mind had not been entirely on the previous semester's musical; Scriven's seminar had thrilled me, and I had been thinking fiercely. Now I had reached a synthesis: my mind was on fire with its power and generality.
I burned to write the paper that would finish the Incomplete. Unfortunately this writing would sprawl too much for my room. But a few feet from my room was a small elevator, pulled up and down with ropes.
It became my office. I put in a chair, lowered the elevator a few feet and put my typewriter outside on the third floor itself, now a shelf. Then I taped all my notes to the walls of the elevator and sat day and night, writing and rewriting furiously. If other guys were annoyed, they did not say so.
My paper was a huge cut-and-paste operations, in the real writer's sense. The walls were my manuscripts; I moved and retaped the pieces of thought, moving them up and down, from side to side and to the back, and then typed from them, looking over my shoulder when necessary.
In my mind, Scriv's seminar had expanded from the social sciences to all of description.
What could be expressed in words had always deeply concerned me. Whenever we speak, we apply a model to the world. When is it exact, when is it forced? Descriptions get worse and worse by degree; so too do the social sciences.
All words describe constancies and invariants; so do the Laws of the sciences and the Models of the social sciences. There is a continuum, then, between word, model, law.
I dubbed the study of models and description "Schematics," but clearly this new outlook subsumed everything else. Ah, the
academial mania of Galloping Subsumption. I still think I was right.
How I thought! How I wrote! Like flights of birds, ideas shot and banked through my head, sometimes letting fly elements that would stick. And I managed to get all my favorite stuff in! Korzybski's maps and terrain, Bloomfield's wonderful morphemics, Hume's constant conjunction, Koffka's
so Lilly gave me the go-ahead to make "Man and Dolphin," to be based on his book. I would shoot it with the Bolex and edit right
there at the office. We knew how fascinated everybody was with dolphins, and Lilly had no time to give all the speeches about
them that people wanted to hear. It would be a sure hit for theatrical release, even at our low budget.
The script could be flexible. What the public wanted was dolphins, and we had 'em. Cavorting, cuddling, whistling, splashing footage would be easy. Have a nice scientific-type narrative by Lilly, some good music, and a lot of shots of Elvar being a brat; state honestly why the research was so hard.
I shot the opening sequence with Ginger and Chuck and Willy, in the electronics room with the windows. Through the windows, it
was just before twilight and beautiful: the palm trees were blowing, pelicans scudded by. Atmosphere. Then I panned the camera across the room, showing concern on everybody's faces as they watched oscilloscope traces leaping.
We were actually hearing what the scope showed: the shrieking and whistling of our dolphin pals in the tank on the floor below, coming out of different speakers as the sound was transposed from different audio ranges. That would make a great audio effect for the opening sequence.
It was a beautiful shot. It set the mood perfectly. Later I would edit the archival footage, shoot Lilly and the gang playing with the animals, Elvar teasing us-- sometimes by his bad pronunciation, sometimes by throwing water, or worse.
But these days I had less time to swim with the dolphins, although I would always stop in to see my special friend Cheechee. She would whistle and roll and present her tummy, and I would apologize for lack of time.
Gregory Bateson as an office-mate was particularly enjoyable. Craggy, in his seventies, he would smoke heavily and grasp the cigarette in European fashion, with thumb and finger. His casual swearing was a delight: "Oh, fuck! Fuck and damn!" he would say, with little provocation.
IBM Scientific center on the Upper East Side about five, and try to use the program I had wasted so much time to help create. I wasn't an IBMer or a customer; I was tolerated. Worse, I was the guinea pig ("early adopter," in today's terminology) for a program that scarcely worked.
It had to be loaded as a batch of Hollerith cards by the SE. I don't know what they told her, but she considered me a nuisance. Five o'clock was the end of her day, but when the program blew up, usually several times a night, I would have to call her at home. Understandably she hated this.
The program had been put together by engineering students, not writers, showing their concerns and not mine. The called it "Hypertext," with a capital H, but it was really for editing linear prose. In hindsight it was the first visual "word processor" of modern times, a dumb term for a dumb way of thinking: simulate paper on a machine that could give you any abstract construct whatever! Were we moving into the future or what?
Its hypertext features, the only parts I cared about were crude and useless; the guys had put in a kind of transclusion as a concession to me, but had no sense of what it was for. But even for linear prose the program had none of the organizational features I'd insisted on from the beginning; no zipper lists, no versioning, hot tips, wormholes, fast track, nothing. Crude chunk hypertext only. (Users today don't even wonder why it's difficult to organize large projects on word processors; they take these restrictions for granted. If you have never seen outside the prison walls, they seem like home.)
After another fruitless evening of coffee, misery and crashes, I would drive home, pull the bourbon out of the freezer, light up a joint, and get Strunk. I would set myself a task. One night I chose a non-technical task.
"Tonight's problem:" I said aloud, "Why did I cry so much at Apollo Eight, and not at Apollo Eleven?"
And a little voice said, just as a voice had spoke to the hero in my 1959 movie, "The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow,"
It turned out I couldn't really fall back on cab driving, nor was it fun after all. I relished the combat of the traffic, and the heady freedom from rules of the New York yellow cab, but it was tough and I made almost no money.
My brain overflowed with the Xanadu work, and I hardly thought about the driving. I now knew I had to work out data structures completely different from the usual. My mind was not on the cabbing; I failed to see potential fares standing in the street. Absentmindedly I would miss turns, so the customers would think I was cheating them. Between customers I would have to pull over and work on my data structures, to get the teeming thoughts down.
One day a nice old gentleman got in at the Plaza Hotel. He just wanted to go three blocks east, to Lexington and 59th, a short walk. It would take less time to walk than to sit in the slow traffic, but he didn't seem to mind.
"You look like an interesting young man," he said warmly. "Do you have some other occupation?"
"I'm an inventor," I said with pride.
"Oh, very good," he said. "I used to call myself that too." I think he cleared his throat shyly but proudly. "Did you ever hear of--" he paused an instant-- "the Hammond Organ?"
My jaw dropped. "Are you Mr. Hammond?"
"Why, yes," he said, happy to be recognized.
"I've admired that design since high school!" I said. "So elegant and simple to generate sound with little flat-sided wheels."
He paused. There was warmth even in his pause.
"But you know," he said, "I didn't start out to make organs. I used to make clocks, and I used the flat-sided disks to synchronize the timing."
Enthralled in that moment, I did not remember the wonderful clock I'd set to running backward in my rooming house while I worked on psycholinquistics. It had said HAMMOND.
For nine years I had given speeches about the coming era of personal computers. Now suddenly they appeared, on the cover of Popular Electronics in December 1974, just four months after my book Computer Lib.
I had been right! AT LAST IT WAS BEGINNING!
Things moved fast. I got a lot more speaking invitations to talk in all sorts of places, invitations that came with airplane tickets and money. I was treated like a celebrity in Toronto (but nowhere else). I autographed books. I actually autographed computers, some of the early Altairs and Imsais.
In my speeches I talked about how we needed personal computers for personal liberation; about education without oppression, under the student's exploratory control; about the unification of civilization by the coming electronic literature; about visualization, clarity, personal fulfillment; about the morality of software design. But what did it mean to others?
The proprietor of a computer store introduced me to his best customer, a doctor who bought one of everything that came into the store. The doctor, at a keyboard, kept his back turned.
My host approached the good doctor's back, and said, "I'd like you to meet Ted Nelson. He writes books on the subject."
Ah. An unguarded moment. Here was a chance to see into the unwary mind of another obsessed person. What was his world? What
"subject" would this introduction conjure up?
The doctor did not turn. He kept whacking the keyboard, and replied, "8080 or 6800?"
Then came the World Altair Computer Conference, run by a young
foregathered at one of the Bath Houses, with picnic hampers, sun visors and lotion, and drove out to the park in various cars. It was wonderfully prosaic. The prostitutes' picnic was held at an ordinary municipal picnic-table with an ordinary municipal charcoal grill. The children were of various hues.
There were several other husbands and boyfriends there, but they were subdued. We were all on good behavior. There is a special etiquette. Flirting with other working girls than your own is a serious offense.
All professions invade one's life, and learning how to live with a hooker, however close you had been before she started in the business, had its complexities. But also a romantic side, with what a tradition. I thought of Pericles and Aspasia (great favorites of my grandmother's), Toulouse-Lautrec painting in the whorehouse parlor, the sly bordello duet in "Threepenny Opera" (but only the German version), Louise Brooks in "Pandora's Box." I had never wanted a conventional life, and here we were.
How Texas had changed, how different suburbia seemed now, how nervous I was about my job if they found out. But I was no
longer bored in any way.
And to my surprise I was beginning to feel jealous, not of the customers but of my friends in the Department, who had more aggregate spare time for her than I.
The drug Ecstasy, which I knew nothing about, was at that time legal. Someone had brought it to the lake in powdered form; accidentally I was given a triple dose.
I vomited a bit, but did not mind in the least. "Run beside me," said Joyce, and we ran, two lovers who had thoroughly and at last escaped the bonds of conventionality, of respectability, of the shallow, conventional, pompous and smug.
How we ran together, hand in hand! Never could one have imagined sky so blue, grass so crunchy, sun so hard, windflow so caressive, rest room so
California at last! Autodesk offered to rent me an apartment while we negotiated. I looked at condos and it was the same anywhere. But this was Sausalito; what about a houseboat?
Wind chimes tinkled in the night breeze as I walked down the dock. They were the ropes on sailboat masts. The houseboats were all sizes, tall and short; some looked like houses, one looked like a five-story owl. It was enchantment. This was for me. This was different enough. With the strange floating buildings and the benign atmosphere of Marin County, this was the closest I could ever get to Oz.
By the light of day, it turned out that the houseboat neighborhood was largely populated with upper-middle-class dropouts in their forties and fifties, more like me than I would have expected. But that was fine. It was a real neighborhood, people chatted. Eccentricity was not even noted. I was comfortable. It was also fun living in a tourist attraction.
And the birds! We had ducks, pigeons, egrets, herons, and my favorite, the coot. Barnyard geese and a peacock were on anchor-
oat boats. Sea lions floated by occasionally.
I had heard about the humming toadfish, quaint creatures said to serenade the houseboat community. But I was not prepared for the sound of B-29s in the bedroom. Alas, at low tide one could watch toadfish, stranded in the mud, being eaten by the egrets.
Autodesk was a cheery place, very Now. They took pride in wearing T-shirts and ceremonially snipping the necktie off a new board member. They bought into the Xanadu project with great enthusiasm. I did not trust the
world agenda on hold. In my writings, I sought to construct a great edifice of hypertext; still awaiting some form, ANY form of zipper-list software, I have still only a rubble of disconnected notes. The Prophet Unzipped. Ruefully I think of Hearst's real castle, the one from Europe, lying now a heap of stones whose numbers washed off in the rain.
My original specialties were theory and theater, or call it show business and abstraction, cinema and construct. These conflicted in my younger pre-computer days. I was torn between two very different views of the world. But when I met the computer the two views fused unexpectedly to give me stereoscopic vision of what the computer world was really about. So I told everybody where it was going, and they laughed.
They aren't laughing now, now that they understand some of what I tried to tell them; but why don't I get more credit for this early understanding? Or design commissions? Because they don't think there's any more there. They got the first part and haven't heard the rest. Also it seems there can be no experts here, for these two views, theatrics and construct, have been transmuted into the two great religious issues of computerdom: Interfaces and Data Structure-- argued about in every grocery line now.
While the computer field, in its cloak of Zippy Nowness, becomes ever more appalling. There is so little decent software. The escalation of entanglement and complication-- of computrefaction-- block the sky! It can't go on! You must spend weeks of your life learning each additional program, and people's lives are increasingly mangled, enslaved to terrible software design. It goes right to the bottom: so much of what they tell beginners is wrong. And the technoids don't even want to make things better; they think the solution to bad software design is to give "dumb users" even less control.
HYPERNOIA: the belief that everything is, or should be, connected, interconnected, or reconnected. Bringing back together what should never have been separate-- the disconnected files and disconnected