Friday, September 3, 2004
MarkBernstein.org
 

Aliases

I've been thinking, lately, about how many really interesting hypertext research problems are lying right on the surface, waiting for someone to pick them up. So plentiful are these low-hanging fruits, in fact, that it's really shameful how many dull research papers we're all asked to referee.

For example, consider Tinderbox aliases. An alias is a placeholder -- it appears separately in the map and the outline, but in most other respects it refers to an original note it represents.

Aliases respond to a long-standing frustration in hypertext systems with a hierarchical backbone, a lineage that reaches back through Storyspace to KMS and Guide: what do you do if you aren't sure whether a note goes here or there? Links, of course, are one answer, especially if the hierarchy is not very significant. But, where the hierarchy matters, it can be very hard to know where to put some things.

Now, what does it mean to make a link from a note to an alias? It might mean, "I want a link to the original, of which the alias is merely a handy delegate."

But, it might mean, "I want a link to the alias -- just what I said!" The position of the alias in the outline might, for example, reflect an aspect or facet, and we might expect to preserve that.

For example, if the hierarchy has a taxonomic flavor, the alias of sweet filed under Wine is not precisely the same as the alias of sweet filed under Temperament, and we could imagine wanting to link to one or the other even though there's really one underlying object.

Or, we might follow Stotts and Furuta's Trellis and say, "a link to an alias is implicitly a multi-tailed link to all the aliases and to the original."

Perhaps other semantics are possible, too. What are they? Which one is right?

This is a research topic, lying in plain sight, with almost no previous literature. You could tackle the problem without programming, without equipment, without needing anything beyond insight and imagination. It's got intellectual challenge and heft. It's got practical consequences: it's already a feature in shipping, commercial software and nobody knows the right answer. (Thanks to a Tinderbox customer, who raised the question in correspondence)