February 25, 2018

The Hunt for the Missing Memex Reference

I’ve been hunting for references to the Memex in literature. In earlier newsletter, I talked about the Laundry Files series where the Memex plays a minor recurring role.

There’s another reference I’ve had less luck hunting down.

Alan Kay has mentioned the Memex in a bunch of talks over the years. Here’s an example from a talk in 1996. He always talks about how he heard about the device first through a science fiction story:

I found out about it when I was about 14 or 15 because Robert Heinlein like to use generic names. He would take something that's capitalized like Memex and he would uncapitalized it and use it as a generic term used in the future as a descriptive term. He would say something like so-and-so used his Memex to do blah blah. […] He would give brand names to things and if you look up the brand names at Heinlein use, you would discover somebody that had invented a precursor technology that Heinlein hit. So that's how I found out. Science fiction is very useful especially back back in the old days when they actually wrote about science.

A few months ago, I downloaded a torrent of every Heinlein novel to try to find this reference but alas, no luck. And no google results either.

Recently at tech meetup, someone started telling me about the plot of the Heinlein novel Double Star. My ears perked up.

Cover of Double Star by Robert Heinlein
Cover of Double Star by Robert Heinlein

It’s the story of a washed up actor who gets recruited to impersonate a politician. He’s able to navigate the social complexities of public office by means of a Farley File:

It was nothing but a file about people. However, the art of politics is “nothing but” people. This file contained all, or almost all, of the thousands upon thousands of people Bonforte had met in the course of his long public life; each dossier consisted of what he knew about that person from Bonforte’s own personal contact. Anything at all, no matter how trivial—in fact, trivia were always the first entries: names and nicknames of wives, children, and pets, hobbies, tastes in food or drink, prejudices, eccentricities. Following this would be listed date and place and comments for every occasion on which Bonforte had talked to that particular man.

The Farley File is a really interesting concept and very aligned with one of the goals of my project. Could Alan Kay have read this book and mistaken the reference?

I found Alan Kay’s email address and sent him a message to see if this was the case. He replied within hours — it wasn’t that novel and he doesn’t remember where the reference is from but he wished me luck.

The quest continues! There’s something exciting for hunting for a piece of information that might not exist on the internet.

Preparing for the stage

I have at least three conference talks coming up starting in two weeks and I’ve been heads down building more interfaces

Here’s an example of something I’ve been working on. If you recall, data in my Memex is stored in a graph. To search my history, I query for subgraphs that satisfy filters.

Here’s an example of a query for all songs I’ve listened to created by Aretha Franklin:

F8E6448F 5586 4397 90F2 E327944EC92C

Personally, I love using this custom query language since the syntax and schema are embedded in my brain. But it’s awful usability. I’ve been working on more interactive version of the query builder:

I have another two weeks to try and cram as many new interface and visualization features before showing off the project on stage.

West Coast

Do you live in San Francisco? I’d love to meet up and show you a demo! I’m going to be in town March 15-22.

Before that, I’ll be in Seattle on for a few days. Then I’m heading to Portland for EmberConf (March 12-14) where I’ll be doing a talk at the conference about the project.

West Coasters: send me a message if you want to meet up!

The Morning Paper covers “As We May Think”

Every weekday, Adrian Colyer sends out an email summarizing a Computer Science-related paper. It’s great. You should subscribe!

Last week, he covered the 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush that introduced the “Memex”, As We May Think. It’s a great summary of the essay.

He highlights the Memex’s killer feature of associative linking and how trails of links have never been implemented in the way the Memex envisioned:

It is associative indexing though, that is the essential feature of the memex, “the process of tying two items together is the important thing.” Bush describes a hypertext like mechanism at this point, but most interesting from my perspective is his emphasis on a trail as a fundamental unit — something we largely seem to have lost today. […] Documents and links we have aplenty. But where are our trails?

Youtube and Instagram

A constant theme of these newsletters is how the platforms (Some previous complaining; some more).

Here are two recent disappointments:

Last year, YouTube removed API access for retrieving the videos you’ve watched. No coherent explanation given; just frustrated users. I quickly worked around this by using the Takeout data which gave the same JSON objects as the API used to. A few weeks ago, they changed the takeout format to be a useless html file; the timestamps don’t even have a timezone. I sent in a comment through their feedback widget and left a post, as did others. Silence. It’s like yelling into the wind.

Instagram is another disappointment. Last year, they removed API access for all but a narrow list of usecases. A lot of approved apps leak their access tokens which lets me get around this review process which I would almost certainly not pass. But this week, they announced that even this locked down API was going to be deprecated. It’s going to replaced with an API that’s only available to business accounts connected to a Facebook page. If you’re Coca Cola doing brand monitoring, Instagram wants to talk to you. If you’re a regular user providing invaluable content to Instagram’s ecosystem and you want to export your own photos, you’re out of luck!

I see only two solutions that have enough leverage over our tech giants: 1) shame developers into thinking twice about working for the worst offenders. 2) fight for regulation around data portability. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation goes into effect in a 87 days and with that comes with Data Portability requirements:

A person shall be able to transfer their personal data from one electronic processing system to and into another, without being prevented from doing so by the data controller.

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