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Errors in "The Curse of Xanadu," by Gary Wolf

Theodor Holm Nelson, Project Xanadu

Note that "Xanadu" is a registered U.S. trademark.

This is a new media era. The subject can talk back rather freely now. Let's try it.

My original intention here was to stick with the correction of hard-edged factual errors, but there are so many carefully concocted edge cases of marginal phrasing in "The Curse of Xanadu" that I may as well cover all that I see, in sequence. (A couple I dropped as unimportant.)

There are two big howlers of fact, my favorite being in the first sentence.

Unfortunately, because we do not have transclusive publishing, I cannot quote the material to which these are annotations would be a thorough copyright violation; thus I merely allude, and the reader must pick through the original.

PARAGRAPH 1: four errors of fact. Good start.

Sentence 1: There is no Marin Boulevard in Sausalito. He means Bridgeway.

My envelopes are not "amputated by a hired printer." I do it myself.

I do not have a houseboat in the San Francisco Bay. I moved out last October , six months before this article was published.

My other work is not derived from Xanadu. Xanadu derives its philosophical basis from general schematics, and a number of other ideas from elsewhere.

full stops...

We are all free to punctuate as we choose, but I am puzzled as to how Wolf has divined the punctuation of my words as I speak. From subtitles somewhere? I wish others could see them! I think Wolf has not discerned that I like long sentences, with many semicolons; periods, though far between, arrive. I believe that I usually speak in full sentences from the public platform. But it's true, in unguarded moments I trail, as do others.


My tapes are NOT coextensive with my waking life, but a small subset. I do indeed intend to view and study them, selectively, when they can all be quickly accessed from disk (a 60 gig tower is now $26,000, so the requisite terabyte is maybe five years away).

never analyze the meaning...

Wolf says I will never analyze the meaning of what I write down. Excuse me, but I analyze all the time. Selectively and at leisure. Pity he did not observe this in the interview.

inspired the younger Nelson...

To my knowledge, my father did not direct his first movie till I had shot mine. He had worked in live television, an entirely different kind of enterprise; in those days it was a real-time, one-chance business. Whereas movies were a system of repetitive tries; I did not think they were related; and I was surprised when my father told me he was making movies. I had thought that was my turf.


I "put off my teachers" with the writings of Korzybski? No; the only person I recall discussing Korzybski with was my friend Prof. Jerry Shaffer. Jerry didn't LIKE Korzybski, if that's what Wolf is referring to.


I did not hate categories; I was very sophisticated about them. The problem was people's thinking they meant more than they did, and people using categories to control you. Different issue.


Excuse me, but I am not a denier of loss and grief; I am steeped in them.

preservation of all knowledge...

I do not say "the preservation of all knowledge" is needed to preserve life on earth; but rather that facilities for understanding and intercomparison are needed if we are not going to kill each other. Rather different.

irrational repetition...

The saying that "If we do not study history, we are doomed to repeat it" has been attributed to various philosophers, usually Santayana, but apparently going back much farther. This was not my invention; but I think it contains much truth.

the first experimental word processors...

The allusion to "the first experimental word processors" suggests that these existed at the time. I believe only Engelbart's system, which ALSO did not resemble a word processor, existed in 1960, and I did not know about it.

a clique of Harvard professors...

Who was that, I'd like to know? Have we filled in some details, hmm? The computer work I knew about at Harvard, under Bales and Couch, was concerned with analyzing social interaction. The computer-assisted instruction efforts that I was concerned about were elsewhere.

Nelson lacked the technical knowledge...

Bullshit. (Discussed in the letter.)

Meanwhile, he put off computer scientists by taking every opportunity to inform them that they failed to understand the earth-shattering significance of their work.

Eh? When? Who? If there was one thing computer scientists knew about, or thought they did, it was the earth-shattering significance of their work. What they did not know was that individuals would want computers, especially for writing, and I did try to tell them that.

To the best of my knowledge, this is a total fabrication on Wolf's part. Something he feels I would have done, no doubt.

He moved quickly into the most complex theoretical territory, asking questions that still challenge hypertext designers today. ...

Wolf neglects to acknowledge that not only did I ask these questions, but I think have answered them; and I believe that the reason hypertext designers today are still challenged is that they feel uncomfortable with acknowledging this, and want to find some way around it.

In 1969, Nelson was hanging around Brown University, where an early word-processing tool was being developed.

Ah yes, ever the parasite. Well, you might put it that way, or you might point out that the HES system was started by Andries van Dam originally to "try out your crazy ideas," as he put it. So I was "hanging around" because my work had inspired the project and because I was invited.


I was not impressed by the literary employees of the publishing house; rather the contrary. I was extremely, however, impressed by William Jovanovich, the president, to whom I reported; but he was not exactly an "employee."

Had Nelson been able to delve ... only Nelson's ignorance of advanced software permitted him to pursue this fantasy...

Extremely false. Discussed in the letter.

The first disciples he acquired...

I am not aware that any of them considered themselves "disciples;" I certainly didn't. We were friends.

... mostly talking.

I do not know what Mr. Wolf thinks the process of software development consists of. Does software development take place only when fingers are on keyboards? (It's not just typing, you know.) No, the prinicipal component of software development is thinking. But this is Wolf's typical style of derogation.

Nelson responded with quick anger...

False. Discussed in the letter.

... Nelson moved further and further toward the fringe of the computer industry.

Huh? Excuse me, but I had been a member of the ACM for over five years and published several professional papers. I was under the impression that I had been IN the computer industry for several years. Unless salary is your criterion, which is meaningless. Salary is a gauge of salary, nothing else.

... Nelson had a rambling, jumbled 1,200-page manuscript on his hands.

Huh? There was never any such manuscript. The text went from the typewriter straight onto the pasteup-- originally 128 pages, I believe.

The print was tiny, and the layout confusing.

Perhaps confusing to Mr. Wolf, the neatness freak.

...his rough draft, which consisted of hundreds of individual rants....

Good, here the 1200-page manuscript has evaporated. But rants, all just rants? Yes, I indeed had strong opinions, but I presented a great deal of factual material, too.

There was no index or table of contents.

Excuse me, but there was a table of contents on each side of the book.

Specific quotes or sections were impossible to find.

Maybe for Mr. Wolf.

In the years since 1965, when he first attempted to make Xanadu work, the idea had grown enormously. By 1974, locally networked computers had appeared, and Nelson saw a global computer network as the natural environment for a hypertext system. Over a network, linked documents, version comparison, and non-sequential writing would create a "docuverse" capable of storing and representing the artistic and scientific legacy of humanity.

Excuse me, but that WAS my original vision of 1960. What had changed was the scope of the current working design, partly through the contributions of my colleague William Barus, a remarkable and brilliant individual, who was at that time a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Chicago.

The Xanadu franchises were silly...

Silly? You haven't proven it. Kinko's, which Mr. Wolf seems to like, is on an information franchise model; more recently, public-access stations where you rent a browsing machine for the Web are said to be very successful.

In this sense, [Computer Lib] was a far subtler book than Nelson set out to write.

Thank you, Mr. Wolf, for so quickly qualifying what came dangerously close to being a compliment. If the book was subtle, it would of course have been a complete accident.

Gregory, ... the repairman took the opportunity to question some of Nelson's blithe predictions ...

Discussed in letter.

The inventor scattered his ideas as widely as possible, with little care about where they landed.

Huh? I was trying to find smart, unconventional people everywhere.

While he was at Swarthmore, another important disciple appeared. In 1976, Mark Miller, an insecure 19-year-old, came to address a classroom full of Ted Nelson's students. He was nervous.

I have never met a less insecure 19-year-old than Mark Miller. He came across as extremely self-confident.

As a guest lecturer in Nelson's class, Miller ran through his ideas for a Xanadu-like software system.

As I recall, it was a proposed interface for Xanadu.

The Yale student was not discouraged. A disheveled mathematician - part goofball, part Wunderkind...

I do not recall that Mark was ever dishevelled.

The chief difficulty was creating a way to move data quickly in and out of the computer's memory. Since hypertext links could connect infinitely many documents, every bit of writing in the system had to be instantly accessible.

"Instantly" we have always seen as quite relative. And moving it in and out of memory was not the problem (discussed in the letter).

Nelson became convinced...

Highly misleading. (Discussed in the letter.)

... quixotic. ... a universal library on machines that could barely manage to edit and search a book's worth of text.

A complete misstatement, discussed in the letter.

... he was not a computer scientist or an elite researcher ...

Now we're getting somewhere. Once again Wolf is denigrating his abilities, implying that somehow Roger is merely a "repairman."


Miller and Gregory created an addressing system that used transfinite numbers ...

Discussed in letter.

... would make ... files, for example - obsolete..

This is half true. Yes, I am against hierarchical files; but the archiving of fixed material is of course necessary. And such a scheme for making everything into fluid boilerplate is indeed feasible, a complex of delivery, stable repository and rights issues.

The Xanadu hackers ... were dead-accurate when they sketched a future of many-to-many communication, universal digital publishing, links between documents, and the capacity for infinite storage.

The capacity for infinite storage? I'm glad Wolf thinks we were accurate, but what could this possibly mean?

Now here's the doozer:


Walker's overture was followed by a period of intense negotiations. Phil Salin and Roger Gregory spent months working with Autodesk's attorneys. Immediately, the Xanadu crew's casual business arrangements came back to haunt them. Ted Nelson insisted that no sale or license to Autodesk interfere with the inventor's grand scheme for a universal library and publishing system. Nelson wanted to ensure that if Autodesk had a working product, he would have complete freedom to use it in his Xanadu roadside information franchises.

Autodesk cared little about becoming the McDonald's of cyberspace; its plans focused on commercial tools for sharing, distributing, and editing documents. Still, it was not easy to craft a set of contracts establishing both Nelson's freedom to use the Xanadu technology and Autodesk's ownership of it. In the end, the solution Salin, Gregory, and Autodesk negotiated was called The Silver Agreement, and it generously gave to Nelson the exclusive right to build a royalty-based publishing system using any Xanadu technology perfected by Gregory and Autodesk. Nelson had a right to the name Xanadu; the new company, owned largely by Autodesk, was called Xanadu Operating Company.

Excuse me, but the Silver Agreeement was crafted in 1983, because I demanded it, and it was incorporated into the Autodesk agreement in 1988 because I demanded it. That was my condition for participating, first in the company XOC, Inc., which Roger and the others had set up, and then in the Autodesk deal.

"Autodesk Fellow,"... My title was Autodesk Distinguished Fellow, thanks.

"With the benefit of hindsight," said one former Xanadu executive, "I'd say the lawyers who crafted that agreement should be shot."

I believe this was Jonathan Shapiro, who evidently did not know that the Silver Agreement was not drawn up by lawyers at Autodesk in 1988, but by a conclave in the living room in San Antonio in 1983.

... he was touched by something in Nelson's proposal that transcended plausibility.

There's no way I could possibly say anything sensible, is there.

Nelson would arrive ... and wave his hands furiously in front of the white boards.

Presumably I spoke too? Or did I just wave my hands?

The idea of quoting without copying was called transclusion, ...

Wolf has this quite wrong. See the letter.

Nelson continued to develop ..."The General Theory of Status, Territory, and the Paradigm."

Leave out the "the" please, which gets it all wrong. And while General Schematics can be divided into parts for explanatory purposes, they intertwine mercilessly.

However, Nelson's book on the topic, Biostrategy and the Polymind, which he considers the "foundation" for the next generation's social sciences, . ..

The title is Biostrategy and Polymind, though my lady is trying to get me to change that. Again Wolf generates superfluous definite articles.

But I do not believe I claimed it was "the foundation." I think Wolf misunderstood the term "foundational." Many different works can be foundational in a field, only one can be "the foundation." For it to be foundational will be quite enough.

Nelson remained proud of his ambivalent relationship with computers. Right at the peak of the desktop-publishing frenzy, Nelson became obsessed with non-computerized xerox machines, Post-it notes, and transparencies.

Excuse me, but as I think I explained to Wolf, I am not ambivalent about computers. I have a clear and strong view of how computers should behave, at least the ones with which I want to be associated, and the software of today's computer world I find revolting. If others like it, fine, but I'm still waiting for the way I think it ought to be, and still working toward that goal.

Nelson's theory of language holds that every time a concept changes, the word to describe must change as well. ...

This is not a "theory of language," it is a set of useful precepts for fast-changing conceptual environments. Many of the problems of the development team came from forgetting these precepts.

Rather than push their product into the marketplace quickly, where it could compete, adapt, or die, the Xanadu programmers intended to produce their revolution abinitio.

I believe that the phrase Wolf is looking for is "fait accompli."

... Walker had written, with merciless condescension, before describing their passivity and incompetence. ...

"Merciless condescension." Who else might that describe?

Finding these backers became Jonathan Shapiro's job. Shapiro had a crucial advantage over Marc Stiegler and Xanadu's other mentors and supervisors since 1965: he did not believe hypertext was going to save the world.

That is why some of us regarded him, for all his excellent abilities, as a carpetbagger.

The aggressive posturing, grand dreams, and boastful proclamations that typified Xanadu since Nelson first started offending his professors ...

What professors were those? At what institution? I recall offending very few professors, and none in connection with my computer ideas. (Although a number of professors offended me.)

It was not until a Xanadu meeting in the summer of 1992 that [Nelson saw that they might not deliver] "I had believed them all this time."

I believe I told Wolf not summer but February of 1992.

Until 1987, Xanadu had been a cooperative venture, a brave band of fellow crusaders whose credo was "share and share alike."

Eh? Not about ownership of the company. We finally fought it out in the knock-down-drag-out meeting in 1983 that resulted in the Silver Agreement.

... The Silver Agreement in 1988 created two Xanadus. ...

Excuse me, the Silver Agreement in 1983. And there had always been the two Xanadus. That was always the plan.

Just as the negotiations with Kinko's were getting under way, Nelson, whose lifelong dream was about to take its first step toward genuine, if diminished, realization, attempted to take over the company.

Mr. Wolf seems to have no idea what my lifelong dream is, though I have made no secret of these matters. To have Xanadu eaten by Kinko's was not it.

... Shapiro had come to represent, to Nelson, the narrow-minded managers and punishing authority figures the inventor despised.

Narrow-minded manager? Definitely. Authority figure? Hardly. The shootout with Shapiro was much more a gunfight among peers.

To Nelson, Shapiro was "an a------."

Excuse me, but I greatly respect Shapiro as a professional. His understanding of programming, documentation, good writing, scheduling and project management provided a unique combination of abilities which are rarely found, and which the team did not otherwise have. I would not still be selling his excellent documentation for the system through my publishing house, Mindful Press, if it were not good work. But he and I strongly disagreed on what to do next, and Mr. Shapiro is highly confrontative. Well, maybe we both are.

With the computers gone, Xanadu was ... was dead and dismembered.

False: the trademark has reverted to me, to find similar functionality where I may. Not in the grand address space of Gregory and Miller, but in some other transclusive publishing scheme.

During the years Xanadu was at Autodesk, the graph that measures Internet growth began to go asymptotic.

I believe that "asymptotic" must refer to some particular curve or limit. Everything is asymptotic, if we don't have to specify what to.

"...something like a three- to six-man, monthlong effort."

I believe he means "three to six man-month-long effort."

He has baptized this system "transcopyright." Transcopyright is not a technology; it is Nelson's suggestion for a contractual solution to copyright problems.

It is not contractual. Like "shareware," it is a permission system.

Nelson argues that electronic publishers should allow anybody to republish their materials, provided that republication takes place by means of a pointer to the original document or fragment. Just as in Nelson's imaginary Xanadu franchises, publishers of transcopyrighted documents would receive a payment every time one of their bytes was accessed.

No, sold.

In his description of transcopyright, the inventor admits that "certain unusual software features are required" ... without the machinery. Nelson has reduced his contribution to a name and a description. But for Nelson, names and descriptions have always been the heart of the matter.

Excuse me, but the mechanism needed to implement transcopyright is far simpler than any of the xanalogical systems I've worked on since 1970. And anyone is free to implement it, and numerous variations can work within the scheme.

And what's in a name? Well, Bob Wallace's name "shareware"-- and the permission it stood for-- created an industry, a new distribution channel.

Nelson's response to the Web was "nice try."

This is a pretty seriously out-of-context quote. I have great respect for the Web and great personal liking for Tim Berners-Lee.

I scanned [Roger Gregory's] walls. His bookshelves were overwhelming. So much anxiety was collected there: dust-covered and unread books, books piled behind other books, redundant editions and bookstore rejects; along with 20,000 othe rvolumes, Gregory owns five complete sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. ... the arch-hacker had built himself a barricade of books, a paper dike against a flood of sorrow.

Excuse me, but why does looking at a lot of copious bookshelves makes Wolf see anxiety? In what way do books signify anxiety to him?

Today, with the advent of far more powerful memory devices, Xanadu, the grandest encyclopedic project of our era, seemed not only a failure but an actual symptom of madness.

I find this both gratuitously nasty and incomprehensible. What is he talking about with these "more powerful memory devices"? They do not change the problem or invalidate the proposed solution of transclusive media.

The very first story Ted Nelson told me was based on a vision of water disturbed. To Nelson, the swirling currents under his grandfather's boat represented the chaotic transformation of all relationships and the irrecoverable decay associated with the flow of time. His Xanadu project was meant to organize this chaos, to channel this flow.

Excuse me, but in that story I strove to express my childhood experience of an epiphany of wonderment, a fascination with immensity, vastness, complexity, intricate unified spatial movement, and inexpressibility. The reader is invited o compare the original text to find any possible basis for Wolf's jaundiced interpretation of this story as representing decay.

... Xanadu's programmers never solved the basic problem of computer performance.

Utterly misleading. (Discussed in my letter.)