Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Thank you for your business"

The book is The Thank You Economy, by Gary Vaynerchuk.  The thesis is that, thanks to social media, business is returning to its mom-and-pop roots, in that personal customer service is once again becoming important.  I ran across the book listening to an interview with Vaynerchuk on NPR.

I'm of two minds about this:

Mind 1: Hmm ... it's all different now, is it?  Is business, in fact, paying more attention to individual customers?  Did it really stop?  How would you measure this?

Anecdotal evidence:  Today I took my car to the shop expecting a hefty amount of deferred maintenance because, well, it had been a while.  Instead, they explained what it really needed, did that, offered to fix a couple of minor problems that had been bugging me for years, which I had them go ahead and do, and sent me on my way for a modest sum.  These were the same folks who last year quickly and efficiently diagnosed and fixed a problem that the dealer I called had had no clue about, which is why I came back in the first place.

Are they on Facebook?  No.  Can I follow them on Twitter? No.  Do they provide no-nonsense service at a reasonable price?  Absolutely.  Do they have all the business they can handle?  Judging by the parking lot and the steady stream of customers, I'm guessing so.  Are they run essentially the same way they would have been 50 years ago?  Quite likely.

Mind 2:  Well, I've got to be a fan of someone who titles the first chapter of his book "How Everything Has Changed, Except Human Nature", and anyone pushing for good old-fashioned customer service is OK in my book.  Rather than focus on what historical trends might or might not have been, another take is that the modern web offers tools that let good businesspeople serve their customers better, even if those customers are across the country or the world.  In that case, he's got a point, and probably a lot of useful experience and tips to share.

Mind, Vaynerchuk's own site makes the less modest claim that the "Thank you economy" is "the most important shift in culture businesses have seen," but then, he's got a book to sell.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Xanadu vs. the web: Part VI - Wikipedia and GNU

I've spent quite a few words on why Xanadu, sometimes called the original hypertext system (Vanevar Bush's Memex proposal and Doug Englebart's work notwithstanding), is not, in fact, the hypertext system we use.  With that as background, I'd like to take a look at two pieces of what actually developed, namely Wikipedia and the GNU project.

Wikipedia would seem very much in the spirit of Xanadu.  It seeks to create an interconnected collection of documents surveying humanity's store of knowledge.  It is not only freely accessible to anyone with a net connection, it is editable by anyone (or at least, anyone who can get along in the Wikipedia community, which is a great many people).  It remembers past versions.  Indeed, the edit history is an integral part of Wikipedia, not only technically but culturally.  It can be approached from any angle, read in any order and quoted freely.  It even has two-way links of a sort ("what links here").  One might think that, for example, the "Transliterature open standard" would have something to say about it, or at least wikis in general.

Your search - wiki site:transliterature.org - did not match any documents.

That's not completely fair, as Nelson's work is scattered across many sites across the web and off it, and I'm quite sure he's had at least something to say on the project, but whatever it is doesn't exactly leap to the fore.  You can plug xanadu.net and other sites into the search above and still find nothing.

Wikis are probably the most Xanadu-like, most hypertextual parts of the web.  They're not Xanadu, though.  They do not provide true transclusion, or the side-by-side, interconnected views that Nelson advocates, much less "flying islands" or more exotic presentations.  All they do is provide millions of people the means to explore the world's knowledge in personalized, non-linear, cross-referenced and interconnected ways.

Two conclusions one could draw from this:
  1. Wikis, because they are not transclusive and appear much like traditional media on the screen, merely "simulate paper" and are thus detours on the true path to Xanadu.  We must fight on.
  2. Easy editing, wide access and the ability both to follow links and to search are more important than strictly adhering to any particular vision of hypertext.
Xanadu, unfortunately, seems firmly in camp (1).

(It occurs to me that the back button on a browser would probably get the same treatment.  A one-way link with a generic way to navigate back is obviously not the same as a two-way link, but it turns out to provide significant value nonetheless.)

How did Wikis (or at least Wikipedia, which has by far the lion's share of Wiki-related traffic) get to be what they are?  People put up servers and people used them.

Project GNU and Xanadu would seem to have much in common.  Persuasive, eccentric founders (by eccentric I mean simply "far from the center") with radical, ambitious visions.  A strongly-defined subculture with vocabulary and practices all its own.  A strongly ideological bent (GNU even has its own manifesto) and a willingness to say that mainstream thought and practice are simply wrong.  A conviction that computing must be liberated from narrow-minded corporate constraints.

I've taken issue with GNU founder Richard Stallman's ideas myself (particularly here and to some extent here), but I certainly don't dismiss them out of hand.  To this day Stallman commands a degree of respect and attention, for a simple reason:

GNU shipped useful code.

If you run Linux, you're almost certainly running the GNU tools (among others) on top of the Linux kernel.  The kernel itself is built with GNU tools.  Even if you're not a Linux geek, if you use the web you've interacted with any number of servers running GNU tools.

Actually, there's a second reason, not quite as simple but even more significant.  Tons of code outside the GNU project has shipped under the GNU public license (GPL) or licenses heavily influenced by it.  Because of this, it's easy to, say, download Eclipse and a bunch of Apache libraries and start doing interesting stuff.  Stallman literally pioneered a whole new form of software development and distribution [There had been "shareware" and similar arrangements already, but the GPL is a completely different beast, particularly in its brilliant use of copyright law].

There are a lot of reasons why GNU has been so influential, even if not every hope or prediction has panned out, but none of them would have had much effect at all if Stallman and company had not produced actual, useful running code, particularly GNU Emacs and gcc.

Ironically, the GNU operating system itself, which prompted the whole effort, has fared less well.  Stallman announced in the original manifesto that an initial implementation of the kernel had been written (as indeed it had), and the actual work started around 1983, even before the manifesto.  Nonetheless to this day there is no stable release.  If that had been the whole story, we might well have another depressing tale of non-delivery (or in the case of GNU, not-quite-delivery).  Happily, though, that's not the whole story.  In the event, the kernel itself was effectively supplanted by the Linux kernel, which may or may not be the better result, but other development went on.

This willingness to shift tacks when the winds change is the hallmark of every successful project that I'm aware of.  It's a big reason we have the web we do.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Xanadu vs. the web: Part V - Fail.

This is the least pleasant segment to write.  Xanadu the architecture and business model are interesting to write about.  They may not have panned out, but they deserve to be studied and kept in mind.  It's never good to assume that the present way of doing things is the only or best way.  Xanadu provides alternatives that, if not viable, are at least worth thinking through.

However, there is a sadder side to the story: Xanadu the software project, which by any reasonable standard has been an unmitigated failure.  In particular, it never shipped anything of consequence.  Gary Wolf's piece, which again Nelson has strongly disputed, at least seems to square with the lack of notable Xanadu applications.  Autodesk founder John Walker's assessment of the four years and millions of dollars spent when Xanadu was affiliated with his company and given ample resources -- much more, for example, than were used to found Autodesk itself -- corroborates this.  Xanadu had literally become a footnote.

Looking through the various Xanadu websites, I can't say I've turned over every stone, but I've only managed to find three tangible results:
  • A Windows demo dated 2007 that I haven't yet run because I don't have a suitable Windows box handy at the moment (and frankly, given everything else, I may never run)
  • A Python script called the Transquoter
  • A link to a site not directly affiliated with Xanadu but clearly influenced by it.
  • [Since I wrote this, Xanadu has put up a demo of the UX, showing several texts side by side with the ability to jump from one to another.  Judge for yourself.  For my money it's not that much different from browsing Wikipedia or TV Tropes, despite the different visual presentation -- one could easily imagine a web browser with a browsing mode that looks like this.  Still, it is something tangible, and kudos to Xanadu for that.]

The Transquoter seems indicative of the overall state of things.  It essentially takes a list of links in a file and pastes their contents together.  Each quotation gets its own highlight color when moused over, and each quotation is a link.  The links in the file are of a special form, with query parameters indicating which version of the document in question to use and what range of characters to extract from it.  These both assume the stable "write once, never edit" model of documents that Xanadu uses.  The scheme would work for, say, Wikipedia articles, if you were careful to link to a particular version, but not for a lot of other things.

Never mind, though.  A sample is provided.  The sample links exclusively to Nelson's sites.  It's Nelson's content, Nelson's chosen servers and an officially blessed Python script.  Nonetheless, the links don't work.  The script generates plausible-looking links, with version and charrange parameters saying what to look for, but the servers just ignore them and serve the whole page.  The whole point of this transclusion thing, I thought, was that when you navigate from one occurence of the content to another, you actually get to that content in its context, not to the document it came from with no indication of where that content might be.


OK then, suppose you have a server that actually understands the syntax of the links.  Perhaps one that can take a link anywhere on the web, perhaps cache a copy of it to ensure stability, and serve that page up, showing the quoted text, suitably highlighted and in context.  Not something I'm inclined to work on personally, but certainly feasible.  How do you put together the document that references it?

You put together a text file containing an "edit difference list".  The only edit difference supported seems to be directly pulling in a quote by giving the position of the first character in the source document and a size in characters (working around HTML tags as needed).  No tool is provided for, say, highlighting some text in your browser and dragging it into a document-in-progress.  But hey, you can use any text editor you like to produce a list of specially-tweaked URLs to give to the script on the command line, to get an HTML file to upload to your site.


There's a principle in software engineering of "eating your own dogfood," that is, using your own tools wherever possible.  For example, Linux became "self-hosting", meaning that further development of Linux was done using Linux systems, at an early age.  Becoming self-hosting is a major rite of passage for many kinds of tool, particularly compilers.  Among other things, it's a fairly convincing demonstration that the tool can be used for something real.

Does Xanadu.net use the transquoter?  Not as far as I can tell.  If it did, there would probably be a real editor.

OK, enough.  At some point this is just piling on.

The most plausible demonstration of how Xanadu might work comes not from within Xanadu, but from Jason Rohrer's token_word system which Nelson mentions.  It attempts to show what a payment system based on Xanadu's pay-per-first-access model would look like.  You can even put in real money via a PayPal account, though fortunately the first 50,000 "tokens" are free.  [I can no longer find a running version of token_word.  Its developer, Jason Rohrer appears to be developing video games now, though there is quite a bit of other interesting stuff on Rohrer's SourceForge site, including some material on token_word -- D.H. Oct 2018]

There are documents on the site, though not very many, and you can construct new documents by writing text or by pulling quotations in from other documents in the system.  The process is inconvenient but doable: To extract quotes you put <q> and </q> tags around the text you want to quote in an edit box and push a button. Then you put <q n=""> into your own text — use <q 0=""> for the first quote you extracted, <q 1=""> for the next ... Stone-age tools, but I can forgive that here because 1) the site looks to be fairly old and done as a spare-time project by one person, 2) other parts of the demo, particularly tracking how much text you've accessed, work and 3) the stone-age axe at least has a handle and a blade.

Have a look around if you like.  At least it's something.  It's the kind of demo that, if there were more of them and they had together been developed into a prototype system, might have gotten people to take the project seriously.  Personally, I believe I got enough of the flavor to see that I would prefer not to access documents in such a way, even with a slicker interface, but that's a good thing.  Allowing people to make that kind of determination is exactly why we have demos, and it's what puts the site light-years ahead of the transquoter, which would probably leave most people scratching their heads.

Xanadu has been around as a concept since the 1960s.  People have devoted years of their lives to working on it.  Millions of dollars have been spent.  In that time the entire computing industry has been turned upside down multiple times.   [Did I really say that?  Well, the technology, at least, has undergone major changes.] Thousands of new companies have emerged, some even surviving.  Billions of lines of code have been written.  Protocols have been defined.  Apps have been written and shipped, fortunes made, lost, remade.  Even taking into account the inherent architectural difficulties of the Grand Scheme, even if every word of Wolf's story is absolutely accurate, even taking into account code lost at various stages during the development of the project, it still boggles the mind just how little there is to show for it.

Xanadu vs. the web: Part IV - Quotations

The whole concept of Xanadu, particularly transclusion, is based on the idea of taking pieces out of existing texts and re-presenting them in new combinations as new text.  Xanadu as I understand it in no way precludes producing new text -- obviously that has to happen -- but it assumes that quotation is a major activity.

As far as I can tell, it isn't.

That's not to say that there aren't forms and genres that rely on quotation.  Collage, for example, goes back to the beginning of the previous century under that name, entertainment journalism uses quotation extensively, sampling is famously part of the turn-of-the-century music scene, and there are older examples in history.  The Victorian commonplace book comes to mind.  Nonetheless, most works don't rely extensively on quotations.

From a personal perspective, I hardly ever quote in this blog.  I do try to include links where appropriate, but most of those are internal to this blog, and even then they're not dominant.  There are quite a few posts here with no links at all [actually, not so many -- the other blog is less linky, being less webby -- but there are relatively few posts that you can't get most of the good out of without ever chasing a link].  In any case, including a link and inviting the reader to chase it is clearly not what Nelson has in mind.  A transclusive Xanadu document is essentially a new literary form, which is great, but most content hews to existing forms because those forms work.  Likewise, most content tries to be original because that's what audiences and creators both want.

That's not to say that most works don't refer to other works.  One one level they do so simply by adhering to existing forms, which are established and modified over time by the works of previous creators.  On a more familiar level, they tend to refer allusively.  If I refer to, say, sampling, as above, I'm not going to paste in a bunch of audio clips from Old School rappers sampling James Brown.  I just mention sampling and assume that you're already familiar with the idea.

This more subtle mesh of allusions and cultural references has always been the sinew that holds literature and culture together.  A too-literal interpretation of this as a mesh of actual quotations seems more limiting than liberating.

Xanadu vs. the web: Part III - Xanadu the business model

Any publishing scheme has to solve two basic problems: How do you get the content out to people -- or perhaps more importantly, how do you get people to the content -- and how does everyone, particularly the creators of the content, get paid.  Granted, there are any number of reasons people will create content for free (as with most blogs, for example, this one very much included), but to get anything going on a serious scale there will have to be money involved at various points.

Technology has steadily made it easier to disseminate content, to the point where any random blogger now has a potential readership in the hundreds of millions, but it hasn't made it any easier to find readers.  Most blogs have a readership considerably below a hundred million.  Finding readers requires editing, to choose what to publish and make sure it is of good quality, and marketing to make people aware of what you're publishing and try to get them to read it.  Publishing is a different thing entirely from printing.  Publishers, in this broader sense, have to exist in any viable system, whether the web or something Xanadu-like.

To my knowledge there are two main ways of getting people paid: Advertising, and direct payment, whether one-time or subscription.  Xanadu proposes to provide direct payment by means of transcopyright and micropayment.  Micropayment is already in use in various forms, so let's assume it can be extended to the level that Xanadu requires.  The more interesting concept here is transcopyright.

Transcopyright is a license agreement, meant to be enforceable under existing laws, that allows use of content so long as the content is not actually copied, but instead presented as a link back to the original context.  So far, this seems much like what we have on the web, except we usually just make a link and don't actually quote the text.  But Xanadu posits that you pay for paid content when you chase the link (more accurately, the first time you chase the link).

To this end, the (draft) transcopyright license stipulates that the content must be held on the author's servers.  To work on today's web, the exact wording would have to be adjusted to be more cloud-friendly, but that doesn't seem insurmountable, nor does it seem inconsistent with the overall picture.  Storing redundant copies in places other than the place of origin is explicitly part of the Xanadu model.

Nonetheless, I can think of two reasons why this may not work.  The first is the pay-for-access model in general.  There are any number of highly motivated major players -- record labels and movie studios come to mind -- who have been trying very hard to control access to content.  I've written at length on why this is fundamentally a losing battle (see the DRM tag in general, or this attempt at a pithy summary).

In practice, access can only really be controlled under special circumstances, for example in the case of cable pay-per-view where the cable company owns the box, and even then the control doesn't mean much.  If people want to pirate, they can and will.

On the other hand, it's clear that people will pay for content even if they could get it for free.  My guess is that it's some combination of people by and large not wanting to break the law and people understanding that if no one's getting paid, no one will, say, make blockbuster movies.  This is actually good news for the Xanadu scenario.  Most likely, in such a scheme, if it existed at all, people would be willing to pay, even if they could pirate -- and of course they could.  But that leads me to my second point.

People don't mind paying for content, but they do mind hassle and uncertainty in payment.  For example, many people hate hate hate having to watch their cell phone usage to make sure they didn't wander through a roaming area or go over their minutes and will pay a premium in order just to know what the bill will be every month.  They'll actually pay more for a less transparent pricing system.

Paying per access can be fine in some cases.  I'm fine with going through a little payment ritual for an on-demand movie because 1) I know up front what I'm paying for and how much it will be, and 2) It doesn't interrupt my viewing of the film.  I may be missing something in the Xanadu scenario, but as far as I can tell the pay-per-first-retrieval model means either an obtrusive taxicab-style meter showing how much you're spending as you browse, or the uncertainty of finding out later how much you've paid (or being interrupted by a "please deposit another $X" message at random intervals).

Instead, what we have outside limited contexts such as on-demand video, mp3 audio and smartphone apps, is advertising.  You can think of advertising as a sort of indirect micropayment system.  When you view content with ads in it, you "pay" by having to watch the ad and potentially being influenced to buy something.  However, the actual exchange of money is between the advertiser and the creator (and various intermediaries).  The advertiser gets paid back, assuming the ad campaign worked, when you decide to buy something, which you will do with high enough probability to justify the expense.  Advertising revenue correlates with volume of access.  The more people access your content, the more traffic the ads get and the more money the creator gets.

It seems worth noting here that the advertising model has little if anything to do with quotation and copyright.  I don't have to enter into a licensing agreement with you for you to be able to read this blog or for me to be able to (hypothetically) run ads on it.  Copyright matters mainly in preventing someone from, say, mirroring a popular blog and running their own ads on it.

In short, we don't need a new concept of copyright to make online content widely available and make sure creators can get paid.  We just need to put up with ads [of course I would say that, considering my employer, wouldn't I?].

Friday, April 15, 2011

Xanadu vs. the web: Part II - Xanadu the architecture

OK, so what is this Xanadu project?  First, if you want to explore for yourself, the project is at http://xanadu.net/.  Many of the ideas behind the project are expressed its founder Ted Nelson's Computer Lib, of which I have only read small excerpts.  My source for the history of the project is Gary Wolf's Wired article The Curse of Xanadu.  As the title suggests, the article does not paint a rosy picture, and Nelson has objected strenuously to it in the letters column of Wired itself.

Over its lifetime Xanadu has been a lot of things to a lot of people, but I'll focus on two aspects here:  Xanadu as an architecture (in this post) and Xanadu as a business model (in the next), before going on to try to make some sort of overall sense of everything.  Along the way I'll also touch on Xanadu as a software engineering project (or not).

So ... those first two paragraphs don't really belong in this post.  They belong in the previous one.  Now, I could go back and quietly edit Part I to include them.  I explicitly asserted the right to make quiet editorial changes quite a while back when trying to deal with a mistake I'd made.  But the upshot of that experience was that it's generally better to leave anything more than minor mistakes uncorrected and supply further material on the subject if needed (this theme will recur in a moment).  The principle I settled on was: a blog is not a wiki.  In particular, it has no visible edit history, so the blog itself must fill that role.

That's actually not a digression.  Any hypertext system has to deal with exactly the questions my little editorial decision raises, particularly: How do you handle a dynamically changing interlinked set of documents?  If I edit something that someone has a link to, what should they see?

In a blog (or at least in Blogger blogs), a link to a post is a link to the latest revision.  Exactly what you see may depend on when you chase the link.  With a wiki you also have the option of linking to a particular version of an article, which will never change, however many later edits may come along.  The W3C standards for HTTP and company recommend that links be to immutable data, but they do not require it.  The basic machinery of the web works the same either way.  Having results change over time is tolerated.

Xanadu takes a different approach to this and other issues.  In Xanadu, every object has a unique, secure identity.  This doesn't preclude keeping multiple copies for the usual reasons of performance and reliability, but these physical copies share the same identity and so represent a single logical object.  Objects in Xanadu are immutable.  If I revise a post, the revised post is a separate object from the original, which still remains.

Objects are addressable via lists of numbers called tumblers.  Tumblers are ordered, and given a tumbler it is always possible to find a tumbler after it but before any other existing tumbler.  This makes it easy to add new revisions.  Since tumblers are hierarchic by nature, it is possible to address parts within objects -- to address, say, the third paragraph of an article or a sentence in that paragraph, or a word in that sentence.

Links between objects are two-way, and they are visible objects in their own right.  Links are non-intrusive, meaning that you can add a new link to or from an object without changing that object.  The endpoints of a link are just tumblers [if I've got it right].  Since tumblers can address arbitrary parts of an object, you can define, say, a link from the word "Xanadu" in some article to the Wikipedia article on Xanadu without changing either the source article or the Wikipedia article.

Since the system retains every version of every object, and links are addresses pointing to (or into) existing objects, links are never broken (the referent is no longer there) or dangling (the referent was never created at all).

Xanadu takes this one step further by positing that all edits point back to an immutable record of the unedited original.  For example, if I boldface a word in a text, the boldfacing is separate from the original text.  Documents become collections of editing commands, which may reference other such collections, and so forth.

Finally (for the purposes of this discussion at least), Xanadu includes a notion of transclusion.  Nelson defines transclusion as "the same content knowably in more than one place".  Transclusion isn't the same as quoting.  I just quoted Nelson, but there's no way to navigate from that quote to its source.  Even if I make the quote a link, as "the same content knowably in more than one place", that's still not transclusion, first because the link points to the whole document, not the quote, but more importantly because there's no way to navigate back, or to other uses of that quote.  [From illustrations of transclusion, it's easy to interpret it as "showing quoted text inline", but that's a matter of presentation.  Whether the front end chooses to show a link or the full quoted text is its business.  It's the navigability that matters from an architectural point of view, because that two-way navigability requires cooperation with the outside world.]

This ability to slide back and forth between (or among) different uses of the same text is fundamental to Xanadu.  Other features, such as immutability and tumbler addressing, exist to enable it.

This architecture has several key differences from The Web as We Know It:
  • Links in Xanadu are never broken.  Web links are routinely broken.
  • Both endpoints of a link are fixed.  If I edit a post, I've constructed a new collection of edits pointing into the original post.  Your link points to the original, unchanged post.  In the web, there is only one object, which has changed out from under a link.
  • Links in Xanadu are bidirectional.  If you link to my post, I (or you, or anyone else) can follow that link back to whatever you linked from.  I can easily and automatically navigate from a post to the comments on the post.  If you've commented on a particular sentence, I can see that because my end of the link refers to the sentence specifically.
  • Links in Xanadu never go away, because nothing ever goes away.
  • Markup lives outside a document.  If I want to boldface every example of the word "orange" in a document and you want to boldface every example of the word "banana", we can do this independently and without editing the original.
  • Xanadu doesn't exist.  The web does.
That last may come across as snide, but unfortunately it's true.  Xanadu as a concept has been around in one form or another since the 1960s -- coming up on half a century.  In all that time, there has not been one commercial implementation of anything more than superficially like it.  Not from Nelson, not from the dozens of programmers who have worked with Nelson, not from anyone inspired by Nelson to make it a reality, not by someone working in isolation and coming up with the same approach independently.  This wants explanation.

From a technical point of view, it's tempting to look for scalability issues and other architectural weaknesses.  For example
  • If I decide, say, to link every word of every Field Notes post to its dictionary definition (applying some hack for words already occurring in links), that's my business.  In Xanadu, the dictionary, at least, has to know about thousands of new links [More precisely, if not the dictionary, then whatever's keeping track of the links, and anything accessing the dictionary needs access to them.]
  • Since Xanadu is meant to use redundant copies for performance and fault-tolerance, the keepers of every copy will have to know (or be able to find out about) all those links as well.
  • And it all has to be kept in sync as changes come along.  Cache coherence is one of the hard problems, though it certainly helps that objects are immutable and the set of objects only grows.  Web protocols allow for caching, but stale cache entries can and do happen.  This is just a fact of web.life, and web.life goes on.
  • Suppose I really did want to link to the latest revision of something, whatever that may be at the moment.  If you edit that something, then the link needs to be updated as well.  My document doesn't need to be, since the link lives outside it, but anything referencing that link, or more likely the combination of that link and my document, also needs to be updated, assuming it also wants the latest version of everything.  Updating means creating a new copy and ensuring that whatever wants to be pointing at the latest is pointing to it.  The resulting pile of corner cases and gotchas is probably resolvable, but the upshot is that the simple act of editing may have arbitrarily wide-ranging consequences.  On the web, no one but you has to know you edited a page.  That can cut both ways, but from experience it appears to be the right default [re-reading, I wonder if Xanadu defines, or could define, a special kind of tumbler meaning "the latest version of ...".  The meaning of this tumbler could change over time, even though individual objects are immutable -- D.H. Sep 2015].
  • Keeping every version of everything may be expensive in some cases, though in the case of, say, this blog it wouldn't be.
These are all valid concerns, and I'm sure there are more.  The various developers must have run across them, and it would be interesting to read over the resulting discussions, if they're still out there.  However, I think there are two more fundamental issues.

First, is Xanadu trying to solve the right problem?  It's very clear that transclusion would solve problems that Nelson finds pressing, but it's far from clear there's any general demand for it, and by now that's not because no one in the field has heard of it, or even that no one in the general populace has.  Nelson explains transclusion clearly enough in the site I linked to, and "the same content knowably in more than one place" is fairly clear all by itself.  But no one seems to be asking for it.  Nelson himself says that people rarely grasp the power and importance of transclusion.  Fair enough, but such cases generally present a barrier to widespread adoption (not always -- some things you just have to try for a while before you decide they're actually cool, and some of those catch on anyway).

But more than that, Xanadu is fundamentally a closed system.  Yes, it's possible to pull in, say, a web page and treat it as Xanadu content -- pull out a quote here, reformat there and create a Xanadu-style mash-up.  But that's not transclusion.  There is no way for the owner of the web page to know that its content is also elsewhere.  To do that, the web page itself would have to be part of Xanadu.

The converse is only slightly better.  Xanadu could present a web face allowing people to view it on a web browser and create documents with links to it.  The Xanadu server could track referring sites in URLs and track who's visiting it via what page.  But that doesn't provide any assurance that any particular quote appears on any particular page, even in the absence of spoofing.  I might later delete a link, or I might simply cut and paste text in without making a link.  There may well be additional difficulties with, say, a Xanadu object pointing to a web page that links back to something else in Xanadu.  I can't be bothered to think that through at the moment.

In short, to actually realize the idea of transclusion, everyone has to cooperate.  That could work for a purely local application that never accesses the net, or for a collection of servers that all run Xanadu and speak whatever protocol it would use to maintain links coherently.  At this point, though, there is a lot of non-Xanadu information out there, and you'd have to persuade a huge number of existing systems to switch over or at least adopt Xanadu as an add-on.  Any new source of information would also have to be Xanadu-aware.  Not gonna happen.  The web, for its part, also requires computers to cooperate in using protocols, principally HTTP, but this is a much, much lower bar to clear.

The web, with its organically grown patchwork of standards and near-standards, its tolerance for missing pieces and other imperfections, and its lack of overarching authority necessarily lacks the coherence and uniformity of something like Xanadu.  But these traits are exactly what allows it to thrive.

There's a moral to be drawn there, for those who wish information to be universally accessible to all.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Xanadu vs. the web: Part I - Prologue

I started out to write a post called "Hypertext vs. the web" which would try to compare early predictions of what hypertext was supposed to be against the way we use the web.  The idea was that, while we do indeed have documents with links embedded in them leading every which way, that's not the dominant way we use the web.  Wikipedia being an obvious and successful counterexample.

But you can't talk about early predictions of hypertext without talking about Xanadu.

So what was (or is) Xanadu?  In cold honesty and to the best of my understanding, Xanadu is a failed vision, but there's little to be learned from simply calling something a failure.  There can, however, be much to be gained from trying to understand what the vision in question was, and why it failed.  The full story is a long one, spanning decades and branching off in myriad directions, but I would like to take a few posts to explore the subject in broad outlines.  My aim is to compare a vision of what the web (or rather, its analog) might have been against what it actually turned out to be, and also to try to understand why things turned out the way they did.

As a bit of a disclaimer, I haven't used Xanadu (but that's part of the point: arguably no one has), nor have I seen a demo of it in its full form, nor am I closely or even not-so-closely acquainted with anyone involved, nor have I even corresponded with anyone involved.  In short, all I know about Xanadu is what I read on the web.  Given that the topic here is "Xanadu vs. the web", and there can be a certain antagonism between proponents of Xanadu and proponents of the web, this view is not without its distortions, but it's what I've got so I'm going with it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Everybody, meet everybody

I'd resisted adding a followers section to the sidebar on Field Notes for the longest time because, well, not very many people were following it.  Now it seems we're at least into double digits, so maybe it's time.

As I understand it this feature, unlike the other items on the sidebar, isn't about the blog so much as about you, the reader.  It gives you a chance to see who else is reading, and what they read, and so forth.  I say "as I understand it" because, ironically enough, I neither follow nor subscribe to any other blogs.  Not because I don't think there are any other blogs worth reading.  There is a never-ending supply of cool blogs out there to read, and again I thank you all for taking time to read mine.  But that's the problem.  There is a somewhat less-than-never-ending supply of my reading time.

Anyway, I hope y'all enjoy getting to know each other.  Some of your profiles are a bit on the sparse side, which is absolutely OK, but from what I can make out from the profiles and from the statistics on Analytics, you're a diverse group from all over the globe.  Maybe there's something to this whole "World Wide" web thing after all!

Now I suppose I should get back to writing some more so there'll be something to follow.

Friday, April 1, 2011

New toys. Yay!

Blogger informs us that there are now five new ways to view its blogs, should the blogmaster choose to enable them.  These dynamic views are available by appending /view to the URL of the blog, for example http://fieldnotesontheweb.blogspot.com/view.
  • The default view is sidebar, which puts the headlines along the left and the currently selected post on the rest of the page.   Click on a headline in the sidebar to bring up a different post.
  • Timeslide lays out a selection of recent and not-so-recent posts in a somewhat hard-to-describe way that probably starts to make sense once you use it.  Click on a post and this layout slides aside to let you read that post and go to the next one, the previous one, or back to the main display.
  • Mosaic is aimed more at blogs with images, which this one isn't.  The posts are laid out in a sort of Mondrian without the colors with no indication of date.  Click through on whatever looks good.
  • Snapshot shows only images, so it's not much good here.
  • Flipcard lays out squares representing posts in various ways.  The Date arrangement, for example, will show you graphically the demise of the 10-posts-a-month quota.  The "flip" effect probably makes more sense with images involved.
As a side effect, I've enabled "full" syndication (I had had it set to "short"), so you may notice a difference if you're subscribing.  Also, all of the dynamic views lose the styling of the original blog.  Personally, I like the original style -- I picked it out and tweaked it, after all, and tried to make it accessible to color-blind readers -- but the prose should sparkle just as much or little either way.

[Playing around with this, I note that if you click through on a link to a Field Note, you get the original blog in all its stylish glory.  The dynamic views are just dynamic views of the feed, not the blog itself, which is why I had to turn on full feed syndication to enable them.]