David Ness
Mind / Matter

Dinner at `The Tabula Rasa'

By David Ness, et. al.
Thursday, January 24, 2002

This note represents a number of pieces of work in process. The idea is to keep this document as a rolling record of the major topics currently being worked on.

At the moment Ness will house the document and will edit it with EMail contributions from others. It is expected that participants will sign on to particular pieces of work with appropriate communications.

Directory of Document

Systems Integration Software - The Glue

One consistent observation is that a lot of progress can be made by developing systems through the integration of pre-existing components, each of which delivers some important components of a problem solution in already existing modules, applications and code. There are a number of different tools that seem particularly adept at parts of this task.

Current studies involve both Python and REBOL as inetgrative glue.

Python (Kimbrough, Ness)

Python seems to be an excellent tool for linking system components together. The components can either be existing application programs (Excel, J, K, ...) or Web Applications (pages that contain information, do computations, ...). See:

Python is a language that is reminiscent of most modern day languages (perl, C, C++, ...) with some object-oriented overtones. It is free and the Active Python distribution comes with an IDE (but no source) while the Python.Org version has no built in IDE, but makes source available.

REBOL (Ness)

REBOL covers similar territory, but the language itself has a rather different look. It also has a much nicer GUI as a part of the basic distribution. REBOL is free, but no source is available. There are also advanced versions of some of the programs available, and these cost a modest amount. 

Applications - What is Glued

There are a substantial number of applications which are already in use---in some cases wide use---that can be used as components in systems that accomplish important objectives. Perhaps the most common of all of these is Excel (and its cousins).

Excel (Kimbrough)

Excel is one of the most widely used interfaces, particularly for all forms of financial data.

J and K (Ness)

J and K are both derivatives of APL, and as such deliver matrix capabilities as a part of their core structure. J is described at J Software while K is described at Kx Systems. Both are available for experiment and use free of charge.

Collaboration Support

Our group is one example of people who collaborate, in mixed groupings, across a considerable distance. The Net has provided the backbone that makes this kind of collaboration a very much easier thing  to accomplish today than was the case as recently as a decade ago.

Although the Net provides the backbone, effective collaboration still requires considerable software support. In this collection of studies, some of the characteristics of this support technology are considered and evaluated.

REBOL (Ness)

REBOL has already been mentioned in the context of providing the glue to bind components of a system together. It also focuses, with equal weight, on problems of linking communications between humans.

REBOL Technologies Inc. is currently running a beta test of some new software that is specifically directed to the problem of collaborative communications. This tool is discussed on their Web Page at Rebol Technologies

City Desk (Ness)

City Desk, by Fog Creek Software is a tool for Web publishing. In one form it is also a tool for the collection and dissemination of information in a collaborative group.

Wikis (Ness) 


Blogs (Ness) 


Open Source for Distance Learning

Lee: Kimbrough and I have been discussing about distance learning software, and how to make it:

  • flexible for a combinatorally large number of configurations 
  • available cheap for students throughout the world, especially in developing countries.

The glue language REBOL, and their Internet Operating System (IOS) concept seem attractive for this, as a starting point. One could then exchange various e-learning configurations as REBOL scripts. [I referred to these scripts as 'open-source', but Ness objects, claiming that this reference confuses the issue with the source code for REBOL itself.] I'm toying with the notion of a proposal on this topic. After my visit to the Worldbank, I sense that they would be very interested. A key issue is coming up with a kind of preliminary requirements analysis that sketches the landscape of e-learning configurations that might be needed or desired. There are also a lot of Internet-2 based technologies based on real-time video... but these are more for execs than 3rd world. Ones I have heard about are:

  • CAVE (Collaborative Access Virtual Environment) 
  • AGAVE 
  • Access Grid 
  • TeleCube

if any of you have any experience with these, I would like to hear more.

Meanwhile, let me pose the question: `Why is distance learning hard? 

Is it really hard? Or, maybe like exercise equipment, merely under utilized. For instance, distance entertainment (TV, radio, videos, CD's, ...) is a smashing success -- so much so that we almost forget about local entertainment in the form of concerts, theatre. Yet in the educational domain, it is almost the reverse. Local forms dominate, and distance counterparts are mainly just a curiosity so far. (Except for text books.)

Gerritsen: To me this has an easy answer: learning is duplex, entertainment is simplex; one requires two-way communication, the other can be delivered perfectly satisfactory with one-way communication; one is interactive the other is passive. To elaborate. Education of complex topics requires the engagement of the teacher as well as the student. If we look at education in cognitive psych terms, the teacher is engaged in the transfer of a (portion of a) semantic net from his brain to the student's brain. [Ness: Remember the Swedish Definition of `Higher Education'? Getting what is in the notebook of the professor into the notebook of the student without passing thru the mind of either on the way.] This requires not only transfer of the sub-net, but also linking the transferred sub-net into the existing semantic net previously in the student's brain. The teacher uses a number of feedback mechanisms (questions, puzzled looks, testing, attendance, discussions, snoring, etc.) to determine not only how well the student is doing, but also to adjust the knowledge delivery. Mid course adjustments that we've all made include impromptu reviews, finding new analogies, pop quizzes, one-on-one meetings with students, calling on students for explanations, etc. Teaching simple concepts may not require interaction because teachers can make reasonable assumptions about pre-requisite knowledge already in the brain of the recipient (student). In this case a good course designer can structure the knowledge so that the semantic net we hope to induce in the recipient is both highly likely to be so induced, and to build the proper link-ups with the pre-existing net already present. Attempts to make distance learning (we used to call it CAI) interactive include:

  • Using student responses to drive a unique path through the material.
  • Using e-mail to allow students to pose questions (too slow but better than what we had with CAI).
  • Using video taped lectures with a live audience as surrogates for the distance students (hoping that the live audience will ask the questions that the distance students would like to have answered).
  • Using live video lectures using chat or phone lines to allow remote students to ask questions in real time (this may only partially qualify as "distance learning" since distance in the time dimension in this case has to be zero).
  • Using TA's (and chat rooms) to allow students to pose questions and have discussions.
  • Using robots to answer questions posed by students.

None of these provide enough feedback to the teacher to allow him to monitor progress. Live multi-way video (like video teleconferencing) may be the closest you can come to reproducing the two-way communication that's required, but, like video teleconferencing, this still does not have the bandwidth of being in the same room. Other drawbacks are high cost, loss of temporal freedom, risk of technical glitches and down-time, loss of leverage (student - teacher ratio needs to be relatively small).

Looking For Words (Lee, Kimbrough, Ness)

Ness: I don't like using open source to describe the approach being taken here. To me open source refers to the source of the underlying system, not to programs which might be freely exchanged. One does not use the words open source to describe the free exchange of programs which has been something customary in computer-oriented user groups for nearly 50 years.

To make it worse, I also don't like distance learning as a phrase. It all reeks to me as a `solution in search of a problem'. Or `let's look for the keys where the light is good, rather than where we lost them' approach.

My approach to finding the words starts with Lee's observation about entertainment. I'd hypothesize: Community is a key component of learning. It is only a secondary component of entertainment. And this implies that the information transfer that is normally thought of as the core of the educational process may well prove to be only a secondary consideration to that of building the community within which education can take place.

If this observation is correct, then the role of The Net and collaborative software become very clear: They are the backbone and the glue of the community that can be built to accomplish learning. It also makes clear why previous attempts to do this may have run into trouble, and why the rise of The Net presents particular opportunities right now.

REBOL (Ness, Lee)

Ness: REBOL's new IOS is currently in beta test. From the released promotional material it seems, superficially at least, to be directly targeted at the problem being discussed here.


Ness: There is a real problem associated the presentation of information in the many different forms that are easily accessible today. A particular document may form part of a web site, be published in a paper journal, be incorporated in someone's blog, etc. and it may be viewed on paper, on screens and perhaps made available in other media as well.

Language (Ness)


Commonplace Information

Ness has the theory that there is a lot of commonplace information that is:

  • Available; and
  • Neglected

These projects deal with pieces of that puzzle.

GPS (Gerritsen, Ness)


Blood Glucose (Ness)


Commonplace Models (Ness)

Subways, Turnpike Exits

A Sidebar: Collaboration Support (All)

The current collaboration is being supported in a very simple, albeit crude, way with EMail, phone calls and a document maintained in City Desk and distributed openly on the Net via one author's ISP.


The current scheme requires an editor. It would be nice to farm this out. While City Desk is capable of handling such a scheme, presumably, there might be trouble with the willingness of ISPs to support City Desk server-side. In addition, such a use of City Desk would require their most expensive product, and at $349/seat it is far too expensive to be of value in this kind of situation.

David Ness' summary of work can be found at http://mywebpages.comcast.net/dness

This is an experiment designed to help us understand how some modern software may help and hinder the collaborative process.