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Archive for July, 2013

I’ve been following José A Ortega-Ruiz (he goes by “jao” for short) for about 6 years now, on his blog Programming Musings. Recently I noticed he wasn’t posting much, if at all. Finally he said he was starting up a new blog here, using a static web page tool, written in Racket (a Scheme implementation), called “Frog” for “frozen blog.” I found his 2nd post, called “Where my mouth is” inspirational.

For many years, I’ve been convinced that programming needs to move forward and abandon the Algol family of languages that, still today, dampens the field. And that that forward direction has been signaled for decades by (mostly) functional, possibly dynamic languages with an immersive environment. But it wasn’t until recently that I was able to finally put my money where my mouth has been all these years.

A couple of years ago I finally became a co-founder and started working on a company I could call my own (I had been close in the past, but not really there), and was finally in a position to really influence our development decisions at every level. Even at the most sensitive of them all: language choice.

He says he’s working with a team of people who are curious, and are willing to take the risk of trying out less traditional, but as they perceive, more powerful programming environments, such as Clojure (a Lisp variant that runs on the JVM, and is pronounced “closure”). Read the rest of it.

I once aspired to work with a team such as this. I had been working in IT services for several years, and I thought I’d continue on in that vein, with something like Smalltalk, starting my own little “web shop,” or just happening to find a company that was already creating IT systems with something like it. More recently I’ve been finding computing as a field of study more interesting, not in the typical sense that academic computer science teaches, but as a phenomenon unto itself, a kind of interesting effect of a machine that’s capable of generating, and acting like, a machine of a different kind from itself, simply by feeding it different patterns of a certain nature. As Alan Kay has demonstrated, looking at computing this way, you can still arrive at an environment that looks recognizable, but is vastly different under the covers than the typical user-oriented system is structured today.

I’ve put two links in my links sidebar for jao’s blogs, “Programming Musings” (his old blog) and “Programming Musings 2,” since his old blog is rather like an archive of really interesting and valuable knowledge in computer science, and I encourage people to scan through it for anything they find of value.

I wish jao the best of luck in his new venture!

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If, in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display, backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day, and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?

— Doug Engelbart, introducing his NLS system in 1968

Doug Engelbart, from Wikipedia

I got the news from Howard Rheingold on Google+ that Doug Engelbart died last night. It is not a stretch to say that without Engelbart the experience we’ve had with computers for the last 30+ years would be very different. He was a pioneer in interactive computing, bringing computers out of the era of batch processing with punch cards and teletypes as the only means of using them, into an age where you could directly interact with one. He wanted so much more to come out of that, and he put that desire into his NLS system.

He is best known today as the man who invented the computer mouse, but in my opinion that makes light of what he did. He gave us mouse interaction with a graphical interface. He gave us the idea of using a visual pointer (he called the visual pointer a “bug”–a little something that flies or crawls around the screen…) and information schemas that one could change on the fly to manipulate and organize information, and to save that information to your own personal file so that you could later retrieve it, and share it with others in your group. He gave us hyperlinking, long before most of us understood what the concept was. His hyperlinks were more than what we have today. They not only pointed to information, but also specified how the creator of the link wanted that information displayed. He gave us a mixture of graphics and text on the screen at the same time, to enhance our ability to communicate. He gave us the idea of sub-second access to information, so that our brains could be “in flow,” and not have mental breaks with our thoughts, because of slow technology. He gave us collaborative computing with video conferencing. In an amazing display, when he demoed NLS, he brought in other participants, using a combination of analog technology, and a digital network, who could work with Doug on the same document, live, at the same time. Using video cameras, television displays, and microphones, and speakers, they could see each other, and talk to each other as they worked.

During the 1960s he thought about word processing at a time when it was just experimental, and how the idea could be used to make forming documents easier. He thought about online discussions, address books, online technical support, and online research libraries. He brought some of what he thought about into NLS.

If you’d like to watch the full presentation, you can look through an annotated version here.

All of this was created in 1968, before the Arpanet, the predecessor to the internet, came into being. The audience that saw this demo was dazzled. Some questioned whether it was real, whether it was all a mock up, because hardly anybody expected that computers could do these things. Another computing pioneer, Chuck Thacker, said of Engelbart that day that he was “dealing lightning with both hands.” Indeed he did.

There are more ideas he had, which he came up with more than 45 years ago, and were implemented in NLS, that have yet to be introduced into our digital world. He wanted systems like NLS to be a “vehicle,” as he called it, for implementing a method for improving “collective intelligence.”

Smeagol Studios came up with what I thought was a nice video summary of Engelbart’s work, and how it was expressed in products that we in the mass market came to use.

Thank you, Doug, for all that you gave us. You took a great leap in making computers approachable, which helped me fall in love with them.

Related links:

The Doug Engelbart Institute

From my blog:

A history lesson in government R&D, Part 2

Getting beyond paper and linear media

Does computer science have a future?

Tales of inventing the future

Great moments in modern computer history

Edit: A couple other links I thought to include:

Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson come to dinner – This happened on Engelbart’s birthday last year. Howard Rheingold invited Engelbart and Nelson over, and just had them chew the fat on what they thought of the web.

More on getting beyond paper and linear media – Christina Engelbart, who is one of Doug’s daughters, and the director of the Doug Engelbart Institute, wrote a follow-up post to “Getting beyond paper and linear media,” on her blog, Collective IQ, talking about Doug’s concept of augmenting the human intellect.

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