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Book Review: Geeks Bearing Gifts
Geeks Bearing Gifts

Geeks Bearing Gifts

I’m re-reading a book by Ted Nelson, the guy who created the notion of hypertext back in 67, and fully documented it. You can read about his creation, called Xanadu, on Wikipedia.

His new book is more of a rant about the computer industry. It’s a telling book.

First for the oddities of the book. It’s self-published via Lulu Press. It’s full of typographical and grammatical errors. It seems to have been written as one long diatribe, in historic form, about how we got into the predicament we’re currently in. And he numbers his chapters from the beginning to end using Unix as the central epoch thereby requiring the pre-Unix history to be provided in chapters denoted by a negative number. Unique, to say the least. Each chapter is short, a few pages at most, and full of personal opinion and historical detail. In a way, the book is partially biographical, at least in terms of his life and opinions and dealings with computers and the computer industry.

You can quite literally pick any chapter and find nuggets. One of my favourite chapters is the one on databases, Chapter -20 (yes, minus 20). He goes on about the desire of corporations to unify everything, especially their data, processes, etc. He wonders about the sanity of such an endeavor. How can one structure be defined that is universal for all the data within a firm — or with the Semantic Web effort, universal for all data now and forever more?

His discussion on ontologies and the semantic web and other things he dislikes is fascinating not because it’s a diatribe or rant but because he actually states what he thinks is better. He finds it insane that we’re trying to create ontologies wherein “… we have to agree on the categories and terminology for all time.” This attempt to shove everything into a single structure is crazy and doomed to failure, and yet the industry persists. He provides ample examples.

The book is simply full of such observations. It’s bare writing. But that is preferable as the text is more fluid.

And not only does he discuss things in a fluid manner — it reads sort of like an interview — but nearly every page has a nugget of pure gold. An idea so profound that you can only shake your head in wonderment that it’s not been done yet. And if it’s not an idea that should already have seen the light of day he provides examples of how poorly something we currently use has been done. And again, you shake your head.

Reading his book is like reading something I’d have written. It nicely captures the disgust I have with the industry of late. It captures my feeling of us going backwards, instead of forwards. The despondency over the fact we seem more inclined to use technology as a hammer as opposed to trying to comprehend a true generic solution, as opposed to the specific solutions we’re inundated with.

I could have picked any chapters, but I selected Chapter -20 because it’s something I deal with regularly. This notion that a single ontology to rule them all is what we need, that hierarchies are the answer to everything, is truly depressing. More depressing are the tidbits he injects from personal communications with various folks in the industry. Truly depressing when you follow the comments to their logical conclusion.

Thus, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s fascinating reading.

You can only get it efficiently through Amazon.com as it’s an “on-demand” print from Lulu Press. I’d say it’s worth the $20us simply because it has so many ideas lurking on every page as he laments the state of the art and how much we’ve not gone forward since the 60s and 70s.

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March 2009
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