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Bob Taylor Has Died (nytimes.com)
841 points by my_first_acct on Apr 14, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

Bob fully embraced the deeply romantic "ARPA Dream" of personal computing and pervasive networking. His true genius was in being able to "lead by getting others to lead and cooperate" via total commitment, enormous confidence in his highly selected researchers expressed in all directions, impish humor, and tenacious protection of the research.

He was certainly the greatest "research manager" in his field, and because of this had the largest influence in a time of the greatest funding for computing research. It is impossible to overpraise his impact and to describe just how he used his considerable personality to catalyze actions.

The key idea was to have a great vision yet not try to drive it from the funders on down, but instead "fund people not projects" by getting the best scientists in the world to "find the problems to solve" that they thought would help realize the vision.

An important part of how this funding was carried out was not just to find the best scientists, but to create them. Many of the most important researchers at Xerox PARC were young researchers in ARPA funded projects. Bob was one of the creators of this process and carried it out at ARPA, Xerox PARC, and DEC.

He was one of those unique people who was a central factor in a deep revolution of ideas.

"An important part of how this funding was carried out was not just to find the best scientists, but to create them."

Is anyone doing this today?

Bell Labs had this practice in the early 20th century, ARPA, Xerox PARC, and DEC it seems in the latter thanks to Bob.

"Create/develop the best" isn't a mentality or practice that I see in the tech world today. Unfortunately it's an idea and practice that also seems lost in my own field of education.

Maybe at Microsoft they could be said to be in that league in the early 21st century, but that seems to be decaying away now. Google has their X lab or whatever the latest name for it is - that seems to be pointed toward solving a lot of world problems (automated driving, internet access for all). It's sad and amazing to think how the us govt funded a lot of fundamental science and how they has been reduced over time - compare the world then to today where the head of the US House science committee chairman thinks the world is only 10,000 years old.

(edited a typo)

The Cold War and The Space Race were two causes of lots of government investment in R&D. We have neither today which is a cause of less funding for this type of research. Also, of course wars -- WW II saw development of Radar, nuclear technology, ...

Lots of integrated circuit funding for satellites, ICBM missile systems, etc.

Because of circumstances, Israel has been the leader in drone technology and a leader in water desalinization and drip irrigation and water reuse. But Israel is a small country the size and population the size of New Jersey. Only so much a country of 8 million can do.

If we had the mindset of Israel throughout the US imagine the amount of good R&D that would come out of it.

This is, in part, what Y Combinator hopes to accomplish through various arms.

I could be wrong, but my understanding is that Y Combinator works to help fund founders who have interesting startup ideas. This strikes me as materially different from funding pure research or, in some cases, gently guided research.

There's a branch of Y Combinator -- YC Research -- that has set up a number of non-profit R&D organizations

Which arms out of curiosity?

Their accelerators, startup school, etc

This embodies to me the qualitative difference between a manager and a leader. Or put another way, he's a 10X manager. Highly unfortunate that I cannot find any papers (much less books) authored by him that discuss how he learned and what he uses to continue to learn leadership. Would give an eyetooth to get his perspective on how he came up with and introduced the Dealer concept, or his equivalent of essays on management like Brooks' Mythical Man-Month.

"My bias was always to build decentralization into the net. That way it would be hard for one group to gain control. I didn’t trust large central organizations. It was just in my nature to distrust them." -- Bob Taylor

It is just so utterly amazing that we've inherited an Internet built by people like this. Utterly amazing.

Yep. In almost any other alternate universe, we ended up with an oligarchy of private digital information services, each acting as gatekeepers to its own exclusive internet. It's hard to fathom the innovation that would have been prevented by the much higher barriers to entry in such a world, and just how much intellectually richer we are from Taylor's radical vision winning out.

Powerful statement from one who, while part of a giant centralized organization initiated the most important decentralized system we will likely ever know.

Sad news.

My favorite Bob Taylor story is about the "class 1" versus "class 2" disagreement. Not sure which is which, but in the preferred case, the two parties are able to state each other's position to the other's satisfaction. One of his tricks as a manager was to help the parties get to that state.

This is either from Rheingold's Tools for Thought or Doug Smith's book.

update: kind of but not exactly like this great scene from Horace & Pete https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iRM1iN-3a4

In the 1970s at Xerox PARC, regularly scheduled arguments were routine. The company that gave birth to the personal computer staged formal discussions designed to train their people on how to fight properly over ideas and not egos. PARC held weekly meetings they called "Dealer" (from a popular book of the time titled Beat the Dealer). Before each meeting, one person, known as "the dealer," was selected as the speaker. The speaker would present his idea and then try to defend it against a room of engineers and scientists determined to prove him wrong. Such debates helped improve products under development and sometimes resulted in wholly new ideas for future pursuit. The facilitators of the Dealer meetings were careful to make sure that only intellectual criticism of the merit of an idea received attention and consideration. Those in the audience or at the podium were never allowed to personally criticize their colleagues or bring their colleagues' character or personality into play. Bob Taylor, a former manager at PARC, said of their meetings, "If someone tried to push their personality rather than their argument, they'd find that it wouldn't work." Inside these debates, Taylor taught his people the difference between what he called Class 1 disagreements, in which neither party understood the other party's true position, and Class 2 disagreements, in which each side could articulate the other's stance. Class 1 disagreements were always discouraged, but Class 2 disagreements were allowed, as they often resulted in a higher quality of ideas. Taylor's model removed the personal friction from debates and taught individuals to use conflict as a means to find common, often higher, ground.

The Myths of Creativity, David Burkus

This is one of those stories that has distorted over time. "Dealer" was a weekly meeting for many purposes, the main one was to provide a vehicle for coordination, planning, communication without having to set up a management structure for brilliant researchers who had some "lone wolves" tendencies.

Part of these meetings were presentations by PARC researchers. However, it was not a gantlet to be run, and it was not to train people to argue in a constructive way (most of the computer researchers at PARC were from ARPA community research centers, and learning how to argue reasonably was already part of that culture).

Visitors from Xerox frequently were horrified by the level of argument and the idea that no personal attacks were allowed had to be explained, along with the idea that the aim was not to win an argument but to illuminate. Almost never did the participants have to be reminded about "Class 1" and "Class 2", etc. The audience was -not- determined to prove the speaker wrong. That is not the way things were done.

NYT> The meetings were known as Dealers [...] No-holds-barred discussions and debates would ensue, and no one profited more from them than Mr. Taylor. [emphasis added]

"no holds barred" - used to convey that no rules or restrictions apply in a conflict or dispute.

Perhaps this Burkus quote would make a good comment on the NYT article page?

EDIT: or not - see "This [Burkus quote] is overdrawn and misses the process and the intent." alankay1 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14115147

We ought to do this on HN. Every week select someone to present and idea and we can all learn together how to fight over ideas and not egos. I think it would be really healthy and productive for the community.

In a way, we have something like this almost daily on HN. Regulars often end up back-and-forthing with other HNers about a topic they disagree on :).

reminds me of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aumann%27s_agreement_theorem

> Aumann's agreement theorem says that two people acting rationally (in a certain precise sense) and with common knowledge of each other's beliefs cannot agree to disagree.

If they have common priors which is almost never the case.

Most disagreements are to be found in the priors, which is why defining terms and trying to agree what the relevant priors are can be very useful.

Being able to state another's position correctly even when you don't agree with it is also a wonderful learning tool. Not only do you understand their mindset, but it also tests your own mindset for any holes in your thinking and provides a direction to move your thoughts if warranted. The problem is making sure you are actually stating someone's opinion correctly and not just paying it lip-service. I can see how having a 3rd party would be really, really helpful.

Yes, Anatol Rapaport's rules are very useful for constructive debate.


How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

>The problem is making sure you are actually stating someone's opinion correctly and not just paying it lip-service.


tl;dr - Take the standard turing test that attempts to distinguish between human and computer generated text, and change the parameters slightly so that it attempts to distinguish between "this is what I believe" and "this is what my opponents believe".

Well, the point is to state another's position to their satisfaction.

If you're not too familiar with the story, Where Wizards Stay Up Late is a good history of the beginning of the internet. https://www.amazon.com/Where-Wizards-Stay-Up-Late/dp/0684832...

Taylor had an immense impact both direct and indirect on the nature of computing as we know it today, it's a little sad he's not better known.

Dealers of Lightning does a great job detailing his role in it all - https://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer... that along with soul of a new machine really capture the spirit of that 60s/70s generation of computing.

Yet another book showcasing Bob Taylor's impact on personal computing and networking is The Dream Machine https://www.amazon.com/Dream-Machine-Licklider-Revolution-Co... .

This one tells the story from the precursors to time-sharing to PARC, using the figure of J.C.R. Licklider as a pivot, and was recommended by Alan Kay as better than Dealers of Lightning. I personally enjoyed both.

The Dream Machine was Taylor's own favorite of this genre.

And of most of the participants at ARPA-IPTO and PARC. "Dealers of Lightning" was too much of the "hero's journey" trope, and also very confusing in sequence (even to those of us who were there). Both books missed how and why researchers cooperated and coordinated across projects, but "Dream Machine" is much more clear and generally more accurate.

I kind of feel that way about Von Neumann, too. Huge vision and influence but too normal to write a dramatic screenplay about.

His daughter's book The Martian's daughter is pretty good, though.


This book really is fantastic - if you work on anything related to the web and don't know the history of the ARPANET and how it was the foundation of the internet we know today, I highly recommend checking out this book.

I thought Robert X. Cringely did an excellent summary of the time -- in Accidental Empires as well.


strongly second this recommendation; it is hands down the best history-of-tech book i've ever read.

“I went to see Charlie Herzfeld, who was the head of ARPA, and laid the idea on him,” Mr. Taylor recalled in an interview with The Times. “He liked the idea immediately, and he took a million dollars out of the ballistic missile defense budget and put it into my budget right then and there.” He added, “The first funding came that month.”

This must bring tears to the eyes of every researcher today.

Wow, that's enough to kill two ISIS militants.


I've just added a photo from flickr to the Bob Taylor Wikipedia article.


(One of my hobbies is contact flickr photographers and asking them if they're interested in having their pictures used on Wikipedia.)

Somewhat OT, but from the second paragraph in that page you linked...

> Taylor was known for his high-level vision and invention of the "any" key: "The Internet is not about technology; it's about communication and choice, if you want to press any key. The Internet connects people who have shared interests, ideas and needs, regardless of geography."

What? Am I understanding correctly that this is a joke about "the any key"? :-)

Damn, people were just praising his work on the other thread:


Then I see the black line and same name. Sad. Least he got to execute his vision, innovate, help change the world, and live a long life before he died. Best any of us can hope for.

A very succinct professional summary here:


>> In 1970, Taylor founded the Computer Science Laboratory (CSL) of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC). Through the 1970s, CSL researchers became known worldwide for a number of important innovations necessary to the creation of the Internet. CSL invented and built Ethernet, the laser printer, and the PUP (PARC Universal Packet) protocol. PUP was introduced seven years in advance of the implementation of the Internet protocol, TCP/IP. Within Xerox, all of these technologies enabled the construction of the first internet.

From a nice Alan Kay's post:

There were key figures. For example, Parc would not have succeeded without Bob Taylor, Butler Lampson, Chuck Thacker, and a few others.

The link: https://www.quora.com/What-made-Xerox-PARC-special-Who-else-...

Indeed, that Quora post was submitted to HN yesterday - a coincidence of the universe.


Respect to the black "top band" the HN site is wearing now. Have a pleasant journey, Mr Taylor.

RIP. For you youngins ... you may want to read up on him. He is an example of a boss we'd be fortunate to get at some point in our life.

Doug, Marvin, Seymour and now Bob. All my heroes are passing away. Mainly Alan is left holding the torch.

We lost a giant.

For all the bs in the valley about changing the world, here's a man that truly did it.

And to the ACM - you should be ashamed of yourself. How do you give Tim Berners-Lee an award and not the team st Xerox Parc. For the web? Are you kidding me? It's going to take another 25 years to correct what he's done. I guess teams don't play in as well as allure of the single creator individual.

To Alan and those that are left from the group at Xerox Parc - thank you. For the team at HARC - let this be a reminder that time is short and there's ton to do.

An incredible amount of positive energy was rereleased in a new form back into the universe. May your legacy shape others.

ACM Turing awards for Xerox PARC alumni: Chuck Thacker 2009, Alan Kay 2003, Butler Lampson 1992.

Correct. But that's the point. The award was given to them as individuals, not to the entire team, which to my count is at least 25. Why can't a team earn it? And if you were to ask those recipients, I can almost guarantee that they will say that their work is a reflection of the group dynamics at PARC; the same dynamics that Bob Taylor cultivated.

This is a key point to be made -- especially about the kind of research that ARPA/PARC did. We built all of ideas in quantity both in order to use them ourselves, and as the only good way to validate them.

This involves teams, and -- for example -- the award in baseball is a "world series ring" for everyone involved in the effort. The standard awards -- including the Draper, which does award to more than one person, are really more like "most valuable player" awards -- which quite misses the point in large scale edge of the art computing research.

A wide-ranging summary at The Computer History Museum's 05/13/2010 video, "Robert Taylor: Network Visionary": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0MsrrTo8jY

I echo luckydude's comment--sad to see him go. R.I.P.

There is an interesting interview of him transcribed by the Computer History museum. It changed my perceptions of who the players were in the original internet and TCP/IP designs... greatly.

I highly recommend the read. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the results of his participation in all the technologies we use today.

I saw him interviewed in a documentary on Fandor called, 'The Net.' The interview took place in his home about 15 years ago. There were a number of topics, but I particularly remember how he spoke of how fear is borne out of ignorance. Well worth checking it.

I really wish we still had ARPA rather than DARPA. I'm blown away by the ambition of the projects DARPA does but it's hard for me to rationalize directly working on things that might end up in killing systems. Is there anything akin to ARPA today? Why did ARPA end up becoming DARPA (with the D meaning defense?).

Alan Kay seems to be here commenting; any insights from you Alan on the conversion of ARPA to DARPA and good non-defense alternatives to what DARPA does now?

PARC happened because of the added "D" which made it impossible for the agency to find open ended "problem finding" research. I don't know of funding since then -- or today -- that is on a reasonable scale and of the same quality and outlook.

Was listening to Walter Issacson's book The Innovators today afternoon about the birth of xerox Parc. A What a coincidence. RIP

Does he have any writings of his own? I went looking but Robert Taylor is a hard name to get good results for.

The Computer as a Communication Device

J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor


damn. I was just reading about him this morning (in Where the Wizards Stay Up Late).


This may downvoted (it's sort of off topic), and that's OK, but as I get older the speed at which people I know or admire go and die just gets faster and faster. Sort of sucks.

That said, if I could say one thing to young people about people dieing, it's this: find the people who matter to you and get a video camera and go get them to talk. Apply some wine if that helps, whatever. Get them loose and get them to talk. Ask them how they got to be where they are, ask them what they would like to pass on, let them talk. Old people are just you only ahead of you.

What I would give to have had the balls to go do that with Dennis Ritchie. I didn't know him that well, we talked about Unix stuff quite a few times but I doubt he would remember me. But I'm sure, 100% sure, that he would have let me go get him to talk on camera.

This is called "oral history" - there is collection of transcripts from Ritchie and other Unix pioneers [1] and another large collection at the Computer History Museum [2]

1. https://www.princeton.edu/~hos/Mahoney/unixhistory.htm

2. http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/oralhistories/

Is this why there's a black bar at the top of HN now?

They should make the black bar a clickable link to the relevant HN submission, or make it so that it has alt text that names the person who has dies, or both.



> I don't think it's possible to be inclusive of everyone who deserves recognition

The goal is not to be inclusive of everyone that is subjectively regarded as being deserving of recognition. The goal is specifically to celebrate Bob Taylor. Nothing more and nothing less. It is a subjective decision - one which you have no control over - as are many aspects of HN. I applaud HN for continuing with the black bar; the lack of someone getting that bar does not devalue their contribution in any manner.

I am only giving feedback. I shouldn't have taken that shot at Jobs I guess, or maybe people are taking my comment as distracting from this celebration of Bob Taylor's life. Sorry about that, not my intention.

Until they are rate limited, which is almost immediately.

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14119700 and marked it off-topic.

You are a dreadful person.

I've never seen this happen, but my response time is only somewhere around 4-8 minutes. Do you have any idea of the approximate threshold?

I get rate limited pretty frequently. Usually after I hammer out a series of replies pretty fast (within say 2 minutes as I scroll down a topic).

Worse, if you make two or three replies quickly, you get blocked for hours and hours. It's terrible!

This has literally never happened to me. I find, however, that the quickest replies are seldom the best-considered.

Which means there must be some sort of weighting system they use to determine if you are rate-limiting worthy.

It keeps happening to me, I have to email them and someone other than dang answers the email and apologises for the limit being applied, then gets rid of it. Of course, being in another time zone I find it takes quite a long time, and in fact the rate limit never seems to get removed even after a day.

That's a genuine bug. How long as this been going on for?!

For a very, very long time. I've asked dang to look into why it occurred to me, and his response is the following:

Since we've discussed these matters at length in the past, another lengthy discussion is unlikely to accomplish much.

The reasons are much the same as before, which means you have a bit of work to do to figure out what you need to do differently if you want to post freely to HN. Sending demanding emails is not doing that work. In fact it's a signal that you're not doing it. Sincere effort will go a much longer way.


Here are the problematic posts:

- a comment where I say that we need to have civil discourse, after which dang tells me I'm trolling (which is truly remarkable...) - he then detached it from the thread and at this point I got rate limited https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12911140

- a post where I talked about depression and suicidality on a story about suicide and depression https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12901679

- a light hearted response about the days before Twitter https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12905863

Just before then I recall researching and posting a detailed comment on query tuning and analysis in database engines, and a number of other informative and well received comments.

When the mods here have got it in for you, they've got it in for you.

I generally feel my heart sink whenever I see dang or sctb post — it is almost always a negative contribution to the discussion, of the form 'we have detached this thread, because we don't like it, for opaque reasons.'

I like to hope that they're doing lots of good work in the backend of HN, but what I see on the frontend is almost uniformly negative.

Oh, wow. I see.


Please don't.

Every week, some poor soul will sacrifice the entirety of their karma to the horde of unwashed masses. Perhaps these masses will know JavaScript particularly well. Maybe Java. It doesn't matter, we will have no peace.

We detached this comment from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14119358 and marked it off-topic.

Somebody must behind all these. Whilst without jobs none would happen (his personal computer and windows interface well known, but next was involved in www as well).

But somehow other than unix, there are many missing links. This is one Key one.

Thanks Robert. Unless if matrix come, thanks.

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