It was a miracle of rare device
June 6, 2014 5:28 PM   Subscribe

Before HyperCard, before info, before ENQUIRE, the word "hypertext" was coined by Ted Nelson, who founded his ambitious hypertext project Project Xanadu, in 1960. It has been software's oldest vaporware (older, even, than "vaporware"). It was released today. posted by Zed (49 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite

 
"It does not yet send for its sourcedocs from all over.
That will be the next phase."

"Xanadu has three types of connection--
- to original sources (SOURCE TRANSCLUSIONS, NOW SHOWING)
- links, connections and relations (XANALINKS-- NOT YET)
- shared content between xanadocs (MUTUAL TRANSCLUSION, NOT YET)"

Wouldn't want to rush to market.

Seriously, I was kind of enchanted by this idea when I first heard about it because I'm kind of a sucker for a charismatic visionary, but I don't really buy this "THE WEB SUCKS BECAUSE IT ISN'T THE IDEA I CAME UP WITH YEARS AGO BUT NEVER ACTUALLY IMPLEMENTED" thing now that I'm a little older and my eyes roll more freely.

I'm a cranky enough old man not to put up with crankier, older men.
posted by edheil at 5:36 PM on June 6, 2014 [12 favorites]


Interesting. This is a different conception of hyptertext than the familiar one. Instead of documents linking to each other, documents intersect.
posted by baf at 5:36 PM on June 6, 2014


Gee, and I thought playing around with Gopher was fashionably retro...
posted by jim in austin at 5:36 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Fight the Future!
posted by mazola at 5:37 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


This just makes me sad. Decades of R&D and you end up with something that looks like a broken jQuery plugin or HTML5 experiment.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:39 PM on June 6, 2014 [9 favorites]


I think someone first showed me a copy of Computer Lib/Dream Machines sometime in the 1980s, either when I was in high school or college. Sure took a while for a proof of concept.
posted by larrybob at 5:42 PM on June 6, 2014


For some strange reason, my iPad just didn't want to place nice with that.
posted by thebrokedown at 5:42 PM on June 6, 2014


This seemed strange in 1995.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:44 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


LET'S ALL LOVE LAIN
posted by fifthrider at 5:49 PM on June 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


So, you can have a document on a computer that anyone in the world can access with another computer? Pfft. I'll believe that when I see it.
posted by double block and bleed at 5:50 PM on June 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm a cranky enough old man not to put up with crankier, older men.


Like every Unix sysadmin, every week or so I have to throw my hands up and ask "why in sweet fuck was X done in this particular way?"

And then if I feel like it I can go to Ted Nelson's Youtube page and find an explanation from him.
He's old, but he's not really that cranky. And the only credits assigned to Xanadu's web page are to someone other him.

He;s a gentleman I really would like to meet.
posted by ocschwar at 5:57 PM on June 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


It's time for him to just admit his idea of hypertext just wasn't that good.
posted by stp123 at 5:58 PM on June 6, 2014


I miss HyperCard.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:02 PM on June 6, 2014 [15 favorites]


Not every "road not taken" is superior to what really happened.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:04 PM on June 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


This is... actually not that bad. I know everyone wants to hate on it, but there's actually some merit to it. It's important to remember that his high-concept theory of Xanadu somewhat dovetails with Engelbart's high-concept theory of AUGMENT: to expand ability to understand and comprehend derivative material (e.g., almost everything) by deeply integrating their primary sources while retaining the primary sources' contexts. And this does that. The UI is... very dumb terminal-like, but whatever.

To put that, itself, in context, imagine that the Presidential Daily Brief that had the topic, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack US," had been put in this form with the underlying support and field reports along with key information about the subject himself. Consider whether something like that would have made him a higher priority before the 9/11 attacks. This is an example of what the work was intended to accomplish: most funding for all these information architecture projects came from DARPA, the DoD, and DoD contractors.

Basically, the use case he demonstrates in this demo is poor. It was best suited to doing things like defense intelligence analysis. But it does exactly what I expected it to.
posted by kochbeck at 6:10 PM on June 6, 2014 [21 favorites]


can it play duke nukem forever
posted by klangklangston at 6:12 PM on June 6, 2014


So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999?

Not against partying at all, but all these Xanadu releases are getting a bit confusing.
posted by effbot at 6:12 PM on June 6, 2014


Is this compatible with my Memex?
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:12 PM on June 6, 2014 [8 favorites]


I was watching a documentary recently that described the Talmud as a hypertext. If that's the case, this guy is, what, fifteen hundred years too late to have invented that?
posted by Sara C. at 6:19 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


He;s a gentleman I really would like to meet.

I met him at CyberArts 1 in 1990. I was talking to the conference organizer and Ted came up to him, I said he should introduce us. I told him, "Your book Computer Lib was probably the reason why I have a career in computers." He said, "Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?" I said, "Hmm.. I'm not sure." And we laughed.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:30 PM on June 6, 2014 [13 favorites]


This just makes me sad. Decades of R&D and you end up with something that looks like a broken jQuery plugin
jQuery is itself the result of decades of R&D, along with everything else that's used today.
posted by i_have_a_computer at 6:40 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


does not work well on mobile
0/10
posted by Itaxpica at 6:47 PM on June 6, 2014


Pope Guilty nailed it:
...When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him...
As We May Think, Vannevar Bush, The Atlantic, July 1945
posted by workerunit at 6:47 PM on June 6, 2014 [14 favorites]


I was watching a documentary recently that described the Talmud as a hypertext

Huh.

/googles

Talmud as hypertext.

And from the post: early precursors to hypertext.

Fascinating. Thanks, Sara C.!
posted by weston at 6:56 PM on June 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


It seems to get left out of hypertext histories; indeed, I couldn't find a solid reference to its age when I was composing the post. But this paper (sorry -- couldn't find a freely available copy) says "the hypertext Info documentation format" was "first introduced by Richard Stallman around 1976."
posted by Zed at 7:09 PM on June 6, 2014


The spacebar is our control key.

Okay then.
posted by murphy slaw at 7:28 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


So it's like a three dimensional wikipedia? That's kind of cool.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:30 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


The homepage is rocking it old-school:

<!doctype html public "-//w3c//dtd html 4.0 transitional//en">
<html>
<head>
<meta name="GENERATOR" content="Mozilla/4.7 [en-gb] (WinNT; U) [Netscape]">
<title>
Project Xanadu®</title>
<!-- saved from url=(0018)http://xanadu.com/ -->
</head>

posted by ardgedee at 7:32 PM on June 6, 2014


Snarking aside, I'm impressed by the demo. The Javascript is readable and I've seen much more elaborate stuff written for much slighter end results. It's worth a look.

Of course UI augmentations like click-and-move animations will add to that significantly. They shouldn't be sniffed at either, since they'd help make more intuitive sense out of why certain things happen when things get clicked on. Right now I randomly poke at things and go with the flow but I am not always sure how I got from one place to another.

I really hope this gets filled out. Xanadu is something that's been a part of my computer lore since I was in high school.
posted by ardgedee at 7:37 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ted Nelson is one of those deep thinking people who seems to prioritize fixing the world over making a fortune and maybe improving a few things as something of a side-effect. Think Buckminster Fuller as opposed to early career Bill Gates. It's good that people like this exist and I think much of their value comes from being a catalyst and inspiration rather than from their projects directly. Computing as a tool for liberation was rarely talked about when Computer Lib was written and, as written above, people still talk about the influence Computer Lib/Dream Machines had on their thinking and careers.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:43 PM on June 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


Got to give them marks for perseverance. Though for a moment I thought this was related to the IdeaFarm guy's long overdue operating system (the awesomely named Piggyback Distributed Operating System)....little disappointed it isn't
posted by inflatablekiwi at 7:48 PM on June 6, 2014


people still talk about the influence Computer Lib/Dream Machines had on their thinking and careers

Given the current trend of more centralized control over both hardware and software, it's not like we've gotten that far on the "Down with Cybercrud - against the centralization of computers" road. We seem to be moving in opposite direction, actually.

(the book is on archive.org, btw)

(also, talking about trails of interest: xanadu -> memex -> engelbart -> mother of all demos -> this page about eidophor projectors which is the most crazy awesome thing I've seen today.)
posted by effbot at 8:05 PM on June 6, 2014 [8 favorites]


This makes me feel better that my own life's work project has only been languishing in the "not much more than notes in a notebook" phase for two decades.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:58 PM on June 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


(the book is on archive.org, btw)

Wut?

!!!!!!!!!!!

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have been looking for a copy of this book since someone swiped my first edition, back around 1986. I must see how my recollection matches the book I first read 40 years ago.

Yep, it's all in there. Here's the first thing I found that I remember, and have cited to people for decades:

CYBERCRUD
A number of people have gotten mad at me for coining the term "cybercrud," which I define as "putting things over on people using computers." But as long as it goes on we'll need the word. At ever corner of our society, people are issuing pronouncements and making other people do things and saying it's because of the computer.

..Next come all the leetle white lies about how such-and-such is the computer’s fault and not your decision. Thus the computer is made a General Scapegoat at the same time it's covering up for what somebody wants to do anyway.
"It has to be this way."
"There’s nothing we can do; this is all handled by computer."
"The computer will not allow this."
"The computer won’t let us."
The translation is, of course. THE STINKY LOUSY PROGRAM DOES NOT PERMIT IT. Which means in turn: WE DO NOT CHOOSE TO PROVIDE, IN OUR PROGRAMS AND EQUIPMENT, ANY ALTERNATIVES.


This is a battle I fight almost every day.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:58 PM on June 6, 2014 [16 favorites]


So, it's got rollerskates, yeah?
posted by pompomtom at 10:07 PM on June 6, 2014


Well, this IS interesting. And the implementation is pretty impressive. I didn't look at the code in detail yet, but it's actually something different.

My friend finished a book this year that he'd been working on since I moved away and lost track of him - almost 30 years - and I read it and liked it rather a lot (link). This has sort of the same feeling - I never thought I'd see it, and yet I wasn't disappointed.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:46 PM on June 6, 2014


Grumpy poke at JavaScript:check
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:05 AM on June 7, 2014


My software engineer life ranged from the late 80's to the early aughts so this story is totally fascinating to me. Xanadu sounds like a stillborn "ideal" version of that big old nasty world wide web, but I'm kinda wondering after reading the whole epic, sordid tale, did Nelson and the gang ever notice HyperCard? Well, a lot of people didn't notice HyperCard.

Also this gem:
"The front end is the most important thing," Jellinghaus slowly understood. "If you don't have a good front end, it doesn't matter how good the back end is. Moreover, if you do have a good front end, it doesn't matter how bad the back end is."

I have no way of conveying how much money and time was wasted by ignoring that little nugget of wisdom within various scientific software concerns that I worked with.
posted by telstar at 1:55 AM on June 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


Gee, and I thought playing around with Gopher was fashionably retro...

Curiously, I had the exact same thoughts using Xanadu as I did using the World Wide Web for the first time: All these links embedded in the text are are frustrating/confusing--why can't I just have hierarchical menu like GOPHER?
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:59 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love the hilarious crankiness of the launch document. "[The Web's] bizarre structure was created by arbitrary initiatives of varied people and it has a terrible programming language". As if the way the Web came from lots of people doing related things was somehow bad. Also it's really out of favor to make fun of Javascript, it turns out not to be so terrible in many important ways.

And then "because of Web security rules (a complex maze), a web page cannot request pages from elsewhere". He's talking about the Same Origin Policy and it's really not so complex. The only reason he cares is because OpenXanadu is breaking the web. There are various workarounds although most practical ones would require proxying the requests. The demo doc contains about 2MB of text, most of that being the Descent of Man.

It's easy to laugh at the vaporware but to give credit where it's due, Ted Nelson has been faithfully carrying the hypertext idea for nearly 50 years. But while that deserves respect, for me he's a cautionary tale, an excellent example of why ideas by themselves have no value. I'd much rather be the guy who built "a terrible programming language" run by billions of devices in the world than Ted Nelson.

I'm curious to know more about Nicholas Levin (GitHub), the person who actually built the working system. Seems like a young guy, graduated college in 2007.
posted by Nelson at 6:58 AM on June 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


kochbeck: "This is... actually not that bad. I know everyone wants to hate on it, but there's actually some merit to it. It's important to remember that his high-concept theory of Xanadu somewhat dovetails with Engelbart's high-concept theory of AUGMENT: to expand ability to understand and comprehend derivative material (e.g., almost everything) by deeply integrating their primary sources while retaining the primary sources' contexts. And this does that. The UI is... very dumb terminal-like, but whatever."

I'm glad you mentioned Engelbart along with Nelson, this allows for a nice segue to this video of Nelson and Engelbart at this guys house for dinner... The outlook of the two could not be more apparently divergent. Though, IIRC, Nelson seems less a bitter crank here than he usually comes across, but I may be remembering wrong.

I've been fascinated by Xanadu ever since I read the article in Wired linked above. I think some of his vision was wrong, but Transclusion is really something I think the web missed out on. The closest I can think of is Evernote or Shiftspace.

I've watched Ted give a demo on Youtube of Xanadu, and while, yes it seemed limited, part of that limit is due to having just a small sample set, as well as being text mostly.

But frankly, IMO, our "hypermedia" of the internet isn't particularly that much better. We have all this potential to really work it and push new ways of connecting data and information, but our tools are so limited, and it takes super smart people putting a lot of work and effort into making things function just the way they do in a very basic limited way... I had hoped that we would enable "hyperthinking" via this technology, but the masses (wait, now I sound like Ted, huh?) continue to exist in this linear, narrow framework, the "stream". We need opposite of stream, we need a real web, and we need a strong capability to integrate. We fail to integrate. We exist in the moment and only the moment, and we don't let ourselves use the power of tech to tie our past information and information from elsewhere truly into the present. Nope, here is my data set. It's a post from Bob. He says he's upset. Now he says he's going to play this stupid game and he wants me to click on a cow. Or Hey, here's a picture of an animated cat throwing up rainbows on Tumblr, I will share it.

The one thing that turned me off of Nelson was his view towards making Copyright such a paramount feature. I think that might have been the biggest issue holding the system back (I mean, apart from rewriting everything over and over and over all those years, and maybe being a dick). And probably, frankly, the technology just wasn't quite up to snuff and mass distributed as it needed to be.

And lest you think Xanadu is the only thing Ted's done, don't forget his ZigZag data structure (which, frankly, I don't really understand, and feel that it's probably just a lot of handwavey hype, but I'm not discounting it -- if any computer science peeps in here understand it better and can say whether or not it actually IS innovative or if it does something better than other structures already known/used, I'd love to hear!!!) (Though, the ZigZag is part of the Xanadu project, I don't know if it's actually used in Xanadu or not).
posted by symbioid at 9:02 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Alas, this is a little frustrating. Confusing to someone, even like me who WANTS rich hypermedia...

But I have to laugh at this part of the introduction link

"XANADU HISTORY
We'll skip that for now."

It should be noted that this is only 1 phase of 3 major phases, and more a proof of concept in the browser. The goal seems to be a fully functioning Xanadu application that's native Xanadu, not merely a web interface. There still seems to be plenty of work ahead. Frankly, I think the UI is part of the problem, not the concept. The reason I mentioned ShiftSpace in particular, is because this concept of an overlay of markup over a page, the ability to select REGIONS of text and incorporate them as "footnotes" (or in ShiftSpace, I think you could just layover and select and comment on regions) in a sense and link back is really a great concept, and I think just because this is done in Xanadu doesn't mean the concept is bad.

Hell Sun Microsystems patented XPointer, but I think that's more limited. It seems as though Xanadu uses a system I pondered while trying to brainstorm a solution, which is to just give offset bytes(?)
posted by symbioid at 9:14 AM on June 7, 2014


So at what point does Xanadu threaten to fry the brains of the user with magic if they read a document for which they don't have the codeword?
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:21 AM on June 7, 2014


It's sort of cool. I can imagine that reading a scholarly article which directly linked to the things it was citing instead of making you go through the effort of finding the cite, finding that in a database, downloading it, reading it, and then sussing out where they drew inspiration from would be really cool.

The problem is that there's a lot of money in putting those articles behind paywalls, so that academic libraries are forced to subscribe to the proper databases. You'd need a totally open publishing environment to ever have this make sense for scholarly work. So, uh, maybe in another 80 years or so.
posted by codacorolla at 10:22 AM on June 7, 2014


codacorrola, Nelson was very heavily invested in the idea that copyright would be tightly integrated into the design of Xanadu. This was one key feature that the Wired article linked above discusses (albeit on page 17, so I wouldn't blame you if you hadn't seen that, even if you had clicked the link and browsed the first page):
The idea of quoting without copying was called transclusion, and it was the heart of Xanadu's most innovative commercial feature - a royalty and copyright scheme. Whenever an author wished to quote, he or she would use transclusion to "virtually include" the passage in his or her own document.

Nelson was frequently frustrated by his failure to convince casual questioners of the importance of his transclusion idea. Transclusion functions like the "make alias" command familiar to Macintosh users. An alias works as a fully functioning copy of a file or application, but it is really just a pointer, or virtual copy. Click on the virtual copy, and the original file or application begins to run.

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.

It should be noted that this was in the section regarding Autodesk's attempted implementation (I think there are/were 3 attempts total? or is it 4?)
posted by symbioid at 10:34 AM on June 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Just the right kind of crazy
posted by miyabo at 11:46 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's sort of cool. I can imagine that reading a scholarly article which directly linked to the things it was citing instead of making you go through the effort of finding the cite, finding that in a database, downloading it, reading it, and then sussing out where they drew inspiration from would be really cool.

Isn't this what the Digital Object Identifier initiative is for? (www.DOI.org) (see also the Handle System)
Granted, DOI is a vertically controlled model, and is not free.

It's neat to see a version of Xanadu released. Makes me nostalgic for old Nettime manifestos about information liberation.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:09 AM on June 8, 2014


Why do people keep thinking that an actual physical map of cognitive connections is useful? The human brain constructs a many-dimensional web of connections and moves portions of it in and out of working memory, which is very tiny. The only thing constructing a physical map of the connections accomplishes is to provide one more thing in consciousness to crowd that tiny working memory.
posted by lastobelus at 12:50 AM on June 11, 2014


The only thing constructing a physical map of the connections accomplishes is to provide one more thing in consciousness to crowd that tiny working memory.

And to put it into a form where others can study it and use it themselves.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:29 PM on June 11, 2014


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