[x]Blackmoor Vituperative

Wednesday, 2013-11-13

Remembering Xanadu

Filed under: Programming,The Internet,Work — bblackmoor @ 23:05

I was reminded recently of an interesting article from the June 1995 issue of Wired magazine. I subscribed to Wired back then: this was during the early days of the internet, while the 1990s tech bubble was inflating like gangbusters. The article is “The Curse of Xanadu“, by Gary Wolf.

It was the most radical computer dream of the hacker era. Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project was supposed to be the universal, democratic hypertext library that would help human life evolve into an entirely new form. Instead, it sucked Nelson and his intrepid band of true believers into what became the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing – a 30-year saga of rabid prototyping and heart-slashing despair. The amazing epic tragedy.

The article begins with a brief description of the mind behind Xanadu, Ted Nelson. He is described as a very smart man with many ideas, but who has difficulty finishing his projects. Later in the article, we learn that Nelson has an extreme case of Attention Deficit Disorder.

The article then goes on to describe the goals of the Xanada project, which Nelson began working on in 1965:

Xanadu was meant to be a universal library, a worldwide hypertext publishing tool, a system to resolve copyright disputes, and a meritocratic forum for discussion and debate. By putting all information within reach of all people, Xanadu was meant to eliminate scientific ignorance and cure political misunderstandings. And, on the very hackerish assumption that global catastrophes are caused by ignorance, stupidity, and communication failures, Xanadu was supposed to save the world.

Yet Nelson, who invented the concept of hypertext, is not a programmer. He is a visionary. He is also appearently immensely persuasive. He convinced people to spend millions of dollars on Xanada (long before the tech bubble made that irrational behaviour seem normal), and years working on it. And it does seem that Nelson was a true visionary. In 1969, he already foresaw that technology would “overthrow” conventional publishing, and that paper would be replaced by the screen (in his mind, it already had). But he was limited by the technology of his day. “Even [in 1995], the technology to implement a worldwide Xanadu network does not exist.” In the 1970s, “[the] notion of a worldwide network of billions of quickly accessible and interlinked documents was absurd, and only Nelson’s ignorance of advanced software permitted him to pursue this fantasy.”

In the early 1970s, Nelson worked with a group of young hackers called the RESISTORS, in addition to a couple of programmers he had hired. During this period, the first real work on Xanadu was accomplished: a file access invention called the “enfilade”. What the enfilade is or exactly what it does is a mystery: unlike another famous iconoclast, Richard Stallman, Ted Nelson did not believe that “information wants to be free”. The nature of Xanadu’s enflilade, what it does, and how it is implemented is a mystery: everyone who has worked on the project has been sworn to secrecy.

In 1974, Nelson met programmer and hacker Roger Gregory. According to the article, if Nelson is the father of Xanadu, Roger Gregory is its mother. “Gregory had exactly the skills Nelson lacked: an intimate knowledge of hardware, a good amount of programming talent, and an obsessive interest in making machines work. […] through all the project’s painful deaths and rebirths, Gregory’s commitment to Nelson’s dream of a universal hypertext library never waned.” Gregory’s tale is a sad one: it’s difficult to see his involvement in Xanadu as anything other than a tragic waste of his life.

As the years go by and the 1970s become the 1980s, Nelson continued to work on Xanadu, and Xanadu continued not to be completed. By the late 1980s, the project team had dwindled and support for it was difficult to find. Nelson and Gregory would not admit failure, although Gregory struggled with thoughts of suicide. However, in 1988 Xanadu was rescued by John Walker, the founder of Autodesk. It seemed that Xanadu would at last have the benefit of serious commercial development. “In 1964,” Walker said in a 1988 press release, “Xanadu was a dream in a single mind. In 1980, it was the shared goal of a small group of brilliant technologists. By 1989, it will be a product. And by 1995, it will begin to change the world.”

It turned out that was easier said than done.

I find it interesting that one of the technical obstacles to Xanadu’s development was due to its profoundly non-free approach to the information it would make available.

The key to the Xanadu copyright and royalty scheme was that literal copying was forbidden in the Xanadu system. When a user wanted to quote a portion of document, that portion was transcluded. With fee for every reading.

Transclusion was extremely challenging to the programmers, for it meant that there could be no redundancy in the grand Xanadu library. Every text could exist only as an original.

In my opinion, this philosophy of restricting information is a key reason that Xanadu failed.

By the early 1990’s, control of the project shifted away from Gregory and the original development team, and all of the existing code was discarded. This also made Walker’s 18-month timeline explicitly unattainable.

John Walker, in retrospect, blames the failure of Xanadu on the unrealistic goals of the (new) development team.

John Walker, Xanadu’s most powerful protector, later wrote that during the Autodesk years, the Xanadu team had “hyper-warped into the techno-hubris zone.” Walker marveled at the programmers’ apparent belief that they could create “in its entirety, a system that can store all the information in every form, present and future, for quadrillions of individuals over billions of years.” Rather than push their product into the marketplace quickly, where it could compete, adapt, or die, the Xanadu programmers intended to produce their revolution ab initio.

“When this process fails,” wrote Walker in his collection of documents from and about Autodesk, “and it always does, that doesn’t seem to weaken the belief in a design process which, in reality, is as bogus as astrology. It’s always a bad manager, problems with tools, etc. – precisely the unpredictable factors which make a priori design impossible in the first place.”

In 1992, just before the release of Mosaic and the popularization of the World Wide Web, Autodesk crashed and burned, and the pipeline of funding that kept the Xanadu project going came to an end. Ownership of Xanadu reverted to Ted Nelson, Roger Gregory, and a few other long-time supporters.

A glint of hope appeared. Kinko’s (remember Kinko’s?) was interested in funding the project for their own use. But Nelson chose this time to attempt to seize control of the project. The programmers who had been subjected to Nelson’s attention-deficit management style resisted. Again, Nelson’s desire for control was destructive to the accomplishment of his dream. “By the time the battle was over, Kinko’s senior management had stopped returning phone calls, most of Autodesk’s transitional funding had been spent on lawyers fees, and the Xanadu team had managed to acquire ownership of a company that had no value.”

There was a brief respite from an insurance company, but that too soon ended in failure. After not being paid for six months, the last few developers took the hardware and quit. “With the computers gone, Xanadu was more than dead. It was dead and dismembered.”

As of 1995 (the date of the article), Nelson was in Japan, still pushing his idea of “transclusion”, still hostile to the very freedom and chaos that has made the World Wide Web the enormous success it is. I think he’s a perfect example of how someone can be both brilliant and utterly clueless.

In 2007, Project Xanadu released XanaduSpace 1.0. There is a video on YouTube of Ted Nelson demonstrating XanaduSpace. As far as I know, that was the end of the project.

Some other links that you might also find of interest:






http://web.archive.org/web/20090413174805/http://calliq.googlepages.com/”Xanadu Products Due Next Year”


Tuesday, 2013-08-20

Groklaw takes its ball and goes home

Filed under: Civil Rights,Privacy,The Internet,Travel — bblackmoor @ 14:15
book in chains

Legal Site Groklaw Shuts Down Rather Than Face NSA

I stopped flying years ago, because it offends me to be scanned, groped, and treated like a criminal in order exercise my fundamental human right of travel. Now I am wondering how long it will be before I stop using email and the web. Perhaps I should have stopped already.

How did we become a cyberpunk dystopia without most of us noticing?

Tuesday, 2012-12-11

Backing up Google documents

Filed under: Software,The Internet,Work — bblackmoor @ 12:39

I just had a panic moment when I thought that a Google document I’d spent the better part of a week writing had vanished. This is what I plan to do from now on, once a week, until I forget about it and stop doing it.

  1. In Google Docs, go down to the far left bottom menu item, and select “More V” and then “All Items”.
  2. Click the select box at the top of the screen next to “TITLE” to select all items.
  3. Click the “More V” button at the top middle of the screen, next to the eyeball (“Preview”) icon, and select “Download”.
  4. Select “Change all formats to… OpenOffice”, and click the “Download” button.
  5. Wait a couple of minutes and then download the file somewhere.

Wednesday, 2012-11-28

Pasting spaces into Google Docs

Filed under: Software,The Internet,Writing — bblackmoor @ 16:19

I just spent too much time pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to get Google Docs to paste spaces and keep them spaces, rather than turning the spaces into tabs. I couldn’t find a way to prevent it, so here is what I did.

  1. Paste my text into a text editor, such as Notepad++.
  2. In the text editor, find & replace every instance of a space ” ” with a character that does not already exist in the text, nor in the document you intend to paste that text into. In my case, I used a tilde “~”.
  3. Copy this modified text, and paste it into Google Docs.
  4. In Google Docs, find & replace every instance of the placeholder character with a space ” “.

Is it ridiculous that you need to do this to keep Google Docs from corrupting what you are pasting? Yes. Yes, it is.

Wednesday, 2012-07-04

MediaWiki on Dreamhost: Error creating thumbnail

Filed under: Linux,The Internet — bblackmoor @ 12:41

I have a number of web sites I administer. Most of these are hosted on Dreamhost, and most of them run MediaWiki.

Recently, I have noticed an error whenever I upload an image to the wikis. What is supposed to happen is that ImageMagick resizes the image to make a set of thumbnails. What has been happening is that ImageMagick displays an error:

Error creating thumnail:

Exactly like that, with nothing after the colon. After many hours of research (and great help from the Dreamhost tech support team), I finally found the solution. Add this line to the LocalSettings.php file:

$wgMaxShellMemory = 524288

Saturday, 2012-06-02

The Thing and studio stupidity

Filed under: Movies,The Internet — bblackmoor @ 17:35
The Thing

The cost to stream videos is ridiculous. DirecTV wants $6 and Amazon wants $4 for the same movie I can drive around the block and rent from a box for $2. And why is it that neither version of The Thing (1982, 2011) is available on Netflix streaming? I know Netflix would have them if it could, so it’s the dumbass studio that doesn’t want me to stream them from Netflix. It’s like the studio execs want people to download the movies from the internet without paying for them. Movie studios should be down on their knees kissing Netflix’s red leather loafers. It makes me wonder just how short-sighted someone has to be to get a job at a movie studio. I expect a typical movie studio meeting room is full of people who think vaccines, homeowner’s insurance, and dental floss are a waste of money.

Oh, speaking of The Thing (2011), we watched that last night. Not as bad as I’d heard, but clearly not the masterpiece that the 1982 John carpenter movie is.

Thursday, 2011-09-29

Taking the high road

Filed under: Society,The Internet — bblackmoor @ 03:27
Bad behaviour

Ran across this article (which I heard about from Gareth Michael-Skarka, ironically), which made me wonder for a moment if my choice to take the high road in online disagreements was ill-considered. Only for a moment, though. Ultimately, my not being an asshole to people who act like assholes is about my being happy, and not about making them change their behaviour — which I do not think is possible, anyway. Whether it’s nature or nurture, some people are, sadly, simply unpleasant. Ignore them, avoid them when you can, and don’t expend any unnecessary effort on their behalf.

On the other hand, don’t penalize yourself on their behalf, either. Harlan Ellison might be an arrogant jerk, and Orson Scott card might have some unpleasant personal beliefs, but my life would be poorer without their books. I don’t have to want to socialize with someone for me to benefit from their work. Keep things in perspective. Life is too short to hold grudges.

Tuesday, 2011-09-06

Why the Google Profiles (or any) “Real Name” Policy is Important to Me

Filed under: Privacy,The Internet — bblackmoor @ 16:15
Google+ protest image

A brave soul by the name of Todd Vierling has posted a compelling opinion piece explaining why, in his words,

… those of you who think that using real names will make people more open and social are horrifyingly deluded. Your idealistic vision of “real” interaction through real names isn’t just nonsense; it’s making online socialization more dangerous for everyone by putting them at risk of real-world prejudicial action.

(from Why the Google Profiles (or any) “Real Name” Policy is Important to Me , duh.org)

It’s worth reading. I suggest that you do.

Thursday, 2011-08-25

Thoughts on the ad hominem fallacy

Filed under: Society,The Internet — bblackmoor @ 10:48
Duty calls

When you are arguing with someone, try to remember that there is a difference between the person and their ideas. When you’ve made your point as well as you can, agree to disagree. Don’t ever say nasty things about the person. For one thing, it’s irrelevant, and it demonstrates that you have sloppy thinking. For another, particularly on the internet, you only see the other person through a very small window. There is a great deal more to the other person than just that they disagree with you on some political policy that neither of you has any control over, or some game rule that will never matter because you don’t play in each other’s games. The other person has an entire life outside of your insignificant disagreement with them. Basing your judgement of them on such scanty evidence is irrational. Assume that they have family and friends and lovers who respect them, just like you do.

And if they’re wrong, so what? Let them be wrong. You’re wrong sometimes, too.

edit: To clarify a point of confusion: this is not directed at anyone in particular, and I include myself among the target audience.

Saturday, 2010-06-05

Why I no longer do web design

Filed under: The Internet,Work — bblackmoor @ 11:28

I got my start in computers by writing small applications in Basic, and then Visual Basic. In the late 1980s, I wrote a program that backed up selected directories by copying them, zipping them up, and writing them to floppy disks. In the early 1990s, I wrote macros to integrate PGP and Microsoft Word. I also wrote a reasonably popular dice-rolling program (I was one of the first few thousand people to do so). However, I got my start working in IT by doing web design. My friend Nathan told me about NCSA Mosaic in early 1993, and within two months of the release of Mosaic, I was creating web pages. (It still amazes me that the web took off like it did — I just thought it was a neat toy.)

I eventually migrated from what I call “front end” work (the part of a web site people can see), to “back end” work (the stuff behind the scenes that actually makes a web site work — setting up databases, writing scripts, managing servers, and so on). One reason for this is that I am not a graphic designer — I am simply not an artist. Another reason is that as more people learned how to do “web design”, I could maintain my value by doing something more difficult (difficult for other people; not necessarily difficult for me).

However, the number one reason I moved away from web design and toward back end work is because I had too many web clients who made my job difficult. Not all of them. Perhaps not even most of them. But a lot of them. What do I mean by “difficult”? I mean this.

How a web design goes straight to hell

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