 30 minutes, plus 8 minutes prep time, to go for the walk. Maybe next time I’ll go to the closer Starbucks rather than the superior Ristretto Roasters.

I swapped to a Moleskine cashier, because it fits in a pocket more nicely than a legal pad, and the tiny space keeps me from writing in too much detail.  I’ll see if I can keep it up.

Two wireless networks with WRT54G and OpenWrt

July 8, 2009

When I first moved to Portland, it was just me and my laptop and a few days until Comcast turned on the Internet.  Luckily, some neighbors had open wireless access points, and I was able to get maps, check bus routes, and move up my appointment for high-speed internet.  I wanted to extend the same courtesy to my neighbors and guests, so I configured my own open access point.  If Bruce Schneier does it, why shouldn’t I?

A friend of mine strongly disagreed. His argument was simple – I’m not Bruce Schneier, and neither is anyone in my family. Good point. He convinced me to put our computers on a encrypted channel, but I still wanted to provide easy access for guests and neighbors.  Luckily, there are some open source projects that make this possible.

I have a Linksys WRT54GL wireless router, which I bought for the express purpose of installing an open-source firmware and accessing the additional features of the Broadcom BCM5352 chip that drives it. A friend suggested the X-Wrt project, which adds administration web pages to the OpenWRT firmware. The installation wasn’t too difficult, once I figured out which image to use, and the web interface made the configuration painless.  It was easy to setup a WPA2-protected network, which worked great for our laptops and the Wii (the X-Box and TiVo don’t support WPA2).

Once I had a working encrypted wireless network, I started configuring the guest wireless network, and it was really tricky.  Tricky, but possible.  Isn’t that the way it is with Linux?  I’ve documented all the painful details, including 19 screenshots, after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

アキラ, a Successful Long Project

March 29, 2009

I recently finished Akira Club, the companion to Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s long Akira series (アキラ in Japanese). It collects all the original title pages from the serialized version that appeared in Young Magazine, as well as sketches, recollections, and other Akira memorabilia.

Cover of Akira Club

I enjoyed the peek at the creative process. Sketches are paired with the final drawings as they appear in the magazine. Katsuhiro would often redraw pages for the collected works. The conversion from the Japanese right-to-left originals to the Western left-to-right presentation was rarely as easy as flipping the image. A complete redraw was required to get the text bubbles right, and for details like keeping the colonel’s suit buttoned on the right side.

With each episode, he would include a short report on his life, such as the June 20th, 1983 entry:

I went to Kanazawa and saw the elephant that opened its toes. Tatsuhiko Yamigami’s manga was true!

Here’s the September 3rd, 1984 entry:

I’ve done nothing but work this summer. I hate tanned people!

Amazingly, Katsuhiro was using Twitter-style updates 25 years ago.

The Akira project took thirteen years, from 1982 to 1995. This included 120 episodes of 16 to 20 pages, six Japanese collections, six international collections, an animated motion picture, and finally Akira Club. Katsuhiro’s final words are:

With this book, at long last, I can finally put the final period on the final sentence of Akira. Looking back on it now, it seemed very long and very short… And for every time I felt “Oh, I drew that well,” there was a time I felt I hadn’t drawn enough. Well, that’s how these things are, I guess… Several years ago — I forget how to describe my feelings exactly — I found this expression scrawled in a corner of my drawing board:

“If you eat, whether it makes you laugh or cry, it all comes out shit.” I apologize to those who were eating.

I am fascinated with long projects like Akira. At the start, did Katsuhiro know it would take 200 pages to finish? If he knew, would he have started? How much of his life did he have to put on hold? There are 19 months between episode 87 and 88 – how hard was it to take up the project again after that long of a pause? Was his ill health caused in part by the project? How much of the work was driven by the artist’s impulse, and how much was the necessity of paying the bills?

I’ve seldom heard or read of an artist in the middle of a long project express contentment about the work. They just aren’t pleased with what they produce – it must be improved. This must be combined with real pressures to release, often before the artist is ready. Successful projects require a useful vision and deadlines. Take away the vision, and you get an unfocused mess (see Dreaming in Code). Take away the deadlines, and you get endless polishing and starting over for little gain (see Chinese Democracy).

So, what keeps your long projects going?  What are they lacking?