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Startup School 12: Alan Kay, Part II [video] (startupschool.org)
137 points by sama 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

Probably going to send Mr. Kay an email about this, but since it seems he's lurking about in these comments too:

You mention Outlook being "Gold", while IQ is lead. Outlook seems to be something we can improve, both on a collective level, and also on an individual level. You discuss a lot how to use this Outlook to invent the future, but how can we develop our Outlook at more of a meta-level? If we want to be the people capable of looking 50 years into the future and then bringing our insights back to the present, how can we develop this skill?

I suspect the answer has something to do with reading good books and learning from people who already have great outlooks.

This is a really good question! It partly has to do with the "pink-plane/blue-plane" idea (shown in lecture II and in lots of talks I've given) that I adapted from Arthur Koestler's terrific book "Act of Creation". There is much to think about there.

We are on the good side of this because we can look at history and get some sense of qualitative changes of Outlook, and we can also look at Anthropology and other behavioral sciences to get some sense of ways in which we are able to get past some of our genetic behaviors to "piggy-back" new thoughts on top of old mechanisms. Jerry Bruner used to call this "Goedelization" (which is an interesting way to look at it -- it is a kind of Turing machine idea to make more interesting machines from existing machines).

A key point is that "blue-plane explosions" like all ideas are most likely to be mediocre down to bad. Because they seem to come from the heavens, in the old days people would create religions around them; today we are expected to vet ideas very carefully before proclaiming and working on them.

I think Richard Feynman explained the scientific progress quite similarly: most of the time, the scientific understanding grows in complexity, as new research is included into the existing body of knowledge and explaining more different things. Then, at certain periods, there comes an idea, that changes some underlying definitions, and provides a simpler explanation of a bigger picture.

Elon Musk recently has also talked about, how thought process of physical science appeals to him, because it tends to deconstruct systems into fundamental parts, and then rebuild the explanation from them, rather than using analogies.

So, I thought, that in order to imagine the progress of the next century we'd need to define sort of a lowest energy state, towards which the humanity should drift one way or another. However, I didn't have any of the fundamental pieces, and I think you just laid them down quite nicely in this lecture. Thanks Alan.

In a world where we 2x our podcasts some of the historical notes can seem slow but are poignant. The latter part of the lecture has some nuggets that are worth the 50 minutes.

To me, I think the key is to balance the universal with the non-universal to forge progress.

One interesting connection is that in an earlier lecture Steve Huffman notes they tried categories with Reddit but reverted. Here Kay explains why.

Incidentally, someone who calls out UX issues like the absence of a map in the side entrance of the Gates building is my kind of person.

I wish he was more direct and too-the-point. But, if he were, people would end up accusing him of being rude. What's the polite way of saying, "If you can't put a damn map on your poorly designed building, how are you going to solve the big problems in the world?!"

The difference between "provocative" and "rude" is probably in the eyes of the beholders. As I alluded, the main job of giving a talk -- whether university or elsewhere -- is to help all wake up, including the speaker!

Right. I agree completely. Unfortunately, most people want to stay "asleep" in The Swamp of Familiarity.

It also does not help in today's bubble economy: companies are financially engineered and few innovations and inventions get made. A Big Idea to most people now-a-days is: "A small idea that makes big profits". So your job to cut through that and inspire people is a very important one.

How can you tell the difference between "visional laziness" and "visional blindness", i.e., too lazy to see or fail to see?

If people realize they are effectively blind and are actively trying to see in as many ways as possible, they are not being lazy. If they realize they are blind and are not trying to see, then they are lazy. Most people just think they can see and this is the toughest to get around.

Good point. That is why we need powerful telescopes and microscopes as well as powerful mathematical abstractions.

For those who haven't seen Bret Victor's incredible Inventing on Principle - I think you'd like this talk if you enjoyed Alan's: https://vimeo.com/36579366

A big thank-you to Alan Kay for both videos. I found them very inspirational and refreshingly... different. My big takeaway is that we need to not accept the norm - but look to new ways to think, view and do things. We need to challenge our limited thinking. Love that Wayne Gretzky method.

I found that ball animation to paint demo very interesting. But what if instead of an array of frames, the animation was a function from time to images such as

circle(x=time, y=-time*time, r=10)

so a render can get the information it needs but there aren't individual frames to edit.

In general, what happens to interoperability if different programs/projects represent the same things, like images and animations, very differently?

And how security could be handled in such a system? Either against a malicious or haywire programs/project?

One way to approach this question is to ask "how can I always cut and paste -something- from one regime to another?"

Take a look at capability protection -- it covers most of these cases reasonably well.

Have you heard about SideFx Houdini? It's graphics software with some kind of "visual programming" interface, where you create project with coding and drawing. It's very important that you can open your project on different machines/operation system and it looks same. For example when you use rand() function it backups seed for that function(place where you use it) so after you reset animation you're gone get same random numbers.

Don't mean to be rude, but has alan kay effectively created any successful start up himself ? I've always loved his historical talks about what research was like in the 70s, but i find it surprising to see him giving talks in something called startup school.

I was specifically invited to talk about "invention vs innovation" and about making "an industry vs a company" -- that wasn't clear in the syllabus.

However, just to make you feel better (I hope), I did do a startup in grad school (called "Creative X").

Jesus, do some research, you don't get to criticize Alan Kay

ad hominem.

Okay, let’s wake up and dream away. What kind of distant future would you like to be part of?

The 30 years out from this point is interesting/tricky because at some stage during that period computer AI will become probably become smarter than humans which will change a lot of things. It's not really possible to bring super-intelligent robots back to the now by spending money because Google etc are already spending a lot of money on AI research so we'll just have to wait a bit.

Still there a lots of ways it could play out - heaven like or hell like so maybe it's good to think about it and try stuff.

But is Google spending money on the fruitful ideas? Pick something you care about that is good for people and see what happens when you take it out and then bring it back.

This may sound odd: but haven't you ever felt overwhelmed when you take it out, to the point where you don't know where the threshold is, when you try to bring it back?

Where some kind of inner-voice says: "How do you even dare to think of that, you have no ideia how to do it...", like if only some are entitled to dream.

I'm afraid that may be the byproduct of the lack of knowledge to try to break the problem even to the smallest achievable parts, with current or near-future technology developments.

How can one tackle this? Is there a process? Should we just try to blindly find what matters/systems are involved, study them, and connect them? Because we should take responsibility for our vision.

Should we just pack our vision, display it to the world and see if it resonates on people who have knowledge in such areas required to achieve it?

Or should we simply drop it, and move on to the next one?

Wayne Gretsky: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take". Baseball: 70% not hitting is just the overhead for the 30% hitting.

I.e. it's no big deal if you don't wrap your identity around it. My self criticism was all about being able to grind well enough with my colleagues to finish some of the ideas rather than my tendency to go off and have more.

As they use to say in the 60s "Keep on a truckin'"

Dear Mr. Kay,

What are some resources to learn more about the 90% of programming ideas created at PARC that did not come out? Which do you think hold the most potential for the future?

Thank you

Why did biological inspiration for object-oriented programming stop at cell-to-cell communication? What about levels below (organelles) and above (tissues, organs)?

It didn't actually, but in this case the computer allows things cleaner than biology. We could have gone a lot farther in making the interior of an object a real object space rather than what we did. Years later we did try that, and it is a good idea.

Also, take a look at the article I wrote for Scientific American in September 1984 "Software" that talks about organizations of active objects as "tissue programming"

Thank you, I have found it and I will read it carefully.

Would love to get my hands on the handout from Part I, if nothing else to see the bibliography :)

I think they are going to post these. But I also think that essay "The Power of the Context" is available online. Did you even try to type this into Google? I just did and the pdf seems to be the first hit ...

When I type "the power of context" into Google, the front page is dominated by Malcom Gladwell and your essay is absent, sadly.

Fortunately, it looks like the PDF is now linked from the talk: https://www.dropbox.com/s/knngq11tzdi0tdh/Alan%20Kay%20-%20T...

I asked whether you typed "The power of the context" not what you read "The power of context". Try to do just what I suggested and see what you get.

Wow! This is really illustrates a theme of the talk. I was completely blind to the 2nd "the", even the first two times I read your follow-up comment.

I'm glad you mentioned it. There's lots of evidence (even from the emails I've been getting) that most people might be skimming even sentences and guessing, rather than actually reading the words. This could partly be from the way they test reading in schools, and partly from the oral nature of most writed (e.g Twitter) on the web.

Here is the one on Alan's site:



> Did you even try to type this into Google?

I didn't. I missed where you gave the title of your handout, though of course I did hear the description and much that followed.

What enlightened times we live in, such that a student can fail to give a teacher his undivided attention not just in the classroom but at a great distance.

Thanks very much for sharing all this.

And perhaps there was a back button on the video?

(This is not to ding you for this, but to acknowledge that you are helping to make an important point for our times.)

I've been amazed and depressed to find that CS majors in major universities have vaguely heard of Doug Engelbart but virtually none have taken the trouble to type "Engelbart" into Google and follow up on the first 5 hits. (Depressing, because we put in a lot of effort back when things were much more difficult to get most people in the world within a few typed characters and button clicks of most of the important ideas and knowledge in the world -- but ... ?????)

I was so enthusiastic about the video that I was watching it on the road, which brought some distractions. On a related topic, I am currently packing for a move and spent a few moments last night contemplating how many very good unread and barely read books I have. Time that would have once been spent sitting and reading is often spent reading, but in a very fragmentary way, often from an electronic device. Got to change that.

Dr. Kay, do you consider Erlang/Elixir object oriented, in your original meaning of OO?

Very much in the same spirit as I thought about it back in the 60s. I don't think I invented "Object-oriented" but more or less "noticed" what was really powerful about just making everything from complete computers communicating with non-command messages. This was all chronicled in the HOPL II chapter I wrote "The Early History of Smalltalk".

A critical part of that thought process was the idea of using Carl Hewitt's PLANNER ideas as the interface to objects -- that was done around 1970, and we used some of it in the first Smalltalk (72).

Did he just tell off the Stanford audience, "No one here reads, except for Sam."?

He reminded me of this anecdote: In an intro to Anthropology video on Stanford's YouTube channel. The professor passed out a questionnaire that included, "Why are you taking this class?". Someone wrote, "Yes". I expected that kind of response in my biz classes @ CUNY, but not @ Stanford. Especially, in an Anthropology class.

I was in the room when he made the comment, it's not entirely unfair. The libraries are mostly for computers and group meeting rooms. Many of the books I have checked out have had no stamps since the late 90s, and several I've been first to checkout.

He had a few digs at the audience including saying they were maybe not very interesting as they hadn't sent him good questions. There seems a bit of I/we are so great, everything else is crap. Part of his style I guess.

I said "either my talk is not interesting, or you (the audience) is not interesting, or both. Please try to disabuse me of the latter".

Please try to be more diligent about what you are complaining about. It's clear that I didn't mean remotely what you imply.

Why wouldn't you take the trouble to check your memory before writing the above?


I enjoyed the hell out of both videos and will be watching them again because there was so much to unpack there. I didn't send an email because it's intimidating to email someone who has affected my life in so many ways, but I will take this opportunity to thank you for your work and for sharing your ideas in these videos.

Please do email -- I don't even bark much, and bite not at all.

P.S. The audience did get around to "disabuse me of the latter" -- I finally started getting a lot of emails, most of them very thoughtful and worth reading, and replying to.

What are some of the questions that stood out?

Many were requests for deeper looks at "communicating with aliens". Many were about more information for how to get around our "bad brains".

Fair enough. My bad.

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