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Are you a Dummy, naive and gullible? If so, there are thousands of books for the likes of you. Go elsewhere, and drink in the lies called "computer basics".
June 3, 2012 12:52 PM   Subscribe


 
Ted Nelson is a visionary and a saint, but instead of washing the feet of Tim Berners-Lee and proclaiming him Lord, Ted decided to continue trying to build the Godhead himself. He has spent many many years in the wilderness. I adore Ted Nelson.
posted by gwint at 1:17 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know he's in part doing this to play out a particular role in a "ha ha only serious" sort of way, but there's a ton of genuine latent bitterness under these rants, for the World Wide Web to be, among other things, the medium through which the few people who know what Project Xanadu is to get updates on it.
posted by ardgedee at 1:20 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Didn't Project Xanadu collapse under the weight of the rollerskates, ELO songs, and generally bad acting?
posted by hippybear at 1:21 PM on June 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


Thank you for spreading the words of this sage, mad man, old crank, devil's advocate and conscience of computer science and technology in general.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:29 PM on June 3, 2012


Did Ted Nelson ever actually write a line of code? I had the impression he installed himself as a Visionary, and recruited followers to make his ideas happen.

I was under the impression the project collapsed under the weight of ideas that were conceived with no eye toward their practical implementation.
posted by adamrice at 1:32 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


So far have watched the files and database lectures, and almost everything the man says is true. (The one error I noticed is that he said file extensions came in with Windows, but he's trying to assemble a lot of history and he gets most of the implications spot-on.)
posted by localroger at 1:33 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I watched all of The Database Mess. He did not suggest any alternatives...is this not just a rant?
posted by therubettes at 1:38 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like how he hasn't bothered to edit out the things that go a little wrong in recording.

Why yes, it they are rants.
posted by wobh at 1:51 PM on June 3, 2012


I'm impressed how he can manage the sort of rapid fire soundbite delivery that Ze Frank and illdoctrine have perfected, but in a single take.
posted by ardgedee at 1:53 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm sad to see Ted Nelson reduced to "Computers for Cynics". In the 90s I read his papers and thought "wow, what a visionary, what a futurist!" And yeah his thing sort of foundered in a morass of bad business and architecture, and other things did better. But somehow he sort of stood still. And now he's just the cranky guy on Youtube telling us his cynical truth. You can be right but still be wrong. I've only watched a few minutes of these, so maybe I'm missing the constructive part, but all I saw was him telling us how everything was terrible.
posted by Nelson at 2:01 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]




TED Talks have really gone downhill in recent years.
posted by rh at 2:12 PM on June 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


He did not suggest any alternatives...is this not just a rant?

The point I took from that isn't so much that he knows the path to a Better Way (tm), as that the paths that exist aren't what people think they are, they all have holes in them through which you could drive a bus, and in the end the database people get the blame when things go wrong but it's not really their fault, they are doing the best they can with what is really a much more messed-up situation than anyone realizes.

Also validated my decision years ago to eschew the use of databases altogether in my line of work. Although I do use the filesystem instead...
posted by localroger at 2:19 PM on June 3, 2012


The thing with software is that if you're convinced something could be done better, you can clearly & precisely describe your ideas in code and prove their worth. It's an industry where "put up or shut up" is actually quite a reasonable attitude.

Ted Nelson has endlessly failed at demonstrating his Xanadu ideas, while Tim Berners-Lee shipped something that immediately proved useful, was relatively easy to understand, required no investors, and was released for free.
So although Nelson is an interesting character, when he rambles on (whether in video, or plain text so he doesn't have to sully himself with inferior markup) about the numerous inadequacies of the web it's hard to take him seriously (in fact, he actually manages to make me angry).
posted by malevolent at 2:36 PM on June 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


I wish he would put up transcripts of his rants, so I wouldn't have to watch him read them into a webcam.
posted by metaplectic at 2:39 PM on June 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


For those wondering where the positive suggestions are (and also a bit more openness about what me might be a *little* bitter about) you might want to watch the Closure link.
posted by localroger at 2:48 PM on June 3, 2012


A classic example of how perfect is the enemy of good enough.
posted by 3.2.3 at 3:04 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ted Nelson has endlessly failed at demonstrating his Xanadu ideas,
Uh... http://xanadu.com/
posted by smidgen at 3:12 PM on June 3, 2012


Just watched the Filesystem rant. Quite a bit of wrong information there and huge generalisations. e.g. how nested directories concatenate their filenames in one node.
posted by schwa at 3:18 PM on June 3, 2012


I only watched the databases one -- and I skipped bits, which is the sad equivalent of skimming when (as metaplectic points out) there's no transcript -- and the general impression I got was "there are all kinds of different database systems, and they don't work together!"...which is a bit like saying "there are all kinds of different cars, and the parts aren't interchangeable!" I'd never heard of this guy, so to me this is an interesting FPP, but I don't understand why he thinks computers are supposed to work better than *the rest of life as we know it*.
posted by uosuaq at 3:25 PM on June 3, 2012


Ted Nelson has endlessly failed at demonstrating his Xanadu ideas, while Tim Berners-Lee shipped something that immediately proved useful, was relatively easy to understand, required no investors, and was released for free.
So although Nelson is an interesting character, when he rambles on (whether in video, or plain text so he doesn't have to sully himself with inferior markup) about the numerous inadequacies of the web it's hard to take him seriously (in fact, he actually manages to make me angry).


I get what you're saying here, but despite his litany of complaints about the failings of the web, Nelson is an important origin-point for a lot of the ideas that fed into its creation. He's not just a ranty old crackpot with a failed vision. He's a ranty old crackpot whose vision changed the world.

This can be kind of obscured by the ranty crackpot thing.

I'd never heard of this guy, so to me this is an interesting FPP, but I don't understand why he thinks computers are supposed to work better than *the rest of life as we know it*.

I think there are a lot of things both practical and philosophical that Ted Nelson doesn't actually get about technology, but it'd be a mistake to dismiss him totally on those grounds. Read Computer Lib / Dream Machines some time. It's fucking amazing.
posted by brennen at 3:32 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't mean to dismiss him totally, although the book you mention looks hard to get, unfortunately. This one, by another such visionary, is available online, though.
posted by uosuaq at 3:44 PM on June 3, 2012


Yes, he's released some code, smidgen, but has it finally wowed us with its compelling concepts and provided a realisation of his visionary ideas? Meanwhile the web has amply demonstrated the value of the many compromises and limitations Nelson so despises.

(I do realise he's not just a 'ranty crackpot', and we need people to keep questioning these things, but without some practical thinking & humble acknowledgement of others' successes he can't offer a full insight)
posted by malevolent at 3:50 PM on June 3, 2012


His problems with filesystems are spot on, but I could have told you them myself.
- Shortcuts break if you move their target. Indeed any reference to a file will break if you move it
- Filesystems are incompatible across operating systems
- You can't annotate files easily
- Backups become an utter nest of nonsense
The last one, especially. My old work is so poorly organized that, if I wanted to go back and find something, it could be nearly impossible. Windows XP had a neat hack where you could assign an icon to a folder, which someone hacked into letting you tag folders with colors. But then, my actual paper work is even less organized than my digital stuff.

On the other hand: the best way to organize photos in such a way that you aren't dependent on a database is using the filesystem. Folders for years, months and events; put your tags in the EXIF metadata. Much less bad than relying on Picasa or whatever to not fail on you (which it will. I gave up on it when it started removing pictures from harddrives that happened to be not plugged in at the time you started it up). You can move your photos around, copy them, and nothing is going to be lost as long as the filestructure remains intact.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:21 PM on June 3, 2012


I have only gotten through #2 so far, but I have to say, I agree with him about the GUI taking away programming. Things that used to be routine for me, like writing a little script to search the text of all my files and count the occurrences of a particular word, are now forgotten and replaced with tools that do altogether more than I want and still not what I ask.
posted by meinvt at 4:25 PM on June 3, 2012


Ted Nelson is like a Zelig of the computer world - he has been there taking an active role in their development since the start of the 1960s. He has met all the key people, documented the key trends as they happened and he is absolutely sharp enough to tell entertaining,accurate stories about where the bodies are buried. If a friendly publisher or film maker would help with the editing then I would be very keen to see "A Cynics Guide to Computers".
posted by rongorongo at 5:00 PM on June 3, 2012


From the last video:
"We believe that our [format] will the the one for the smartest people."
Well, that's your problem then. Nobody will want it, because it's intimidating. I'm not sure I could untangle the mess that this looks like. It brings to mind (probably unfairly) those execrable "3D Desktop" things from a decade ago, that were totally unusable.

And I don't get his obsession over the state of word processing. How else were computer companies going to get companies and office drones to switch to electronic word processing? By making it as familiar as possible. He calls it dumbing it down; I'd call it making the technology halfway approachable. He dismisses formatting, even fonts as irrelevant. Have you ever tried to read a long novel in Courier? It's horrendous.
posted by BungaDunga at 5:04 PM on June 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


although the book you mention looks hard to get, unfortunately

It really surprises me that there isn't a reasonably priced current edition. I had to get it through inter-library loan a decade or more ago, but I figured by now someone would have gotten around to reprinting it.
posted by brennen at 5:04 PM on June 3, 2012


I met Ted Nelson, quite by accident, at the CyberArts 1 conference. Checking wikipedia, it says he gave the keynote at C1 in 1990, but it seems to me it was more like 1986 or 88. Anyway, I was in my booth talking to the conference organizer and he had this guy with him. I looked over and noticed his nametag said Ted Nelson. I asked my friend to introduce me. I shook his hand said to him, "I just wanted to thank you for writing 'Computer Lib,' that book is probably the reason I decided to spend my life working on computers." He replied, "So was that a good thing, or a bad thing?" I had to think for a moment, then I said, "You know, I'm not quite sure." I wish I had a photograph of the looks on both of our faces during that exchange. And oh the look on the face of the guy who was witnessing it. That was the whole point of C1, so moments like that could take place. And that was why I was so interested in computers after reading Computer Lib, it seemed like a world that contained the craziness and occasional brilliance of guys like Ted would welcome a guy like me. And now, like Ted, I'm not so sure.

I'm listening to Lecture 0, this is classic Ted stuff about his "Cybercrud" topic. Computers get blamed for stuff and it's not because computers are that way, it's because people made them that way, for political reasons. After listening to some of this lecture, I am now quite certain I can attribute to Ted one of my favorite computer hacker quotes, I was never sure but I must have heard it from Computer Lib, "Topology is politics."
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:28 PM on June 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


Lecture 0 was worthwhile. I was gratified that he got confused over the difference between BCD and EBCD. That is exactly the type thing that most drives me nuts. I would much rather have transcripts though. I doubt if I will be watching any more lectures any time soon.
posted by bukvich at 5:49 PM on June 3, 2012


uosuaq:
I only watched the databases one -- and I skipped bits, which is the sad equivalent of skimming when (as metaplectic points out) there's no transcript -- and the general impression I got was "there are all kinds of different database systems, and they don't work together!"...which is a bit like saying "there are all kinds of different cars, and the parts aren't interchangeable!"
I feel the important thing to take out of these rants of his is not the complaint per se, rather the understanding of why these things we have aren't compatible in the first place. I'm not saying that it's true in all cases, but you'll find that it often comes down to politics and (of course) good old-fashioned money. And so the potential of technology becomes severely limited for the sake of a few companies who want to sell us their junk.
posted by Goblindegook at 5:52 PM on June 3, 2012


I watched all of The Database Mess. He did not suggest any alternatives...is this not just a rant?


His point, in video 0 anyway, is that everything in software has alternatives, some of which deservingly lost out and are obscure, and some undeservingly, and that his audience should not shy away from offering their own.
posted by ocschwar at 6:44 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dear old Ted. Rather like Richard Stallman, he is bitter that his ideas and work haven't earned him the fame he feels is his due. In both cases I suspect lack of people skills have a lot to do with it.
posted by epo at 9:41 AM on June 4, 2012


Didn't Project Xanadu collapse under the weight of the rollerskates, ELO songs, and generally bad acting?

I think mostly cocaine.
posted by NoMich at 9:56 AM on June 4, 2012


Among the zillions of other things Nelson has done, he was briefly editor of the hobbyist magazine Creative Computing. I happened to write to CC just then to request a copy of their contributors' guidelines. The guide I got back had Nelson's byline and is the single best set of would-be-contributors' guidelines I have ever gotten from anybody, including The New Yorker.
posted by jfuller at 12:51 PM on June 4, 2012


I managed to get through his Project Xanadu overview and I've tried twice so far to get through Computers for Cynics 0, but he makes it hard for me to like him and listen to him. I'm sure he's a great guy, but the combination of arrogance and bumbling makes me want to switch off.

I will get there, though, because it's always interesting to hear about the history of computing, especially those great ideas which never quite made it. They show so much promise that maybe, just maybe, the ideal computer is just around the corner, if we only listen to the past.
posted by milkb0at at 1:58 PM on June 4, 2012


lack of people skills have a lot to do with it.

So their bitterness is well-justified.
posted by Jestocost at 2:18 PM on June 4, 2012


adamrice: "I had the impression he installed himself as a Visionary, and recruited followers to make his ideas happen."

Sounds pretty sweet, how do I get a piece of that?
posted by Chrysostom at 1:29 PM on June 11, 2012


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