The Proceedings of the 1989 NanoCon Northwest regional
nanotechnology conference, with K. Eric Drexler as Guest of Honor.
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NANOCON PROCEEDINGS page 6
IV. HYPERTEXT PUBLISHING
Introduction by Mike Thomas
This afternoon's agenda will focus on hypertext. I've been asked
several times "Why hypertext in a conference on nanotechnology?"
I'm going to let Eric explain. Basically we're going to talk about a technology
that is already in place and how we are going to exploit it to support some
of the activities in nanotechnology.
A. Eric Drexler: Hypertext and Nanotechnology
I'd like to make a few comments on why people who are interested in nanotechnology
and future technology in general should also be very interested in hypertext.
If we as a society are going to understand future possibilities in technology,
it is very important that we have better means of communicating and debating
For example, let's say that you are somebody who goes around giving talks
on something kind of crazy sounding like nanotechnology. What you find is
that you write paper after paper and give talk after talk, and you give
talks to many technical audiences on the subject. You find that various
questions come up, and often the same questions come up again and again.
You give different variations on the answers, sometimes better, sometimes
less good. An audience can listen to a little bit of information that you
give in a brief presentation, they can listen to a handful of questions
and responses, and from that try to see whether this makes any sense. But
there is no way that this process can accumulate over time. I can't come
to an audience like this and metaphorically bring a bag full of previous
questions and answers and say "Here is the full range of questions
that technically competent people have come up with on this broad range
of points, and here are the answers, and here is what other people think
is the quality of these answers, and say "Look! This particular area
seems to have withstood criticism; this particular area seems to be shaky
because of such and such."
In paper media, if you read something, there is no easy way to find out
what other people think about it. Science Citation Index helps in a slow,
clumsy way. To evaluate complex ideas, one would really like to see what
someone has said, see the most effective criticisms that have been made,
see the responses to those criticisms, and to have all this happen in the
context of a literature where supporting evidence, instead of being re-stated,
can simply be incorporated by citation.
That is what hypertext publishing will give us. I believe that it will be
a medium where good ideas will tend to rise to the surface more rapidly
because bad ideas will be criticized effectively out of existence. I believe
that it can be a powerful force for improving society's ability to understand
complex technologies, and to debate complex policy alternatives for dealing
with those technologies, and come to more sensible decisions more rapidly.
It will give us a better chance of understanding where we are going, and
of dealing with these issues, which I think is a matter of life or death.
Editor's Note: For a more complete discussion
of these issues, see:
We now have the replacement for Mark Miller - the
one who was responsible for making Mark Miller stay home and work instead
of coming here to speak with us.
B. Marc Stiegler: The Xanadu Project
There are rumors that we are not feeding the programmers at Xanadu except
when they deliver fully debugged code. Those rumors are only partly true.
1. The Hypermedia Shopping Plaza
I do my presentations out of my hypermedia shopping plaza [Editor's Note:
Marc used a program developed in HyperCard® to illustrate these ideas].
You can walk around the shopping plaza. You can go into the toy store and
buy copies of "Manhole" and David's Sling.
"Manhole" is the first really good piece of hypermedia art, and
David's Sling is the first hypermedia novel. There are
also some unusual stores, such as the "Problems & Answers"
store. We can go into the library and roam through the card catalogue, back
and forth through all the world's knowledge.
We can't build the hypermedia shopping plaza today. This is only a demo.
When I do my hypertext demo, I go through the resources of the plaza and
use it to cure a disease [see "Hypermedia and the singularity"
by Marc Stiegler, Analog, January, 1989, pp. 52-71.]. All the information
to cure this disease existed in the world, but it took three years to find
all the pieces. It takes 30 minutes to do with hypertext.
For this audience, which knows something about hypertext from reading Engines
of Creation, I thought I would show you the recently added new
building--the Xanadu headquarters building. Xanadu has divided the problem
of building hypermedia information systems into two parts.
- The hypermedia information server (the "back end")
maintains the links, protects the integrity of the data, performs version
control, and does other things that I will mention later.
- The presentation application (the "front end") is
software that pulls information from the server and presents it to the user
in a manner that makes sense to the user. We expect to see many different
front ends developed for a variety of different purposes. Software engineers
tend to drool when we describe how you could build a software development
environment on top of a hypermedia server. Indeed, one of the annoying things
about working on Xanadu is knowing how much easier it will be to build a
Xanadu after we have built one.
2. The Xanadu Information Server
Our primary focus is building the back end. We will ship with our product
one example front end that we refer to as "The Exemplar", which
will supply a certain amount of generic hypermedia information manipulation
capability. It won't be specifically designed for building the point and
counterpoint refutation systems that Eric describes in EOC,
but it will be better for doing such refutation systems than anything that
exists in the world today.
The information server will share some characteristics with conventional
database management systems. One thing that all such systems must do is
protect the integrity of the data in the face of catastrophes, such as loss
of power, operating systems crashes, etc. One peculiarity of such an information
server is that some user is working 24 hours a day so that the system can
never be shut down for repairs. The normal shut down mode is a catastrophic
failure in the hardware or the operating system. Another characteristic
is that it must be able to support multiple, concurrent users. It must also
be able to grant various permissions and accesses to different data.
The hypermedia server is also very different from a conventional database
management system. The major difference is that a hypermedia server gives
information management for unstructured, multimedia information the way
that conventional databases manage highly structured records. We can support
all types of digital information - text, pictures, sound, and digitized
video. We treat the data as large blocks of bits. It is up to the presentation
application to present those bits to the user in an intelligible manner.
Xanadu was originally envisioned by Ted Nelson 20 years ago to be the basis
of a hypertext publishing system, wherein people from all over the world
could pour knowledge in and get knowledge out. To support that large a user
community, you have to be able to guarantee that no matter how large the
information pool grows, you will still have rapid access. For the last 19
years the people at Xanadu have been working on the algorithms to guarantee
that. We now have some mathematical proof that various kinds of access are
logarithm-bound so that rapid access can be guaranteed no matter
how large the information pool grows. This characteristic is very
valuable even for people who have much smaller information pools. The information
pool always gets more valuable as it gets larger and richer. Thus, it would
be very disappointing if performance sharply degraded someday just as the
pool was getting large enough to be the most valuable thing in your entire
corporation. That won't happen to you if you use Xanadu!
3. Links in Xanadu
We also support very fine-grained and very large-grained links. For example,
you can attach a link to an object as small as a single byte, or as large
as the first 25 volumes of the Handbook of Nano-Assemblers,
which we all hope will be a very large handbook one day. The fine-grained
linking ability is very fundamental to doing the refutation systems that
Eric talks about. The next time you get into a heated discussion with somebody,
note carefully the size of the objects that you are arguing about. Frequently
you are arguing about a sentence, a phrase, or a particular word. Thus you
need a fine-grained link to effectively attach a refutation.
Another capability that we supply is that all of our links are bi-directional.
If any of you have used HyperCard® or Owl's Guide® you know that
most systems that are commercially available use single direction links.
This difference is important when you're trying to traverse a very large
information pool. One particular example, using the mini-max algorithm,
comes out of my personal experience working on my master's thesis. I was
studying learning using the game of Reversi, and I was able to go back,
using a series of backwards links, from discussions on using the mini-max
algorithm on Reversi to discussions on how it was used in chess to the original
invention of the algorithm. As people write, they build backwards links
through what they reference. Unfortunately, from the mini-max document,
you can't see links made to it, only links to things that it references.
With bi-directional links, the guy working on Reversi can go back to mini-max
and find a forward link to find out about alpha-beta forward-tapered pruning
mini-max, which is the version of the algorithm that is very useful for
We also supply the ability to attach sensors to regions of the information
pool. When someone makes a change inside one of those regions, then the
server will automatically send you an alert that somebody has been monkeying
around in that region, which you are responsible for. You are not then dependent
upon someone sending you electronic mail about the fact that he just attached
a new refutation to your most cherished work. If this a fatal refutation,
and it will be available to anyone who reads your document thereafter, you
want to be alerted so that you can counter-refute.
We also supply "version control" and "historical trace",
even for multi-media documents. Version control is something that the computer
science community has avoided supplying for years. It is hard to do, and
as long you are dealing with stand-alone systems, the individual user will
maintain a limited amount of version control in his head. That approach
instantaneously breaks down if you have three people working on a document
together. For example, an engineer designs a circuit, then someone else
uses that circuit as a basis for a new circuit. A new user could use Xanadu
to review the development of the circuit and see all the changes that had
If you think about the collaborative endeavors that you have undertaken,
and if you have tried to use collaborative software, I think you will find
that these capabilities are needed for any kind of collaborative endeavor.
If you can't get a fine-grained link, then you can't attach a refutation
to the specific point that you wish to refute. If can't get a link at all,
you won't be able to find related documents because they are buried in directories
hither and yon. If you don't have sensors that signal you when things are
changed in areas that you care about, then you lose control. If you don't
have version control, then you lose control again. We believe that Xanadu
forms the underpinning of really successful collaborative software that
will be seen in the next couple of years.
4. First Xanadu Configuration
The first configuration that we will be supporting for the hypermedia information
server will be in the Sun® computer family. We will be building our
Exemplar front end for both IBM® PC's and Macintoshes®. You will
be able to access the information server either across Ethernets® or
across telephone lines from your Macintoshes or PC's. There will also be
an unknown number of third parties who will be releasing special purpose
applications at the time we release the package. There may be from zero
to several hundred third party front ends. After we have Xanadu available
on Sun computers, we will start to port it to every platform on the planet.
You will need at least a MacII or a 386-PC for the back end if you plan
to serve more than one person with information. Shortly after shipping the
basic Xanadu information pool, we will make available as an option a back-end
to back-end protocol so that multiple information pools on multiple computer
platforms will be able to exchange information. This should come out very
quickly next year.
The one thing that we have committed to (the reason Mark Miller and everyone
else is locked up) is shipping a product sometime this year. We expect to
start beta testing of the back end for third parties sometime this spring,
and we hope to have the Exemplar along with a relatively solid back end
available in late summer or fall for beta test site end users.
5. Applications of Xanadu
I would like to briefly mention two of the applications that I think should
be especially interesting to this group.
Xanadu will make possible truly effective electronic mail systems for the
first time in history. My experience has been that what happens with electronic
mail is that you start accumulating very long lists of messages, so that
it becomes very difficult to find some fact that you know you received many
months ago. Thus you end up re-doing the research rather than trying to
search your mail. If your mail was in a hypermedia pool, and the linking
techniques were very easy, then you can link everything together.
- Doing refutations.
- Putting together enough information to make wise decisions.
I can't help thinking that one place that this might have made a difference
is in the launch of the space shuttle. Making a decision to launch the shuttle
has to trade off the short term risk of having the shuttle blow up against
the long term risk of having your project cancelled. Somewhere out there
in the long list of memoranda that the NASA people have sent back and forth,
there is surely a long list of memoranda about safety, one about O-rings,
about weather. Had the guys who were worried about the launch decision been
able to quickly whip through all of these messages and found the 3 messages
that linked these things together, and presented this to the guys in charge
of the launch decision, might it have made a difference? This is an example
of something that you could do with Xanadu immediately.
Another example is of something that would take a few years to pull off.
We will need a lot of public pressure to pull this particular example off.
How many people saw the Bush-Dukakis debates? In the second debate there
was a very interesting interaction, wherein Bush made an assertion that
even Dukakis had voted a certain way once. Dukakis said "Absolutely
Obviously somebody was stretching the truth really hard. I was quite sad
because I figured that my chances of finding the truth were very, very small.
Maybe somewhere some journalist would write an article and talk about Dukakis's
actual voting record, but my chances of seeing that article and linking
the result back to this particular video clip were very slim. Now mankind
had a very fortunate accident because the next journalist to ask a question
had happened to have memorized Dukakis's voting record. One sad thing about
this incident is that most people don't remember the incident or what she
said, but at the moment, if we had held that debate on a hypermedia information
pool, then every journalist who had a comment to make about this inter-change
could have put a little icon on the screen, and anyone who was interested
could have punched a button and found the analysis, and even looked at the
actual minutes from the governors' caucus in question. Suppose this broadcast
had been held inside a hypermedia information pool, and suppose the candidates
had known that whatever they said, anybody in the country would be able
to link the video clip to the proof, the voting record. Might that not have
changed what they said in the first place?
These are some of the things that we are hoping for with Xanadu.
AUDIENCE: In my opinion, information integrity
is going to be a very critical issue. What have you designed into...
M. STIEGLER: We are taking a number of approaches to solve different problems.
An example is that we are building a piece of software that we refer to
as the "unusually reliable disk interface." It supplies more protection
than is usual against normal operating system problems like writing two
directories. One possibility is that we may when we start shipping hold
an annual contest wherein every person who finds a way in which a Xanadu
back end fails, gets a reward. We are aware that reliability is a very big
issue since we will be asking people to put everything that they have into
Xanadu. Currently computer manufacturers are asking you to put everything
into their filing system under their operating system. If that doesn't scare
you, then you don't understand computers very well.
Editor's Note: For more on the Xanadu project
- "The Open society and its media" by Mark S. Miller, with
contributions by E. Dean Tribble, Ravi Pandya, and Marc Stiegler, chapter
16 of Prospects
in Nanotechnology: Toward Molecular Manufacturing, edited by
Markus Krummenacker and James Lewis, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1995. This
chapter is from a talk given at a Foresight conference in November of 1992.
The book can be ordered from the publisher, or from
the Foresight Institute.
- An long article published in Wired magazine issue 3.06, June 1995,
reports the history of the Xanadu project through the end of 1994. "The
Curse of Xanadu" by Gary Wolf is available
on line, but you may first need to register at the Hotwired
- The Xanadu home page
contains, among other material, responses to the Wired article
by Ted Nelson.
- An overview of
what is required to create a true hypertext publishing network on the World
- The Backlinks
page describes some attempts to use current technology to enhance the
- A proposal
to leverage corporate influence to enhance the WWW.
C. Louis Roberts: A
Hypermedia Image Access System
Introduction by Mike Thomas
Undoubtedly this is going to be very exciting stuff in the years
to come, but the reality is that these systems are just getting started
and there's a lot of different versions of software out there trying to
support these techniques, and there's a lot of trouble putting systems like
this together. I'd like to introduce Louis Roberts from Boeing, who has
been building such a system for a while, and he is going to tell us about
what they have built and discuss some of the issues that they resolved along
Hypermedia Image Access System: Scope, Strategy and Lessons Learned
G. Louis Roberts. Boeing Computer Services, Seattle, WA 98124.
Overview of a hypertext system developed to assist Boeing Commercial
Airplane (Operations Technology) in automation of image access to a library
of 40-50,000 visuals. Why the system is needed, why our organization was
chosen for the implementation, the scope and functionality of the system,
and the lessons learned during implementation.
L. ROBERTS: I started as a biochemist and sneaked out of biochemistry and
into the back-door of computer sciences. Who knew that Boeing needed someone
This presentation is not to be construed as an endorsement by the Boeing
company of any particular product, group of products, or technologies. They
made me say that, and I'm glad!
1. Overview of the System
We're going to be talking about a system that was created to address a particular
technical need. I'm a senior analyst with the Boeing Company. My organization
is Information Retrieval Technology. Our charter is to implement both text
and graphics databases across the Boeing family of companies, and we are
just now getting into hypertext, hypermedia technologies. The customer for
this effort is the manufacturing and development group of the commercial
airplane company. They had 40,000 photographs of various manufacturing procedures.
How do you find anything in such a huge file? The scope of the project is
to convert all 40,000 photos into an electronic form, to add category information
to them, and to interconnect at least three Boeing sites over existing Ethernet.
We are going to establish Macintosh work-stations linked to an optical disk
drive via boxes to a Vax. The Vax will have something called the Photo Navigator,
developed using HyperCard, that will contain many stacks, each with a few
photographs. The user's work-station will be a Mac or a MacII linked to
a video monitor, which will have the images stored in analog form on a videodisk
(digital takes too much room). The HyperCard application will bring up the
video image and show it on the color monitor, and possibly allow the user
to print the image right at the workstation, if the resolution is satisfactory.
2. How the System is Used
[Editor's Note: Some of the views of what the user would see at various
stages while using this system are available in
When the user first enters the system, he is shown two main activity "loops."
The main activity is to build an order list of photos that the user needs.
If he can't find what he needs, he is shunted to an exception loop that
details an administrative procedure for requesting a new photograph to be
made. In addition, a "describe" button brings up a scrolling panel
that tells everything about the contents of this first screen. This panel
discusses each of the icons on the screen in turn, and as each icon is described,
At any time, the user can click on any icon. One example is the "Category
Selector." After choosing the appropriate category out of about 1000
categories included, double clicking on that category will instantly link
the user to that category of photos. If the desired category is not present
among the categories offered, single clicking within the field of category
choices will bring up a box into which you may enter text (describing the
category that the user wants). The program will then search the files for
that text. If it is not found, the user is shunted to the exception loop
to request a photograph to be made. If a stack is found wherein that data
might lie, a display gives categories, dates, remarks, and an image of a
In some cases, access to a photograph is restricted. The user is warned
that these categories require a special signature to show a "need to
A "Find" button explains how the retrieval works. It shows how
to click within fields or to get into the "slide show" mode and
browse through a large number of pictures. Entering criteria into the "Remarks"
text box provides an opportunity to refine the photo selection. If the image,
in this example a type of tape laminator, is found, it is displayed as a
72 dots-per-inch, black-and-white image on the computer screen. This image
is a crude representation of the original color photograph, but was nevertheless
an improvement on the black-and-white photocopies that the engineers had
previously been using to judge which photographs they wanted to look at.
The application supports several browse modes: find the next tape laminator
image; do a slide show of all images of the tape laminator; show all of
the images within this particular category regardless of whether they have
anything to do with the tape laminator. At any time, the user can use the
"Order" button to activate a menu to order the original photograph
as a color slide, transparency, etc. Again, he may be notified that he needs
his supervisor's approval.
The next step gives the user the option to return to the search system and
get another photograph, or to print his order list. The creation of the
order list is the only step that involves observable delay. All of the panel-to-panel
photograph retrieval operations are quick (3-5 seconds), even with a slow
3. Other applications
Within our company is something called the DC Office Morning report, which
is basically a "clipping service" in which a staff reads everything
that might be of significance to the company, capsulizes it, and distributes
it to selected management. To address that audience, we developed an application
that is more like hypertext, with no graphics component. Double clicking
on a word will thread to the next occurrence of that word within the application.
There are 2081 cards and about 2.5 megabytes of text in this particular
Another demonstration I have done is for the Government Industry Data Exchange
Program. Text and graphics are both included. A button entitled "Picture"
appears when there is a picture linked to a particular piece of text. This
example is about "Red Plague", which is the condition in which
silver-plated, copper electrical wire grows copper oxide in response to
atmospheric conditions. Again, double-click, backward-forward navigation
4. Lessons Learned
· Surprisingly something that was intended as a single-user workstation
productivity tool, and written by one guy, was found to address the networked
information retrieval needs of a company as large as Boeing, and in a very
complex computing environment. Despite some deficits in HyperCard® and
in other hypermedia tools currently available, the functionality has been
adequate to the task so far.
·The networking capability has been good, but text retrieval needs
improvement. We are investigating running our own externals to allow better
capability than is present in HyperCard, and to allow linking to more powerful
AUDIENCE: You mentioned that the two versions of HyperCard® are just
barely adequate. Have you heard anything about SuperCard®?
L. ROBERTS: We're on the list!
AUDIENCE: Another question. At an office products show in Portland last
week I saw the Canon color laser printer, and I was wondering if something
like that could be hooked in to give color laser prints.
L. ROBERTS: The color printer that we were looking at was basically a color
video printer for $1200-1400.
QUESTIONER: The Canon printer is $40,000, but the prints are cheap.
AUDIENCE: How much human time did it take to create a filing system for
L. ROBERTS: About 4 man-months. A lot of that is coordination and gathering
requirements. The users were focused tightly on "How can we improve
our paper system?" It required a cognitive leap to get them to consider
an electronic system. The requirements were not that easy to flush out.
AUDIENCE: Is HyperCard® a tool for creating user interfaces?
L. ROBERTS: I believe that that is one of the areas where HyperCard®
is functionally very strong.
AUDIENCE: Would you do it the same way again?
L. ROBERTS: Basically, yes. I might wait until Supercard® was actually
shipping because it has significantly more power. Also, it's important to
get the users involved as early as possible.
AUDIENCE: Do you see a problem in how the system behaves as the number of
users grows? Also, what are the limiting factors the way the system is currently
L. ROBERTS: The limitations of the prototype are primarily that configuration
control over these data files is a pain. If you store them on a server somewhere,
you're locked into low resolution and long transmission times over the network.
If you store them at the work station on a laser disk, you've got real good
resolution and vanishingly small transmission time, but you've got a large
configuration control problem of shipping out, mastering, and distributing
the laser disks for the images. We don't yet have optical fiber in place
to quickly send large pieces of data, nor do we have the kind of sophisticated
data compression methodologies to make small bit-packages out of large graphic
The up-scaling problem that we will encounter here is collision between
user A and user B wanting to get at the same photograph. Right now we rely
on happenstance -- that there are far more photos than users, and that the
different users tend to have different interests. The up-scaling of HyperCard®
itself isn't really a problem because each work-station has its own copy
of HyperCard and is addressing the data over the network.
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