The Curse Of Xanadu

A Wired article about TedNelson's XanaduProject.
...and Nelson's response at http://web.archive.org/web/20001101230424/http://www2.educ.ksu.edu/Faculty/McGrathD/Fall99/NelsonLtr.htm in which he says

The general idea that we need freedom and availability of information to avoid disaster Mr. Wolf calls a "very hackerish assumption." Perhaps. But it is also an ideal I believe in very much, bound up with the ideals I learned when we pledged to the flag in grade school. And, ironically, that ideal seemed to be, I thought, what WIRED stood for. Mr. Wolf's piece is a perfect example of such a disaster: a disaster if not preventable, correctable by freedom and availability of information.

Nelson responds further, including pointing out numerous errors in the article, at http://web.archive.org/web/20001120054900/http://xanadu.com.au/wolfsbane .
From Nelson's response:

"Wolf's article is a very nasty piece of work."

I agree entirely. -- DavidSarahHopwood
A rather unsympathetic article, in fact. One might call it a hatchet job. It contains many subtle digs of tone and implication; TedNelson does not come out of it looking very good. He considers it unfair. -- DaveHarris The problem wasn't time, it was a combination of things that add up to unprofessionalism: AnalysisParalysis, bad project management, chronic underfunding most (but not all) of the time, in-fighting, and worst of all, they actually finished it a bunch of times! Back when Autodesk was funding them. But they took a perfectionist attitude, and always decided to rewrite the code from scratch every time they finished something that worked even a little bit, rather than release it. I was at AutoDesk at the time and saw working code demoed. A whip-cracking no-nonsense project manager would have changed the history of Xanadu single-handedly (if humanly possible, given the HerdingCatsProblem) -- DougMerritt


The permanent-re-perfection-loop sounds a lot like CharlesBabbage. Building device A gave him insights into a more flexible calculation engine, B. So he abandons A and starts on B. Well, building B gave him further insights into the possibilities of engine C. The end result is that he gradually turned a calculator into a TuringComplete computer, the first one (design), but never produced a finished product (some were half-working).
One never knows with an article how well it stacks up next to events, but I would have to say that the Wired article portrays one of the best (and most sad) examples of AnalysisParalysis that I've ever seen in print. It is definitely worth looking at. If only they had users.. If only they could make something and use it themselves.
There is a sense in which the article is very well written. In particular, there is a great recurring riff where Xanadu folks keep saying "six more months, six more months". At the very end of the article, MarkMiller? is quoted as saying "If I only had three programmers for two months..."

A great quote:
"It was not RapidPrototyping - it was RabidPrototyping," said one of McClary's friends who watched the project closely. "They were just randomly hacking and coming up with these groovy algorithms."


I saw TedNelson speak in Sydney in 1994, just as the web was really taking off. I asked him what he thought about it, and he said he didn't really find it very interesting. This struck me and still strikes me as the most astonishing thing he could have said.

Xanadu was a good idea, but if you can't adapt your ideas to circumstances, you can't get them to go any place no matter how good they are. -- PeterMerel

Yes, but this should not have astonished you. Consider: here he's been hyping a global hypertext system for decades, and then along comes the web, which is very primitive compared with what he advocated, but GoodEnough that people were perhaps vastly less interested in his vision afterwards (the vaporware thing didn't help, of course).

So he's got sour grapes. This isn't the wisest reaction in the world, but surely it's only human, not astonishing. -- DougMerritt
CategoryIdealism

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