Always Future Agents

I’ve been interested in software agents since I came across Graham Glass’ software ‘ObjectSpace Voyager’ in 1998. The idea behind agents is software that can act on its own on behalf of it’s “owner”, much like a human agent in the sports or entertainment field.

If you’ve ever used something like Spotlight, you’ve used a local agent. Spotlight works away in the background indexing the files on your computer so that it can answer questions like “Where did I put that presentation where I mentioned ‘Bitcoin futures’?”

There are quite a few “local agents” that are useful. But what if it’s someone else’s presentation that you are looking for? What if it’s on their laptop? To be truly useful to their owners, agents must be capable of being distributed.

In 1998 Object-Oriented was all the rage, but distributed software was still a mess. If there was a lot of money riding on it, you could use CORBA. I was significantly techy back then, and even I had trouble with CORBA. Java had Remote Procedure Calls (RPC) calls by which objects could message other objects, but the whole edifice of distributed computing was fragile. There was no platform on which you could write distributed communicating agents.

Then along came Voyager. At a stroke, Voyager let you turn a Java object into an agent that could communicate with other agents wherever they were. More amazing still was that an agent running on Voyager on your machine could “hop” to another device and execute there. It took my breath away.

Sadly, it was also useless. Almost nobody else had heard of Voyager or seemed to see its potential. There was nowhere for your agents to go and nothing much for them to do if they got there. I could never see how to make real use of it. I think this reality started to bite because Voyager pivoted and became a good, boring web application server.

But for a brief moment, I saw a beautiful future of agents communicating with each other to help their users solve problems (yes, Tron made a big impression on me as a child)!

Though it faded over the years, I’ve never entirely lost that vision. It sits as an, as yet, unexplored part of Mentat. In Mentat, scripts are a first-class citizen, and I want to make it easy to create agent scripts that perform functions on my behalf. The distribution will be achieved using TupleSpaces (an overlooked concept in distributed computing).

A simple but powerful use-case could be finding answers to questions. Imagine something like this:

  • You pose a question and post it.
  • One of your agents sends the question metadata to one or more shared tuple spaces.
  • My agents are waiting for tuples matching things I am interested in.
  • One of my agents spots your question and, realising it (a) matches my interests and (b) meets my priority requirements, ‘takes’ it.
  • It presents your question to me along with the related resources that I have on hand.
  • I select from among those resources to compose my answer.
  • My agent posts my answer back into the tuple space.
  • Your agent spots an answer and collects it to present it, and potentially others, to you at an appropriate moment.

Sounds a bit like posting a question to a web forum, right? Yes, but the differences have the potential to be transformative.

  • You don’t have to decide where to put your question; your agent can do that. Depending on your preferences, it might put it in many spaces and with different metadata depending on the space.
  • I don’t have to look for your question; my agent decides if it’s something I will want to respond to. Or ignore. Or maybe just file it away for some other purpose.
  • My agent can assemble resources on my behalf to make it easier to answer that question.
  • You don’t have to look for replies; your agent will assemble them. Potentially using a quality filter (oh, Matt replied, you’ll want/not want to see that) and potentially digesting answers. Your agent might just as well say, “You’re busy right now, but I suspect you’ll want to see Matt’s question; I will present it at another time”.

Since our agents are software under our control, we can determine how they work and improve them over time to better use our knowledge and attention.

For example, your agent might not be tasked with trying to answer my questions but simply to reflect, “Matt seems to be interested in topic X right now”. Indeed your agent might notify you not about my questions but with analysis of my questions. This could go in all kinds of directions.

I have many of the pieces of this infrastructure in place but can’t make progress right now. I really wish I could find someone to collaborate with on this platform. Hopefully, I still have a few years to get back to it and turn it into something real that people can use to solve problems.

Sharing our work

When I started working on Mentat back in 2018 I had in mind a kind of “total information store” that I could use for all sorts of things but often about outputs either to questions or in terms of content.

This was a reflection of the blurring of my work & life and the way that information tends to disappear into other peoples silos over time. I am interested in what I am interested in, no matter the context, and I would like to know what I know or at least what I thought at some point.

Meanwhile, Roam Research has come along and hoovered up a lot of use cases. I use Roam as a habitual note-taking environment. A light-weight TODO system, calendar, and personal CRM. I use it for drafting LinkedIn posts, blogs, and newsletters. And I’m a relatively unsophisticated Roam user (for example I’ve never written a query in anger, don’t use Roam/js plugins, and still use the default theme) and yet it has certainly come to dominate my digital life.

At the same time, I can reflect that one of Roam’s great strengths: its focus on blocks of written text (with tags and backlinks) is also its Achilles heel. You can put anything in Roam but structure appears only sporadically and with effort. How can you act upon what Roam knows?

In the context of, say, writing an article it works well. But what if I wanted to see if I could answer a specific question relating things that I know. That could be a lot more tricky.

Mentat comes from the opposite perspective. It deals with structured ‘things’ (indeed the root of the Mentat mental taxonomy is something called Thing). We can have a Thing called Note that represents free text. This is never going to be as powerful as Roam but, at the same time, we know what is a note and what is a instead a Person. Roam can approach this through the use of tagging. I routinely add Tags: #Person to people I add to Roam as part of my CRM but it’s not the same thing.

As yet, Roam provided few tools to act on this and of course it relies upon my consistently tagging people — which often I forget — and applying the same schema over time (mine has changed 3 times as the advice has changed). Again there are solutions to these problems but they are always a compromise of being based upon free text. Mentat has it’s own compromises but, similarly, strengths.

Three things I see as being very important to using a future version of Mentat for work are:

Being able to structure questions with appropriate metadata that allows them to be shared and acted upon by others.

A “shared space” in which questions can be placed and taken.

The ability to create agents that can act on things in the shared space. Taking them, acting upon them, changing things locally and potentially placing things back into the shared space.

Roam is going to have to tackle the problem of people sharing their graphs. That is going to be a hard problem. Mentat will allow people to create shared spaces and exchange information without needing to create a total mapping.

It will be interesting to see if (a) I can build this, (b) if it might work as well as or better (for some problems) as what Roam will come up with.

The curse of craftsmanship

I’m not a computer scientist; I’m not a software engineer; I am a programmer. I see the difference as being between a theoretical view, an engineering view, and a “craftsman’s” view of creating software to run machines. That is to say; I don’t build software, I craft it. Everything is unique, hand-made. Tools matter to me in so far as they let me express my craft. I want the tools that best help me do the work.

Here is a list of languages that I have used to solve real problems. It does not include those I learned purely for the fun of it.

  • 80×86 assembly language
  • C
  • C++ (although the C++ of the ’90s, exceptions were new back then)
  • Java
  • Perl
  • Javascript
  • Usertalk
  • Ruby
  • Objective-C
  • Clojure
  • Elixir

The choices in bold are those languages I’d go back to reasonably happily. Here are languages I actively avoid:

  • Python
  • Javascript
  • PHP
  • Go
  • Swift
  • Scala

My reasons here, as much as anything else, are reasons of taste. Python I dislike because I don’t think significant white space is a good idea (as opposed to programming in an outliner which works well and I’ve no idea why the Python community never cottoned on to this) and I never liked its feel.

Go, Swift, and Scala, are on the list because they make choices I find distasteful. For example, Swift feels like the authors have to include every possible good idea from the programming field. I’m reminded of this by Antoine de Saint-Exupery “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

More language authors should take a stand like Rich Hickey and José Valim by having a language philosophy dictating that they reject good ideas because they don’t fit that philosophy. Their languages feel coherent, and designed toward a purpose. They choose not to include the kitchen sink.

The reason I am thinking about all of this is Javascript, a language I have used to solve real problems yet, given a choice, actively avoid.

I’m sure there are good things about Javascript if you look hard enough. It’s near-ubiquity makes it a winner, and I wouldn’t criticise another’s choice to use it (esp. if they are a competitor). But, improve as it may, Javascript has cruft encoded into its DNA, and that cruft leaks out in every direction.

For a new project, I am learning Elixir and its web framework Phoenix. And do you know what has been the most challenging thing? Webpack. Worse yet, Webpack is a tool written in Javascript (using nodejs) for managing project Javascript!

Whenever nodejs hoves into view, I tend to find myself waist-deep in a mess of dependencies and version incompatibilities. Perhaps I have been lucky, but I don’t experience this level of pain elsewhere. So it makes me think it’s a function of the choice of language and the kinds of people who are aligned with those choices.

I guess it is the craftsman’s curse: You come to care about the way the tools allow you to express the work and, therefore, feel pained when forced to confront tools that feel wrong.

Maercon

After 30+ years I am playing Dungeons & Dragons again. I got invited to join a 5e campaign and am having a lot of fun learning to role-play again and enjoying being in the (virtual-)company of a bunch of nice, enthusiastic, people again.

I’m playing an Elven Assassin to round a party that’s a bit magic-user heavy (even the front-line tank is Paladin with spells). I’ve chosen to be chaotic neutral rather than evil, so assassination is mostly a kind of moral flexibility and my assisting the party is a whim.

Thank you Martin for inviting me to play.

Upstreaming

I cut my blogging teeth in Radio Userland, an application created by Dave Winer. One of the key ideas was “user radio” that any fool could broadcast their thoughts.

Something key to enabling this was Radio’s “upstreaming” feature. In 2000 this was a pretty freaky idea. You put a file in a folder on your local machine and… poof!… a few seconds later it was on the web with a permalink (well, as permanent as your site was anyway). It just worked.

Later Dropbox would implement the same idea with it’s “Public” folder. In a pretty hostile move, they would then yank that feature out of the product and force you to share things one by one which isn’t remotely as useful.

When I think about Mentat I imagine making sharing things as easy as Radio’s upstreaming feature. In my context, I am not dealing with files, but the same idea applies. Make it super easy to share things you want to share.

Radio remains an inspiration so many years later.

Back to Blogging

Or should that be “Back to Blogging (again)”?

Blogging has been an on and, mostly, off thing for me the last few years. However I am writing more regularly on LinkedIn but finding that I only want to create certain content for that platform (the algorithm in control), here I can write what I like because I am mainly talking to me.

Things I am working on at the moment:

The Art of Navigation – this is “work” where I help digital platform entrepreneurs build a better business, faster. The client work is a conversation, the other work is essentially research into why businesses don’t succeed, what you can do about it, and how to explain that to busy people going very fast.

AgendaScope – this is the secret project that I’m working on with two co-founders about which I should be able to talk more soon. It arises out of my work at The Art of Navigation but scratches my tech entrepreneur itch in a way that TAON cannot.

Mentat – a long-term project to build a macOS app that I can use for managing information for life in a collaborative fashion. While I am pretty sold on Roam Research it’s (a) not mine, (b) never going to be mine, and (c) seems increasingly to diverge from my priorities. I doubt I will stop using it because it solves a different subset of my problems to Mentat. But my need for Mentat hasn’t gone away. Unfortunately, it’s suffered from fatigue and too many #1 priorities. Probably I need a collaborator to make real progress with it.

Yasutake – a board game I’ve been working on based in a fantasy Edo period that blends trade, military conflict, and intrigue. It was somewhat inspired by Legend of the Five Rings (although the games are not so similar) and my frustration at problems I was having with Mortem Respublica. It’s close to playable but not quite there yet.

Mortem Respublica – a board game I’ve been working on even longer that is based in the period prior to the fall of the Roman Republic. It blends trade, military conflict, and intrigue. Sounds a bit like Yasutake. In fact many of the concepts I worked on in Mortem Respublica I took to the later game. Perhaps that was a mistake. Finish one thing at a time, etc… etc…

Minecraft – Given how much time I spend playing it I guess I should call this something I am ‘working’ on. Probably a big part of why the previous three items have struggled. Then again it is really good and scratches an itch few other things on a computer do.

Family – I’m rather surprised to find myself in a happy, long-term, relationship with a French lady, Florence, who has a 9yr old daughter.

Now I write it down it seems like I have a lot going on, especially since there’s a bunch of stuff that didn’t make it to a headline.

Cult Leader

At some point towards the end of last year, I decided that it would be a good idea to try and create a community of software leaders since such a thing did not, to my knowledge, exist and I really felt like a place where they could get the kind of help they needed would be a useful thing.

It’s also the case that I have built a lot of tools and it seemed like somewhere that I could share them, and start discussions around how those tools are used to solve common problems that software leaders experience.

Later I had it in mind that I could sell some kind of subscription services to the community that builds upon what is available. In mid-March, and with little fanfare, I launched a Discourse based site called COMPASS. Since then I’ve tried, gently, to encourage people to sign up and maybe ask a question.

The result has been a total failure and it turns out that I made a mistake on two fronts:

The first is that COMPASS is also the name of the system of tools I designed that I use with clients. It stands for Customer Operations Mission Perspective Advantage Software Strategy, the pillars on which I build. So that was already confusing.

The second mistake is more subtle. My friend Graham Ruddick, who has a lot of experience in helping people building communities, described what I was doing as more like creating a ‘broadcast platform’ than a community. Today, as I was talking to Amy Faeskorn about this, I realised that what I was actually doing was saying “Join my cult”.

The seed of this thought was in a recent conversation with someone else who was thinking about creating a community but didn’t know where to start. For various reasons I couldn’t see how to say “Come join COMPASS”. Because COMPASS is all about me. Not all about software leaders.

I think I got foxed because I did Seth Godin’s “The Marketing Seminar” which is also based on Discourse and feels like a community in that you are with a cohort of people all learning the same material. But it’s actually not a community at all. It’s all about Seth. That’s okay, you’re learning from one of the greats of marketing.

But I am not Seth Godin. What works for him will not work for me.

So, now, I am rethinking. How do I create a community for software leaders? Not invite people to join my cult.

Betting big on Roam Research

I’ve been using Roam Research as my primary note-taking and writing tool since December 2019. It immediately struck a chord with me, despite numerous short-comings something fundamental felt right. The fundamentals of the concept were sound.

This caused me an immediate problem since I had been working on Mentat (since early 2018) as my primary note-taking tool. However, Roam caused me to rethink what a note-taking tool should be. At that point, I took that out of my requirements for Mentat. There are enough itches left to scratch and I am interested ??when Roam has an API ? to wonder what I might do with them both.

The Roam team have announced their pricing of $15/month or $500/5-years. I was one of those who “liked” the tweet announcing their $500 “believer” plan as an indication I’d be up for it.

I do have some disagreements with the team (I guess with Conor) in terms of how they have prioritised work in some areas. But I feel like, overall, they are on a good track and while there are (and will be) other tools, Roam and its team, is worth betting on.

So I will be signing up for the $500 when it’s available and looking forward to seeing where the application goes.

Making Zoom cool again

Like many of us, I am sure I’ve done more Zoom calls in the last month than I might ever have wished to do. Basically Zoom works pretty well but there are a few things that I think could elevate the experience.

When you are in a real-meeting one of the great pleasures is to lean across to someone near you and add witty (or, perhaps, even useful) commentary. Zoom is all one way. I’d love to be able to pick another participant and have my audio channel go directly (and only) to them.

I’ve had some great conversations but found it would be interesting to know who was talking at different points, how much each of us was talking (am I hogging the mic) and so forth. Give me some meaningful stats about how we’re communicating.

What would you add to Zoom if you could?

What Mentat is for? networked collaborative thinking?

As I approached the 18th March 2020 (the 2-year anniversary of my starting work on Mentat) I realised my enthusiasm for the project had waned. Not in any major sense but I had hit some roadblocks and I had started making serious use of Roam. My will to overcome those roadblocks had been sapped.

Although Mentat and Roam are very different beasts, it’s clear that Roam with its ease of capturing and organising information overlapped with some of my own use-cases for Mentat. ‘Why hump a lot of rocks uphill if you’re just going to use Roam anyway?’ my thinking went.

And so for about 3 months nothing much happened.

Four things really kindled my enthusiasm again:

  1. Reading Andy Matuschaks notes and a cluster of his ideas about “Insight through making”, “Great tool-makers are often not great tool-users, and vice-versa”, and “Authored environments are significantly coloured by authors? motivations”. Really all of his stuff? and it kindled my idea to talk to potential users of Mentat.
  2. So I had a demo/conversation with Metatone who had earlier expressed an interest in Mentat. As demos go it was mostly a disaster as there were many things that broke or just didn’t work at all. But it was enough to get us talking and I think we both felt a spark as we talked about the possibilities of networking our thoughts together.
  3. Tiago Forte’s idea about tools for creating outputs being more useful than tools that are about taking notes. While Roam is a tool for creating outputs I would argue that it’s most suited to creating writings. Mentat has a lot more structure and flexibility. Mentat can do a lot more outputting.
  4. I’ve spent 2 years on this thing and it’s soooo close. I may be a bad poker player but this thing is my baby and may even be a legacy (I hope I have other shots but COVID-19 isn’t over yet) don’t I actually want to finish and publish a 1.0?

So I have picked up Xcode again and am working on finishing 1.0. That is complicated by the fact that sharing/collaboration is definitely in scope for the 1.0 release.

I am still wrangling exactly how this is going to work but you will definitely be able to connect your own workspaces with the workspaces of collaborators and share and exchange Things (Mentats concept of the knowledge object) which will be able to interact with your own.

For example, a use case Metatone and I were both intrigued by was being able to pass a question to others and allow agents running on their copy of Mentat to interrogate it, see if it’s interesting to their user, assemble any resources of theirs that might be relevant, and allow them to construct an answer.

While 1.0 won’t be able to do all of that it will allow us to play with the construct.

I’d love to talk to anyone else for whom tools like Evernote, Tinderbox, TheBrain, Notion, and even Roam itself are not the whole answer. I want my work to be driven by smart people with wicked problems of their own to solve. If that sounds like you, please get in touch.