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May 24, 2005 » 8:30 pm

Purple Numbers: Optimized for Synthesis

Chris Dent has been having some good exchanges about Purple Numbers with Adina Levin and Phil Jones. I don’t have much to add, as I think Chris is spot on. Two comments struck me, though.    (IQV)

First, Phil claims that Purple Numbers are optimized for reading at the expense of writing. His point is that Purple Numbers, as currently implemented, add overhead to the writing process, whereas the pay-off comes for the reader. I emphasize as currently implemented, because we just haven’t gotten around to making them mostly transparent in the writing process. Hacking one of the WYSIWYG JavaScript text editors to support Purple Numbers should do the trick.    (IQW)

However, I really liked Chris’s response:    (IQX)

Yes, purple numbers do try to favor the reader and the act of reading, but not just for reading. They favor the reader so the reader may more easily do more writing. The whole point is for purple numbers and tools like it to be a generative force in the synthesis of new understandings.    (IQY)

Phil can write all he wants, and I can read all I want, but until I write down something that builds on what Phil says, while making chains of reference back through the many layers of context, there’s been no synthesis, at least not any that is available outside the confines of my own mind.    (IQZ)

Granular Addressability enables synthesis. Wanna know what makes blogs conversational? Permalinks, which are a form of Granular Addressability.    (IR0)

A lot of people don’t get this. I read The Sports Guy over at ESPN.com all the time (despite the fact that I hate all Boston sports teams with a passion), and at the past two Super Bowls, he wrote what ESPN.com called a “blog.” It sure looked like a blog, but in reality, it was just one-way publishing. Folks couldn’t comment on his entries, because they couldn’t link to any of them. I see this all the time with other major media outlets trying to jump on the blog bandwagon.    (IR1)

Which brings me to the second comment that jumped out at me. In his response to Adina, Chris wrote:    (IR2)

Clearly I am in far too deep with purple stuff: I need a translator. The above can be so much meaningless noise and I find little time to make things cogent.    (IR3)

I’m not the best proselytizer of Purple Numbers, not because I’m not proud of them (I am), not because I don’t value them (I do), and not because I can’t explain their value clearly (I can). There’s a tremendous amount of deep thinking underlying these little purple critters, and the implications are fascinating. But before you can understand any of this, you’ve got to care. And unless you’re one of those strange individuals who just gets it, you’ve got to try them before you’ll buy them.    (IR4)

A lot of folks think I invented Purple Numbers. Not true at all. I was one of those folks who didn’t care, one of the first in fact. Purple Numbers are an HTML manifestation of Augment’s granular addressability scheme, invented by Doug Engelbart and made purple years later by his daughter, Christina Engelbart. When I first started working with Doug, he kept insisting that all of our knowledge products on the Web have Purple Numbers. I didn’t think it was a priority, but I knew I could easily whip up a tool to generate them, so I wrote Purple to humor him. Then a funny thing happened. Once I had them, I used them, simply because they were there. Then I started missing them when they weren’t there. Then it dawned on me: These little purple thingies sure were darn useful. And I started thinking about why.    (IR5)

The point of my story is this: I’m perfectly happy to have a deep, convoluted discussion about some esoteric aspect of Purple Numbers. If you don’t believe me, try me. Or read my blog entries on the matter. But if you really want to understand why they’re so important, just give them a try for a month, then try living without them.    (IR6)

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