Being Ambushed by Terrell Russell

Gail Taylor told me an excellent story last Saturday that reminded me of an incident at the Internet Identity Workshop this past December. I was doing something that I am deeply opposed to — participating in a face-to-face conference without being fully present. Basically, I was sitting in the middle of the space doing work on my laptop while everyone else was participating in the conference. I felt guilty about it, but I wanted to talk to some people while they were in town, and I had a ton of work to do at the same time.    (LWP)

So I gave a talk on Identity Commons, attended a few presentations, talked to a few people, and spent the rest of my time doing my work and ignoring everyone else. It was actually quite nice. I was sitting in the middle of the large conference room at the Computer History Museum, visible to everyone, with people constantly milling around me. People who knew me stopped by to chat for a few minutes; people who didn’t just ignored me.    (LWQ)

Towards the end of the second day, I was basking in my productive anti-socialness, when a fellow who was sitting at my table started making small talk. It was harmless chatter, stuff that I could respond to while remaining focused on my work, but at some point, it felt wrong continuing to talk without introducing myself. Turns out the guy was Terrell Russell of claimID fame. I knew about claimID, but I knew nothing about Terrell. The same could not be said of him, who had known all along who I was, and who apparently follows this blog. (Hi, Terrell!)    (LWR)

That bastard must have used that knowledge against me, sharing ideas that he must have known would suck me into conversation. Either that, or he was just a nice guy who was passionate about his work. Either way, it worked. I ended up closing my laptop and having a great conversation with him.    (LWS)

What was he doing that I found so compelling? It was his Ph.D. research on Contextual Authority Tagging. The basis of the idea is simple: The best way to identify an authority on a topic is not to ask people to self-identify themselves as such, but to ask others to identify the people they consider to be the authorities. We can leverage this principle to locate expertise by building tagging systems where users tag other users with information about their expertise.    (LWT)

Terrell has thought really deeply about this, and several of his ideas are documented at his website and on his blog. Phil Windley and David Weinberger have also commented on his work.    (LWU)

I heard more original ideas about tagging in that 20 minutes of conversation than I’ve ever heard from anyone else. The one that really struck me was the notion of tag disparities: comparing what people say about you to what you say about yourself as a way of measuring reputation. Sound familiar? It’s a real-life instantiation of the Squirm Test!    (LWV)

I think there are some interesting tools that can be built on these ideas, and I have no doubt that Terrell will build them. There are also some face-to-face group exercises based on these same principles, and I’ve actually done one of them before (described below). You could also apply these ideas towards group evaluation.    (LWW)

I’ve been vividly reminded of our conversation on two occasions. The first happened later that week at the Blue Oxen Associates anniversary party. Peter Kaminski decided to do some social engineering of his own, and instead of asking people what they did, he asked them to tell him about someone else attending the party. Real-life, face-to-face, Contextual Authority Tagging! We actually did this for real at the 2005 anniversary party, where we had people literally stick name tags on other people’s back. It was an idea I stole from Chris Messina, who in turn had stolen it from a previous SuperHappyDevHouse gathering.    (LWX)

The second occasion happened this past Saturday. Gail recounted a story about a group exercise with five people, where each person was asked to write ten words that have to do with “love.” Out of the 50 total words, only three were the same! It was a stark lesson on how challenging it is to achieve Shared Understanding and how critically important Shared Language is.    (LWY)

Usability and Encouraging Expert Usage

I was at SuperHappyDevHouse last Saturday with the rest of the Hyperscope crew. At around 2am, a group of us started having this great conversation about usability. Late night serendipity — you’ve got to love it.    (KCT)

Tony Chang asked us what we thought the most frequently pressed button was in Microsoft Office. We all guessed wrong. The correct answer is “Paste.” It turns out that practically no one uses Ctl-V to paste in Office. This, of course, was stunning news to all of us developer types, because we all use Ctl-V regularly.    (KCU)

Tony’s point was that real-world data trumps so-called expertise, a point that was hammered into all of us over and over again at the FLOSS Usability Sprints.    (KCV)

Microsoft’s response to this data was to enlarge the Paste button. (See Jensen Harris‘s Bay CH I talk for more on Office usability.) This response troubles me. On the one hand, it enhances the usability of the application for novices, which is a good thing. On the other hand, it does nothing to encourage users to learn the keyboard shortcuts.    (KCW)

Doug Engelbart often decries the misguided notion of “user friendliness everywhere” by saying that we would not want a world where everyone rode tricycles. Tricycles serve their purpose, but eventually, most people upgrade to bikes.    (KCX)

How can we design our apps that are usable for novice usage, but that also encourage expert usage? In other words, How do we design bikes with training wheels rather than bicycles? In the Office example, I would argue that there’s value in encouraging expert behavior and that emphasizing the Paste button is counter-productive in this regard.    (KCY)

Pie Menus are an excellent example of usable design that encourages expert usage. They address a novice need, but they also encourage expert behavior, because calling commands is associated with a physical gesture that becomes part of a user’s muscle memory.    (KCZ)

At RecentChangesCamp, Ward Cunningham talked about one of his challenges at Eclipse Foundation. He observed that the core Eclipse developers used the tool much differently than most users, an experience that was far more powerful and hence, far more gratifying. In typical Ward fashion, he’s trying to create a social space in which the core developers share their “aha” experiences with Eclipse as a means to encourage expert usage.    (KD0)

There are definitely cultural aspects of encouraging expert usage, but I also wonder if there are affordances that we should be encouraging in the design of the technology itself.    (KD1)

Augment Flashback

This past Tuesday night, we had an Augment jam session. Here I am using a thirty year old Chording Keyset to play with a forty year old piece of software.    (KC0)    (KC1)

Puts a chill down your spine. Thanks to John Deneen for taking the pictures.    (KC2)

The original Augment server is still running on TOPS-20, which is running on top of a PDP-10 emulator written by Ken Harrenstien called called KLH10. All of this is currently running on a Solaris box sitting in Doug Engelbart‘s office at Logitech. Doug often shakes his head with amusement when he explains that the current system running on emulation is many, many, many times faster than the original.    (KC3)

The client software we’re using in the picture is Java Augterm, written by Howard Palmer. It uses Augment’s “dumb” protocol — VAT0 — to communicate with the server. There’s a smarter protocol called VAT1 that has some more advanced capabilities.    (KC4)

We don’t know the exact date of the keyset (yet), but it probably dates back to the 1970s. It’s still in fantastic condition, and it feels great. Jon Cheyer‘s friend, Brian, has been building USB adaptors for these keysets. Jon wrote the keyset driver in Java, which is part of the Augterm software itself.    (KC5)

We’ll be doing another jam session this Saturday at SuperHappyDevHouse, which is open to everyone, so come join the fun!    (KC6)

Announcing the Hyperscope Project

One of the new projects I have the joy of being involved with this year is Doug Engelbart‘s Hyperscope. Doug recently got a bit of NSF funding to build an Open Source prototype of his vision for a Hyperscope, and Doug asked me to lead the project.    (KAT)

You can read more about the project on the project blog. In short, we’re replicating the original hypertext system’s (Augment) browsing (jumping) and viewing capabilities in Firefox.    (KAU)

Why is this significant? Because even though most of the world knows that Doug Engelbart built the first hypertext system in the 1960s, very few people have ever seen and experienced the system first-hand. And boy, is it a doozy. Doug continues to use the system every day, and it has capabilities that no other system has today.    (KAV)

We want the world to see these features, and we want the world to have the opportunity to learn from them and to integrate them into their own systems. We also want the world to realize that these are not features for features’ sake, but are part of a much larger vision of how society can (and must) get collectively smarter.    (KAW)

This project — and Doug’s larger vision — is about improving society’s ability to collaborate. And that’s why I’m involved. We’re not building code for code’s sake (although the code will kick ass). We are kicking off a larger community conversation about how we can improve collaboration, and how we can and should improve our tools to augment our capabilities.    (KAX)

Join The Community    (KAY)

We’ve got a fantastic core team in place. Brad Neuberg is our lead developer. I’ve written about Brad’s coworking efforts, but I haven’t written about how he’s a kick-butt developer who’s doing wild things with AJAX. More importantly, he’s also a deep thinker, which is an absolute requirement to be successful in this position, a leader in the Open Source community, and a lifetime Engelbart fan (not a requirement, but it didn’t hurt).    (KAZ)

Also joining us is Jonathan Cheyer. Jon’s a long-time member of the Collaboration Collaboratory, and he’s also the tech lead for the Computer History Museum‘s NLS/Augment Restoration Project. I’m pretty sure he’s the most proficient Augment user under 40, and I’m quite certain he knows more about Augment’s internals than anyone else under 40.    (KB0)

What makes the project even more fun is that we’ve been working with folks from Doug’s original lab. His daughter, Christina Engelbart, is program manager and is also sharing her insights into how the system was used as well as her knowledge of Doug’s larger vision. Jeff Rulifson and Charles Irby, the first software leads in Doug’s lab, have shared a lot of their knowledge with us, as have Harvey Lehtman and Raylene Pak. These gatherings have not only been extremely educational — stories galore — they have been tons of fun, and we want to encourage other ex-ARC folks to touch base with us and be part of this new community.    (KB1)

Some additional acknowledgements: Mark Finnern is one of Doug’s biggest supporters, and he has given Doug a valuable forum at Future Salon. He also hooked us up with Blake Ross and Joe Hewitt of Firefox fame, two very cool guys who spent some time with Doug and whom we hope will continually engage with this community. A big shout out also to Philip Gust, also of the NLS/Augment Restoration Project, Dorai Thodla, who experimented with an early prototype of the Hyperscope in Java, and Dave Thomas and his OpenAugment team.    (KB2)

Please join us! Subscribe to our mailing lists and blog (and weekly podcasts), and participate on our Wiki. I’ll mostly blog about the project on the project blog, but I’ll also occasionally discuss stuff here. Brad is also blogging about the project. We’ll also be at SuperHappyDevHouse this Saturday doing an Augment jam session.    (KB3)

Blue Oxen Associates    (KB4)

I’m involved with this project for personal and professional reasons. As I said earlier, this is not just about building a piece of code. It’s about engaging with the community at large and building a movement that falls squarely within the mission of my company. The Hyperscope project will help ground larger conversations about how we can and should improve tool interoperability and usability. More importantly, it will ground larger conversations about process and the bigger picture.    (KB5)

At a very concrete level, the Hyperscope falls well within our goal to bring these deeper ideas into existing tools. Not surprisingly, the Hyperscope should integrate very easily with PurpleWiki (as well as other Wikis), providing a new, slick and useful browsing capability. As the project progresses, I’m looking forward to evolving our tools, as well as seeing other folks evolve theirs.    (KB6)

On a personal level, Doug is why I’m in this business. I’ve never been happier with my work than I’ve been in the past three and a half years at Blue Oxen Associates. I bring people doing meaningful work together, I help them collaborate better, and I do it in an open way that hopefully has a much larger societal impact. It’s intellectually satisfying and emotionally fulfilling. And I wouldn’t be doing any of this had it not been for Doug, who’s been a mentor, a friend, and a cheerleader.    (KB7)

In a way, starting Blue Oxen Associates was my gift to him — a commitment on my part to carry out his larger vision. But working on the Hyperscope is a much more concrete way of returning the favor, and I look forward to doing this for him and for the community at large.    (KB8)

How Hackers Collaborate

The January SDForum Collaboration SIG meeting is tomorrow (Monday), 6:30-9pm, January 23 at the Pillsbury Winthrop law firm in Palo Alto. The topic: “How Hackers Collaborate.” We’ve got an outstanding set of “panelists”: Lee Felsenstein, Jim Warren, and David Weekly. Lee is a legendary hacker from the Homebrew Computer Club days, the founder of the Community Memory Project, and the founder of the Fonly Institute. Jim founded the Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference and Info World, and was the founding editor of Dr. Dobb’s Journal. He also founded the West Coast Computer Faire, a successful series of conferences in the late 1970s and early 1980s that was directly inspired by the Homebrew Computer Club. David is the co-creator of SuperHappyDevHouse, a Bay Area-based monthly hacker gathering.    (K3V)

I call them “panelists,” because this won’t be a traditional panel. This will be highly participatory, an opportunity to share your stories about hacking with others. It will be entertaining, engaging, and educational. So please come! (It’s free for SDForum members, $15 for everyone else.)    (K3W)