ZigZag datastructures [ted nelson]


#1

ZigZag data structures, a project by Ted Nelson. Does anyone have any experience with this odd yet intruiging system? I’ve tried getting into it once, but have no idea what to use it for, and it’s too inaccessible to learn by just playing around with it from my experience.

I’ve read quite a few papers, summaries, articles and watched a video or two, I feel like I understand the general principle, and I’m very much attracted towards Ted’s idea of hyperconnectivity.

Ted’s idea about this hyperconnectivity really strikes me as a very powerful way of thinking.

It was an experience of water and interconnection. I was with my grandparents in a rowboat in Chicago, so I must’ve been five years old and I was trailing my hand in the water, and I thought about how the water was moving around my fingers, opening on one side and closing on the other.

That changing system of relationships, where everything was kind of similar and kind of the same, yet different, that was so difficult to visualize and express. Generalizing that, to the entire universe, that the world is a system of ever-changing relationships and structures struck me as a vast truth, which it is!

So interconnection, and expressing that interconnection has been the center of all my thinking, and all my computer work has been about expressing and representing and showing interconnection among writings especially.

Writing is the process of reducing a tapestry of interconnection, to a narrow sequence, this is in a sense illicit, this is a wrongful compression of what should spread out.

[…incoherent Ted rambling about today’s state of computers…]

So anyway, this is the problem of interconnection and representation and sequentialization all similar to the issue of water.

Excerpt taken from this interview

I feel like ZigZag structures capture his idea about these unimaginably big constantly changing systems of relationships fairly well, and I wonder what it would mean for my everyday life if I could manage some part of my life using this system (e.g. work, organizing notes, knowledge around a subject or something else…)

Opinions? Experience?


#2

It’s Ted Nelson, which means you may have to ingest a fair amount of LSD before the way he phrases his ideas start to make sense.

I think the most workable use case of zigzag he’s described is in the “Royal Families of Europe” example he gives in this video, starting at 4"50:

In that example, there are 4 dimensions to his data: ruler name, birth date, death date, marriage. What his software lets him do is change which slice of the data is showed so you can view side by side the cells which are of interest to you.

I don’t think there’s anything interesting with the data structure in itself - it’s an undirected graph. The main insight lies in letting the user manipulate the way the view is presented, rather than imposing an X/Y 2D view as traditional spreadsheet programs do it.


#3

I think there’s definitely big value to be had in representations which allow for graph-like structure. The tricky thing I have to keep reminding myself is (as I understand it), there’s not really any inherent structure “out there” that we need a format to encode it in… the structure exists because we encode it in some kind of representation (be it in writing, in a spreadsheet, in ZigZag, etc.).

Having a form of representation that allows for more connections (as does ZigZag, seemingly), gives us ways to represent things that “seem / fit better” in a hyperconnected way.

It is possible, of course, I’ve just breathed in Ted Nelson / Alan Kay a little too heavily recently, though :slight_smile: .


#4

Now, half a year later, i feel like I understand his zz-structure idea far better. Yes, the visualization is cool, no, the data structure itself isn’t novel, the core of the idea is that information can be stored in this database as it is received. No matter how tangential or unfinished a piece of data is, it will fit.

The zz datastructure is a natural fit for unstructured processes.

Super super interesting. I’ll keep his ideas in the back of my head, and study them some more over time.


#5

Always wonderful to hear that puzzle pieces are falling into place.

The thing with Ted Nelson’s work is that you have to get used to his very peculiar vocabulary to get to the core of the points he’s making. On one hand, you can’t blame him - he expressed these intuitions much before anyone else had given any serious tought to anything resembling it (with the exception of a few, eg Vannevar Bush). On the other hand, there have since been decades and decades of work done that covers those same intuitions, but in a much more structured and formal way (logical - those researchers were mathematicians and computer scientists, which TN is not).

So like you said it so concisely - his zig zag data structures, by modern standards, have no interest whatsoever as algorithmic objects. They’re utterly trivial. However, what has value is all the lines of reasoning that led the child of actors and a theater/literature nerd to intuiting said structures.

So yes, to undersand TN you have to put your brain in a time machine to the 60s, in a world where the very idea of a personal computer made absolute no sense, and where his insights are deeply revolutionary. Then you can come back in the present time, and line it up with the work that followed it that is actually implementable and repeatable.

Take one of TN’s more obscure books, The Scene Machine. It describes in great detail a machine that can present arbitrary “scenes” (think of theater scenes), complete with hypothetical assembly code. It’s absolutely visionary, and yet that’s not a book you would assign to a bunch of CS seniors in a computer graphics class because their minds would just implode, and also they wouldn’t come out of it any closer to being able to write a software rasterizer.

The real value in TN’s work is not that you can take his ideas verbatim and make the next Mother of all Demos. It’s that you can look at current, existing, working systems (which have the merits of keeping planes in the air and running the embedded firmwares of pacemakers and letting me type this comment right now) and be like - hey, this Ted guy had some pretty neat ideas that we probably do want to add in our flawed-but-functional systems because even though he didn’t write an OS kernel or a seminal algorithms textbook, he still pursued some crazy lines of thought that very few others have.

All that said, I still think the most accessible - and yet fundamental - piece of TN work is this interview.

Post Scriptum: oh and yeah, to get into any TN material in depth you have to learn to ignore all the times where he can’t help but talk about how a genius 6 year old Ted Nelson already had all this figured out because - and I’m saying this as a huge TN fanboy - that shit gets old.


#6

The real value in TN’s work is not that you can take his ideas verbatim and make the next Mother of all Demos. It’s that you can look at current, existing, working systems (which have the merits of keeping planes in the air and running the embedded firmwares of pacemakers and letting me type this comment right now) and be like - hey, this Ted guy had some pretty neat ideas that we probably do want to add in our flawed-but-functional systems because even though he didn’t write an OS kernel or a seminal algorithms textbook, he still pursued some crazy lines of thought that very few others have.

I feel that it helps me think about ways that the computer isn’t utilized enough yet. There are many fields and many people where computers aren’t utilized whatsoever, where a lot of money, frustration, delay and other negativity can be dealt with by using computers. Additionally, there’s a whole world of entertainment out there that’s just unexplored in its entirety, we haven’t seen what computers are really capable of yet at all. I’m personally very optimistic about its future (in contrast to AI-doomsayers, wtf is that about), and hope that the non-nerdy people will learn to utilize computers for what they can mean for you, like paper or books, but way more flexible, albeit less ubiquitous.

The first part of that paragraph is better illustrated by /u/nulalgorithom on hackernews in response to the question What tech that's right around the corner are you most excited about?

New, exciting tech making its way in to boring, old industries. And I mean boring, old industries.

There’s an unbelievable amount of backwards business process that’s still out there. Unless you’ve experienced it first hand, I really don’t think you can fully appreciate how manual the “business world” still is.

For the past year I’ve been working with an intermodal trucking company building an app for owner-operator truck drivers so they can accept/reject deliveries, turn in paperwork, and update delivery statuses via a mobile app. If that sounds dead simple, it’s because it is. But the change it brings is amazing.

While deploying the app I’d often ask when so-and-so truck driver came in to the office. The answer was usually something like “every day at 5:00pm to drop off his paperwork”. A week after they start using the app, the answer suddenly turns in to “Oh, he never comes in to the office. You’ll have to call his cell.”

Dispatchers that were tearing their hair out trying to get updates from their drivers so they can in turn update their customers now feel like they can manage double the trucks. They’re asking if they can get a similar app on their phone so they can manage their drivers on the go. Managers are asking when they’ll be able to ditch the office space they’re renting and let everyone work from home.

When I tell people “It’s like Uber for intermodal trucking”, nobody cares. If they pretend to care, I have to explain what intermodal trucking is in the first place – then they stop pretending. It doesn’t sound “sexy”. It’s a boring industry.

I think there’s a lot of boring industry out there that hasn’t fully embraced technology, and I think when it finally does we’ll see a cultural change in the way we view work.

The second half by Bret Victor, in his drawing dead fish talk. Bret showed me technology that blew my mind 4 years ago, and is still blowing my mind every day today. But now I’m beginning to realize that this is really just the beginning, as an example, if musicians start to work together with computers to perform live composition, I’d love to see what someone of the likes of Adam Neely could do with an evolved version of the software shown in Bret’s talk to perform a live show. The possibilities here are mind blowing, for real.

Post Scriptum: oh and yeah, to get into any TN material in depth you have to learn to ignore all the times where he can’t help but talk about how a genius 6 year old Ted Nelson already had all this figured out because - and I’m saying this as a huge TN fanboy - that shit gets old.

Hahaha yeah, I’ve seen him claim (half-jokingly) to be the inventor of Steve Jobs, amongst others. I think his arrogance is kind of funny, as I feel like I like his personality/ideas so much because I strongly relate to his style of thinking; all over the place, so I don’t mind too much.


#7

I’m just hoping that, in the long term, I can mean something real to one or multiple artists, musicians or other kinds of creatives. Computers is where I see the biggest potential, which Victor, Kay, Nelson and others have fully convinced me of.